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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Can New App SideChef Really Teach Anyone To Cook?

Sara Tiano |
November 21, 2014 | 8:29 p.m. PST


Using the right photos in a SideChef recipe can really simplify the instructions. (SideChef)
Using the right photos in a SideChef recipe can really simplify the instructions. (SideChef)
The foodie revolution and the digital revolution may not seem related at first glance, but Milena Bogdanova, director of business development for the instructional cooking app SideChef, argues otherwise. She said she thinks advances in technology are democratizing the foodie experience.      

“It’s all about making cooking accessible to everyone and anyone,” said Bogdanova, an alumnus of the USC Marshall School of Business.

While TV brought cooking lessons to the masses, smartphones and the Internet have elevated recipe sharing to a whole new level, as evidenced by the thousands of us who spend hours thumbing through new dishes on apps such as Pinterest.

SideChef aims to simplify the cooking experience by bringing recipes and instruction together on one platform. Each of the app’s thousands of recipes takes the user step-by-step through the cooking process with photos, audio instructions and built-in timers.

The recipe collection is mainly comprised of user contributions, but has a few offerings from restaurant chefs and SideChef staffers throw in some of their favorites, too. Bogdanova called the app an “open platform,” where anyone with a profile can upload a recipe. SideChef does have a content team, though, that monitors the recipes to make sure they’re up to par.      

“At the end of the day, yes we’re an open platform but we do want some quality control,” Bogdanova said. To be accepted, recipes must have images illustrating at least 95 percent of the steps and can’t have missed any key instructions.      

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If the app does what it claims, following a SideChef recipe should be foolproof. Though my culinary degree eliminates me from SideChef’s target audience, I decided to test the app to see if it could really work for even the most pizza-dependent college student.       

In looking for a recipe to test, I hit several dead ends due to varying quality in terms of completeness and presentation on the app. Because I wanted to make sure I was getting the full SideChef experience, I looked for a multi-step recipe that incorporated some of the unique in-app features and a variety of images.      

I ended up testing a quiche recipe, my mentality being that quiche is a dish that may seem foreign and complicated to inexperienced cooks, but is really quite simple to assemble and versatile.    

One of the vague steps in the recipe. (Sara Tiano/Neon Tommy)
One of the vague steps in the recipe. (Sara Tiano/Neon Tommy)

Though this recipe had enough photos to make it onto the app, as I went through the steps, it started to seem like this one in particular was submitted by an inexperienced recipe writer. The instructions lacked crucial steps that inexperienced cooks wouldn’t know to do, like preheating the oven and greasing the pie dish. The helpfulness of the photos varied. For example, step one calls for ingredients to be chopped but doesn’t indicated the chop size, and a photo clarifying that would have been more useful than the included shot of a sundried tomato jar.

The in-app timers were great– easy to use and convenient. The cooking temperatures, though, were listed in Celsius, and though I’d read that there was a built-in conversion function, I couldn’t find it in the moment and had to resort to Google. According to Bogdanova, the need to supplement SideChef recipes with outsourced information is one thing the app aims to prevent.

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An ingenious function offered in the app is the ability to adjust ingredient measures to match how many servings you want to make. However, when you alter the number of servings, the recipe directions don’t adjust accordingly. For many, this quiche included, this oversight could mean a disastrous end product.   

The result of the trial was a decent quiche, though I wonder if I’d have been singing a different tune if I’d changed the recipe size or hadn’t buttered the pie tin. Oversights like those make me question whether the average inexperienced college student could have successfully pulled off this recipe.      

The user galleries are a cool idea, but are pretty bare so far. (Sara Tiano/Neon Tommy)
The user galleries are a cool idea, but are pretty bare so far. (Sara Tiano/Neon Tommy)
In terms of usability, the app works pretty well. In terms of recipe quality, I’d compare it to Pinterest. Since they are user generated, you never really know how polished the recipe and end product will be. Of course, just like with Pinterest, you’re bound to find many gems.      

One way SideChef sets itself apart is by encouraging interaction with an in-app camera function for users to snap and share photos of their dishes. On top of tapping into the huge foodporn social media trend, Bogdanova said showcasing the user photos helps build a community vibe and make recipes more accessible.      

“Even images can be intimidating!” Bogdanova said of glossy food magazine-style shots. “In SideChef, the thumbnail image may be gorgeous and professional but the gallery images are more relatable.”

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Bogdanova said feedback on the app is largely positive, but they do get some constructive criticism on incomplete recipes. She recalled a user email complaining that a recipe instructed him to chop an onion but that he didn’t know how to do so, and the instructions didn’t explain sufficiently. Bogdanova said they want to avoid people having to turn to other sites like YouTube and Google to flesh out SideChef’s instructions, and hope to add tutorial videos on fundamental techniques. Such videos demonstrating even the simplest cooking skills would be necessary for a truly rudimentary recipe guide.            

Though SideChef could stand a bit more quality control on the recipes, and could really enhance the app by letting the content team flesh out reader-contributed recipes with additional images, details and tutorials. It seems, though, that with some tweaks, it certainly has the framework to be a great guide in the kitchen.

Reach Editor-at-Large Sara Tiano here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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