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Catarina Violante, Founder and Product Lead at

Mellow

The smart sous-vide machine

Mellow is a sous vide cooker that, with only a few settings, can make amazing restaurant-quality food in your own home. We sat down with Founder and Product Lead Catarina Violante to discuss sous vide cooking, fundraising and advice for anyone looking to get into hardware.

What is Mellow?

Mellow is a smart cooking appliance that sits on your countertop and deals with the boring part of cooking for you. You can go to work, and leave it doing its thing, and when you get back you have something that’s pretty much ready. Add a little creativity, a skillet, maybe a blowtorch, and in 10 minutes you can have something amazing on the table. Something that you would cost you $100 at a restaurant, usually.

What is sous vide cooking?

Sous vide is a technique that high-end chefs have been using for the last 20 or so years to cook very specific ingredients to perfection. This means that every ingredient has a magic formula based on time, temperature, and weight that allows it to reach its maximum flavor and texture. What Mellow does is empower regular people by encapsulating all the knowledge you need to cook sous vide into a software and hardware solution. Mellow knows how to cook sous vide for you, right out of the box. You plug it in and you can cook sous vide from day one instead of going to chef school for six months and having to go through the trial and error process.

Why have there been a lot of cooking devices coming out recently?

I believe now’s the time because people are really into living a healthy life, in terms of both mind and body. As far as sous vide goes, as a technique it has a lot of potential. As soon as somebody figured out that everybody should be cooking sous vide, a lot of companies had the same idea. I believe being able to cook sous vide can have a very positive impact on people’s lives, and I’m happy that there are so many options available today.

What’s different about Mellow?

Usually, sous vide doesn’t really fit in your daily routine, since most things take their time to cook. If you wanted to eat something like a pork roast for dinner, you would need to take the afternoon off just to have your food ready on time. Mellow changes this, mostly because we’ve also added refrigeration, so you can get started on your dinner before you’ve even had breakfast. Just drop your food inside Mellow, and it’ll keep be kept at refrigerator temperatures until it’s time to cook. All of this is done automatically, you just need to give it a few orders like what you want to eat, how you want it cooked, and when you want it ready, and it does pretty much everything automatically. By the time you walk through the door, after picking up the kids and the dry-cleaning, your dinner’s ready. That’s how we stand out.

How did Mellow start?

We’re a couple of founders, and the original idea was to make a sous vide machine that everybody could use. Originally, we were looking into the price problem, which is that you would need a few thousand dollars to start cooking sous vide. Mind you, that was 10 years ago. We were trying to figure out why nobody was using it at home. When my co-founder and I started working together, that was the problem: how do we put this game changing technique in everybody’s home?

We figured out that that more than a price problem, it was also a knowledge problem. It was so hard to get started if you were not a trained chef or an engineer. That’s how Mellow went from being a simple cooking tool to being more like a cooking assistant—something that knows how to cook for you, that learns your tastes, that gets to know you. Your Mellow gets to know how you like your steak, your veggies, your chicken breast, your shellfish, and everything else you cook in it.

“As soon as somebody figured out that everybody should be cooking sous vide, a lot of companies had the same idea.”

What’s your personal background?

I have a background in industrial design. I studied here in Portugal and I worked at a few design studios. I’ve built everything from toasters to flat pack furniture. I always liked to build stuff and I managed to find a job where I could do it. I wanted to learn more about the engineering part of things, so I ended up going to an engineering school to study for a year. That’s when I decided that I wanted to build household appliances or electrical mechanical appliances because it was so complex, and that complexity really piqued my interest. When I heard of a guy that was living in the same city and wanted to try and build a very specific kitchen appliance, I immediately told my friend, “I’ve got to meet that guy. If anyone is going to build something like that I need to join up!”

Why did you join the Mellow team?

Our company basically started with my co-founder looking for a partner. He found me through mutual friends, which is basically the mechanism we still use to find talented people to work with us. The interesting part is that in our first meeting together, I was trying to figure out if it was something I wanted to join.

He’d built the ugliest, most MacGyver-looking, sorry excuse for a sous vide machine. He used it to cook me a piece of salmon, not knowing at the time that I absolutely detest salmon. Salmon, for me, was a really dry fish cooked in the oven. My grandmother used to cook it for me and I absolutely hated it. That piece of salmon that he cooked for me turned out to be the best I’d ever had. It was nothing like I have ever tried before. Basically, the technique had worked such a transformation on it that I was immediately convinced. That’s how we started working together.

“When my co-founder and I started working together, that was the problem: how do we put this game changing technique in everybody's home?”

What is the Lisbon hardware scene like?

It’s pretty much nonexistent, at the moment. I have a few friends in the scene, because when you find someone that’s building a hardware product in a place where nobody’s building hardware products, you very easily become friends. But we have a lot of engineering talent here, so it should only be a matter of time. The local hardware scene is primed to explode here the next couple of years, so keep an eye out.

How do you deal with those days when you have a problem and there’s no one around you that can help you solve that problem?

I grab my phone and call my friends in San Francisco.

What do you wish you knew before getting into the hardware startup business?

I’ve been in the hardware industry forever. As an industrial designer, even before I finished my degree, I was already working with a company to build all sorts of products. I’ve always been in the factory building stuff by myself, or with friends, or with the design studios that I worked with previously. It was very natural to me to be in a hardware startup. The odd part for me was the business part. I had no idea how to make a business out of it, really. But the building stuff part? I have been doing that since forever, so it was pretty natural.

What advice would you have to women that might want to get into hardware?

There’s really no advice specifically for women. What I can say is surround yourself with brilliant people. You’re going to need to confront your ideas with someone else and see them challenged by somebody who knows what they’re talking about. Otherwise, you’re just going to be someone doodling on a sketch book. Honestly, I don’t really feel the gender divide much, save for rare occasions.

What is your idea of misery?

Illness

What is your greatest extravagance?

The fact that I don’t eat to live, I live to eat

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Being able to do what I love everyday

What is your greatest regret?

None

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

My friends tell me it’s “Fair enough” and “interesting.”

What book are you reading right now?

Poorly made in China by Paul Midler.

What is your greatest fear?

Illness

If you were to die and come back as another person, who would it be?

Anyone from the future, maybe 500 years from now.

What’s your current state of mind?

Very cheery!

What is your most treasured possession?

My friends

What advice do you have for someone looking to raise funding?

When we raised our first round of funding, our idea was to meet as many big firms as we could. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it differently. Chasing big venture capital when you’re raising a small amount of money is very time consuming. Instead, I think I’d focus on angel investors. These also tend to have a bigger connection to your product and really believe in what you’re doing.

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