Why we started Parsnip
Because a billion home cooks is good for people and great for the planet
Parsnip’s mission is to make it easy for anyone to become a confident home cook. But even more than that, we believe that the best food in the world can come from your kitchen, and that this is good for people and good for the planet.
Perhaps this sounds crazy to you. Well, let’s take a stroll down memory lane, to the dawn of another company many thought was crazy at its inception.
San Francisco, 2007. It was a brisk fall day, and a huge design conference had descended upon the city. Every hotel was sold out, and the founders of Airbnb were short on rent, and they needed to pay the conference registration fee. In a “necessity is the mother of invention” moment, they posted on Craigslist an offer to host visitors at their place on airbeds, and received a staggering 500 responses to the ad.
Utterly surprised, they dug deeper and found that the idea of staying in hotels had only started taking off in the 1960s. Before then, most travelers stayed in others’ homes, even though that was largely unthinkable in 2007 as “AirBed & Breakfast” saw its first three users. Despite knowing they were on to something with this earned secret, the Airbnb founders fought a constant uphill battle against a long parade of skeptics—in fact, legendary VC Fred Wilson keeps a box of Airbnb cereal in his conference room as a reminder of the deal he missed.
Consider another way the world changed in the ‘60s: the emergence of processed food and fast food. Food preservation technologies developed by the US military started spreading to civilian use. McDonald’s, with Ray Kroc at the helm, entered a whirlwind phase of growth. For folks who were used to painstakingly cooking all their meals by hand, the allure and convenience of microwave ovens and fast food seemed like the wave of the future.
But 60 years later, we’ve taken this convenience to the extreme, and the results speak for themselves. Processed food is a huge public health issue. Food service causes 80% of plastic trash. Factory farming is responsible for up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions. The food system we’ve created, from industrial agriculture to the convenience of ordering food on your phone, is killing us, mistreating people, and destroying the planet.
What does Airbnb’s story mean for Parsnip? Just as the desire for a variety of travel lodging has been around for a long time, cooking has also been around for a long time. The Lindy effect (one of Marc Andreessen’s favorite ideas) posits that the durability of an idea is proportional to its age. Long-lasting ideas or habits are there for a reason, even if not obvious, and most new fads are unlikely to be around in the future. So, much like travel lodging, cooking has been around for a long time, and will continue to be—as it is closely entwined with basic human needs.
Let’s take a look at some of those needs.
Cooking is good for people…
Making your own food is better for your wallet, your health, and your life.
Cooking saves money. Ordering food for delivery costs 5 times as much as cooking, and meal kits 3 times as much as cooking, according to this Forbes analysis.
Cooking is healthy. When you make your food, you know what’s going into it and where it came from. If you have dietary restrictions, the best way to know what’s going into your food is to make it yourself.
Cooking is creative. Making food is a creative endeavor that we have access to every day. While some may see it as a drain of time to be optimized away, it can be an outlet for creativity that becomes a chance to recharge. Making a wonderful meal delivers an immense sense of accomplishment—and some dishes just can’t be delivered.
Cooking promotes better relationships. Sharing a meal around a table with friends and family is a core human experience. There’s a reason why we yearn for dishes from our childhood: the taste of food we made and ate together with our family is indelibly etched into memory. In any culture, anywhere in the world, food plays a starring role.
…and cooking is good for the planet.
What would happen if everyone cooked at home regularly?
Cooking can make a huge dent in public health. As processed food exploded in the United States, obesity rates skyrocketed from around 10% to over 40%. Simultaneously, rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, gastrointestinal issues, and other health issues have also exploded. Diet has a huge effect on our health, and our dawning awareness of food as medicine means that cooking can make a bigger dent in public health than any healthcare technology.
Cooking will drastically reduce plastic waste.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no longer a lone phenomenon. The plastic we are producing will remain for thousands of years. Much of the waste in the ocean–up to 80%–is dominated by single-use plastic from food service. Lowered consumption of fast food not only improves health, but also eliminates trash.
Cooking is a bottom-up way to fight climate change.
We often guilt people into doing what’s best for the planet. Stop flying. Eat less meat. Avoid plastic straws. But while documentaries are entertaining and informative, guilt is an ineffective tool for changing behavior.
Yet, the status quo of industrial agriculture is a huge problem. It causes water pollution, air pollution, and up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also the most powerful lobby in US politics, drawing support from both political parties.
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Instead of creating guilt or fighting a policy battle, Parsnip’s goal is to use a much more powerful tool: economics. Making your own food increases awareness about what you’re buying, where you buy it, and how food is produced. Millions more home cooks will create an unstoppable force that shifts economic demand for food toward more sustainable sources.
So, there you have it: if we can empower everyone to make their own food at scale, we can make a huge dent in public health, plastic pollution, and climate change. Food is innately tied to health, wealth, relationships, poverty, climate, pollution… and to quote Mark Bittman, “fixing food fixes everything”.
At the end of the day, for a startup to go the distance you need a raison d’etre that is driven by purpose1, beyond success, fame, or money. So how about building a product that’s good for people and good for the planet?
Fine—you say. Everyone cooking would be great, if it were actually possible. But who are you to say that it is? We don’t have parents to learn from or schools to teach us. How in the world can you say the best food in the world comes from your home kitchen?
Well, if you’re a beginner cook, let me say that I started where you are now—and far too late in my adult life. When I started graduate school, my idea of a nice dinner was boiling some pasta, adding a bottle of Ragu sauce, and mixing in some frozen Costco meatballs.
Getting better at cooking was painful. There was no good way to learn, and so much trial and error. But after almost 15 years of painstakingly leveling up, we’re in a completely different place. Even in the hectic first year with our newborn daughter, we found it easier to cook almost all of our meals at home, and ordered delivery a grand total of two times. I’ve also gotten particularly good at a couple dishes–roast chicken and sourdough bread. I can honestly say I haven’t found a single New York City restaurant that makes a better roast chicken than this one, and I’ve tried them all2.
I also know that our family is not an anomaly. I’ve met parents, even in the city, who are able to cook dinner every day with 3 kids. In France, many families cook three course dinners every day, even on workdays, and cooking is no more a task to be outsourced than eating. For these folks, it’s faster, cheaper, more empowering, and more fun to make your own food than ordering out. And more delicious too: our family now has access to an enormous variety of cuisines at home3. And so, cooking has turned from an inconvenience into a joy, and then even into a superpower. What might happen if everyone in the world also had this superpower?
We’re making Parsnip so that you can level up too, but with 10x less effort. Our north star is to make it easy for anyone to cook anything. Not just following instructions, but creating and improvising. Not just recipes, but meal planning and finding your groceries. Most importantly, we believe that we can use technology in a way that empowers rather than manipulates people, bringing the best of food culture from anywhere in the world to your dinner table.
Parsnip is the opposite of a metaverse startup. We don’t need to attention hack because you not only eat every day, you eat at least 3 times a day. Like Airbnb, we “use the Internet to get people off the Internet”, so you can cook a great meal and enjoy it with friends & family.
Please try Parsnip and tell us what you think!
You can also read our previous memo about how we plan to personalize teaching cooking skills at scale.
Why the name Parsnip?
It’s symbolic: like how cooking is a superpower that can feel out of reach, parsnips are the best vegetable that few know how to use!
It’s a pun on our product: we help you parse knowledge in small nips (bites) in a personalized way4.
And finally, the domain name parsnip.ai was available! 😄
If you enjoyed reading this, feel free to share it with friends!
My thanks to Ben Jones for helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this memo. Ben is a chef with over 10 years’ experience, as well as a excellent (and funny) writer. We’re thrilled to welcome him to the team and you can already see his fantastic work in the app!
We also believe that every company has 2 kinds of products: the ones that users use, and the organization itself. We’re also motivated to build a company that values work and rest, creates a great product, uses technology to empower rather than manipulate, and has a people-first culture that stands the test of time. More on all this in a future memo!
To those who may want to invest in Parsnip but don’t believe that roast chicken can be that good, I offer you this challenge: take me to any restaurant in NYC, and I’ll invite you over to my home for roast chicken. If mine was better, then please write us a check. 😋