Whether we like it or not, the robots are coming and they will take our jobs. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) - the world’s largest tech fair - showcased a dizzying array of new kit, including Samsung’s Bot Handy - a slightly humanoid, vaguely terrifying robot butler, which manages to elicit a humorous, empathetic response as well a fearful one. It was a variation of last year’s Bot Chef - a fully automated sous chef designed to tackle complex cooking tasks in a professional kitchen. That was in January 2020, just before the world was shaken by the pandemic.
What seemed then like an optimistic endeavour, now seems a lot closer to becoming reality, and the march of the robots into our kitchens seems inevitable. But whether the mass adoption of robotics in the restaurant industry will be beneficial or detrimental is up for debate. So who better to ask than some of the world's most innovative chefs?
Jeremy Chan is a chef known for embracing futuristic cuisine at his Michelin-starred Ikoyi restaurant in London. But robots leave him cold. “I would not currently consider robotics in my kitchen,” he says. “The main reason being there are too many small details, changes and fluctuations in produce, it would be an impossibly tedious task to continuously train and re-program a robot during spontaneous decision making. Also, a robot can’t taste. Where is the joy in working with something without a soul or passion for flavour? I don’t think I would even use a robot to clean my kitchen, it would breed a lazy attitude in my team too reliant on technology to assist us through yet another basic order in life.”
Chef Jeremy Chan, Ikoyi Restaurant, ©P.A Jorgensen
The Moley Kitchen is another restaurant robot making waves. It uses a combination of sensors and optical cameras to map ingredients, cookware and utensils in the kitchen. Subtle markers on handles and pan lids help the robot locate pots, pans, and utensils. The robot's optical system can spot dropped food and clean up before and after cooking. An integrated UV lamp ensures the cooking area is kept germ free.
It may seem like the technology is just not at a stage where it can rival human intuition and creativity, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be able to very soon.
Overwhelmingly, the primary criticism is that robots would result in the loss of jobs, an argument countered with the view that allotting mundane tasks to robots would result in more free time for chefs to pursue more creative, artistic endeavours. There are many examples that prove the contrary, though - the automotive sector, for one. However, not all chefs dismiss the idea of using robots in their kitchens out of hand.
"Any technology can be suitable for all kitchens, fine dining or not,” says Andrew Wong, whose London restaurant, A. Wong, just became the first Chinese restaurant in the UK to earn two Michelin stars.” It’s about changing our mentality and knee-jerk reactions, allowing ourselves to embrace technology first.”
Chef Andrew Wong ©Jutta Klee
“Embracing technology is more for me personally about embracing the times. At A.Wong we look to the past through our diachronic work with SOAS (The School of Oriental & African Studies), and technology is our way of embracing the here and now. Technology isn't just about the future, it’s about understanding the evolving 'now' - the 'now' of the world, the 'now' of our guests and the 'now' of their thinking.
“Every type of gastronomy ultimately comes down to consistency. In a world where consistency is so important, robotics will become more useful. The consequences of this – chefs will need to become better innovators, facilitators, and it won’t be necessary to have as much ‘craft’ or artisanal skill. This is not to say that chefs can’t have craft and skill, merely, the skill set that becomes more influential within a kitchen environment shifts.
“As robotics take over some jobs in the kitchen, chefs will lose those particular skills. Once the robotics become consistent, production will become faster and fewer people will be required. Ultimately, let’s not forget that cooking isn’t purely a science, it’s a craft. Machines can only do what they are told, they don't have emotion, therefore every machine still requires a human to instruct it what to do.”
Innovation and development tends to go where the money flows, and venture capitalists see the restaurant industry as carrion to swoop down on. The ghost kitchen sector is predicted to be a trillion-dollar sector in the next ten years. That means the customer will overwhelmingly be eating at home. If restaurant kitchens are more foodservice setups, designed to churn out fixed menu food en masse for delivery then robotics would seemingly find a welcome home there. Certainly, the mass production sector would benefit more from robots in the kitchen, but what about fine dining? Could we see restaurant kitchens begin to adopt them?
Chef Rasmus Munk ©Soren Gammelmar
Chef Rasmus Munk, the chef-provocateur whose Alchemist restaurant in Copenhagen is at the vanguard of experimental haute cuisine, embraces the future offered by robotics. Would he consider robotic assistants in his kitchen?
“Absolutely,” he says. “We have already replaced a lot of manual work with appliances that utilise robot technology. It is a natural evolution. So if there are jobs in the kitchen that can be cut out, and a robot can do them, I see it as a possibility to liberate more staff and use their talents for doing more creative work than repetitive chopping or preparing herbs.
“In bigger canteens, and in the food industry, it could lead to staff cuts, but at the same time this has been an ongoing process through history, it is unavoidable. It depends on what you use the technology for – if you set the machines to doing repetitive tasks, the chefs can hopefully focus on developing new dishes and perfecting flavours, presentations and the guest experience."
Even a two-Michelin-star chef has to start their culinary journey somewhere, and the hours spent as a commis chef, hunched over a sink shucking oysters or peeling eggs, are an essential part of the training. It gives the chef an understanding of produce, a chance to glean an intimate knowledge of an ingredient. It’s knowledge that becomes the foundation on which everything else is built. Can chefs without this fundamental experience reach their full creative potential?
Chef Zineb Hattab image courtesy Zineb Hattab
Zineb Hattab, an electronic engineer turned chef, who puts innovation at the heart of her restaurant K.L.E. in Zurich, is understandably sanguine about the advent of robotics in the kitchen.
"I am an engineer and I believe in the power of technology to make lives better," she says. "Many administrative processes are time-consuming and not very efficient, and robotics would definitely improve them (inventory, ordering and stock monitoring). Also, tasks involving heavy lifting and handling massive amounts of boiling liquids could be performed without risks by a robot. An example of a benefit would be that bakers could start work at 6 am instead of 4 am, only by having robots proofing doughs and mixing the first batches of the day. It could also help reduce the long shifts that cooks have to go through and improve the quality of their life by supporting physically demanding tasks. Any technological development will face moral issues, but that's why technology ethics helps understand and resolve the practical concerns."
Chef Valentino Cassanelli ©Lido Vannucchi
Robotics has the potential to change the industry, but there seems to be some distance between the vision of chefs and the technology companies developing them. Initially, according to Valentino Cassanelli, Michelin-star chef at Principe Forte di Marmi, in Tuscany, Italy, robots could be useful in the kitchen.
“[They] would be suitable for control of the cleaning, sanitisation - especially in this period - warehousing and storage orders. A.I. would actually be very helpful for reservations, in supporting the various departments and the standardisation of basic procedures.
“I am not sure about changing gastronomy. It could be a way to be more efficient, allowing us to shift our attention more towards the actual profession and to the emotional side in the relationship with the customers. But most importantly, it could help us to focus more on all the details that make this work about cultural contact and social sharing.
“Let’s never forget, this is a job which is rich in passionate and emotional references, as well as a job with a business side that could certainly be supported by the new technologies, robotics and AI, because of which time reductions and optimisation of dedicated staff could improve the quality of life and productive performance.”
Despite tech evangelists’ most optimistic visions, the future of robots in restaurant kitchens is not yet written. Take Moley, it can peel an egg, a complex task for a robot, but it can’t peel a potato. Ingredients need to be carefully weighed, prepped and organised in order for the robot to execute a recipe. That sounds suspiciously like a robot chef designed to replace a line chef, rather than one to take over the mundane tasks of the commis.
“For me there are only really negative sides," says Jeremy Chan. "Robotics is a big step forward in removing us from any organic relationship we have with food and other human beings. In other words, it is a big step back. The only context where robotics could have a positive role in food is to process at speed bi-products of commercial kitchens or discarded ingredients from the food production system, to create meals readily available for the underprivileged or homeless. Basically, if you need a robot to peel onions for you, you’re not a real chef.”