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Expressions such as “artificial intelligence”, “blockchain” and “robots” are gradually being related to food just as “local”, “organic” and “artisanal”. But behind all this tech language is an incredible force that transforms the way we produce and cook our food. Something that will be increasingly more related to our meals as technology evolves.
If at first, this scenario seems to distance us from what we understand by food, the use of algorithms has shown the exact opposite: by using data science, we have been able to improve all the processes related to the act of cooking – from creating recipes to avoiding food waste. In companies and even in restaurants, technology will gradually be seen as an ally.
At least for Mads Holme, partner at ReD Associates, who has been working with companies within the food industry for over a decade. According to him, whose work focuses on exploring methodologies and techniques that enable decision-making, merging chef's creativity with new technology is an exciting playing field as data develops.
“The massive democratization of technology and data will help food industry with its biggest problems, such as logistics, supply chain, and other things that are around the restaurants as well, allowing them even to provide a better experience for their guests”, he says.
But what is still to come is effectively entering the sacred halls of the kitchen, little by little, and relates to the dish, the cooking, and the preparation. “I assume that the biggest change we'll see in big kitchens around the world will take place in the next 5-10 years”, he states.
He mentions successful examples such as the UK-based chain Vita Mojo, “which allows diners to create a fully customized meal, which is something amazing”. Via in-store screens and the restaurant’s app, customers can choose their options (from protein, sides, toppings, and sauces) that are combined into a final plate that’s priced accordingly.
Later, the intelligent platform based on data science can inform the managers exactly which foods are most popular, allowing them to predict future sales, reduce food waste, and see what ingredients are trending for future creations. In this regard, Holme glimpses a deep change in the restaurants industry: on how algorithms can help chefs to create new and desirable dishes.
Regarding the fact that some chefs are still apprehensive about the use of data in their creation processes – precisely the main factor that differentiates a chef from others – Holme believes there is no fear of the technology itself, but mainly fear of changing routines.
“The ones who will succeed in this new field are the ones who are open to changing behaviors, the ones curious about how technology can really enable them to go further, turning down the ego on the ‘I have to be the master of every step of it’“, he says. (For the record, he says he has been talking and working with different chefs around the world and they seem genuinely interested on how data science can help them in their kitchens).
“Chefs need to realize that technology can allow them to focus on what really matters for them. Because it is more than just the science of cooking, it's about your experience, about knowing your audience and the atmosphere of the restaurant. Things no algorithm can provide”, Holme adds.
The Fat Duck experience
In innovative restaurants, algorithms have already been seen as a useful tool for the cooking process - and also to raise the bar of what they intend to serve to (and impress) their diners. That is the case of The Fat Duck, in the UK, run by trailblazer chef Heston Blumenthal.
“Generally we are of course open to collaborations in any way that improves the dining experience of our guests. This could include the use of artificial intelligence or big data providing that this is in an ethical way and that we do not infringe on our guests’ privacy in any way”, says Deiniol Pritchard, Research & Development Manager for The Fat Duck Group.
Creatively they have been using a process they call “flavor pairing” to come up with ingredients and flavors in new dishes. “This involves working with Dr. Sebastian Ahnert at Cambridge University on the flavor network as well as using a database called Volatile Compounds in food. This has allowed us to come up with pairings of flavor that replicate the notes of a Chateau d'Yquem in our Botrytis Cinerea dessert that we serve at the restaurant”, he explains.
The famous dessert is made up of 20 different elements and has over 50 different stages of preparation. With the data science, the restaurant’s team could ape the flavor profile of grapes infected with botrytis cinerea, a type of fungus, which is known as the noble rot, as it can concentrate and sweeten the flavor of wine grapes when they're dried.
Pritchard and his team are now working on a unique spice mix for a duck main course consisting of eucalyptus, black and green cardamom, ginger and green coffee beans using the same pairing process - but he can’t share more details yet. “These technologies can definitely give us great insights into complex problems, providing the problems are clearly defined. I think they are tools that can be used to help develop the restaurants industry since the core and the future of this industry is giving the guest a great experience”, he adds.
The Airbnb experience
Far from the kitchens of acclaimed restaurants, the algorithms have even helped companies to better feed their employees. Karol Keane started to figure out how to use them to feed up to 550 people who work and eat daily in the Airbnb Dublin office where he works as Senior Food Program Manager. "As a tech company, Airbnb is an amazing place for innovation, so it stoked my interest in exploring ways to make both worlds meet," he says.
He explains they use technology to improve from purchasing to communicating with the office staff and giving them information about the healthy food they are eating. “We track data and feedback through technology to improve our dishes for our end users and even to communicate about food waste”, Keane details.
“I have always looked at the tools the people who are building the worlds of tomorrow use and how they use them and I am curious to see if they can be applied to operational or strategic problems we see in the food world. At Airbnb, all members of our team, from kitchen porters to front of house and chefs have laptops and all our menus, recipes and methods are stored online in a recipe bank,” he adds.
One example he gives of an early tech integration win was moving all team and company-wide food communication to Slack. This had a massive positive impact and has ensured better and clearer team communication. Another example is the partnership they established with an invoice aggregator company called Sourcery that enabled Airbnb to work with small to medium size suppliers (Airbnb purchase from over 100 different suppliers) and ensures all invoices are tracked and paid on time. “We are currently looking at all aspects of our program to figure out ways we can apply technology to improve all facets of the work we do”, he adds.
According to him, technology is having a massive impact on the food industry as a whole but it is still early days. “Data around how people consume is a powerful thing and can potentially have industry defining impacts from supply chain management through offering and even to waste processing. What do they say, data is worth more than oil!”, Keane points out. “We live in a data-driven world and I think the challenge is for the food industry to figure out how best to use available data to reform our broken food system”, he concludes.