Rise of the machines

Will cooks one day be replaced by robots? Automated workers, 3D printing and machines that cook entire meals could well change the way restaurants feed customers. By Angela Tufvesson

Catalan chef Paco Pérez covets Michelin stars and is a leader in Spanish haute cuisine. His dishes are inspired by fresh Mediterranean ingredients and a connection to land, sea and forest—but there’s more to his success than the gifts of nature.

Recently, Pérez enlisted the help of 3D food printing technology to help create a more innovative dining experience. An intricate deep grey sea coral made from seafood purée that he says was too complicated to make by hand is printed using the technology. Topped with caviar, sea urchin, egg, hollandaise sauce and a foam made from carrots, the dish is delicate and striking.

The 3D printer is called Foodini, and according to co-founder Lynette Kucsma from manufacturer Natural Machines, it’s attracting a lot of attention among top restaurant chefs like Pérez.

“There’s two main reasons why we have professional chefs interested in Foodini,” she says. “One is food presentation that’s not possible by hand. Chefs are always looking at new and innovative ways of presenting food.

“The second reason is automation. Imagine you’re a Michelin-starred chef and you have a dish that requires breadsticks in the shape of tree branches and you have to serve 50 people that evening—you can automate that process with Foodini.”

For restaurateurs serving more casual fare, Kucsma says the printer can produce pasta, burgers, pizza, brownies and even intricate chocolate sculptures quickly and reliably. About the size of a large microwave, Foodini is controlled by a computer. The user chooses the pre-programmed recipe they want to print using the touchscreen, follows the instructions on which ingredients to put into each stainless steel capsule and the printer does the rest.

3D printing is part of a broader trend of food automation that could even see back-of-house staff take on robotic characteristics. In Germany, the BratWurst Bot (yes, really) recently made its debut at an event in Berlin where it grilled and served sausages for 200 people.

According to developers from the Forschungszentrum Informatik (FZI) Research Center for Information Technology, the Bot—which resembles a tong-wielding human arm—turned the sausages until they were ready to be served and “continuously [added] new sausages to the grill in order to reduce the waiting time for the guests. This dynamic scheduling of different tasks makes the system extremely flexible and robust”.

Likewise, San Francisco start-up Momentum Machines has developed a robot that makes gourmet hamburgers from scratch with no human interaction. The robot slices toppings, grills patties and assembles burgers to order, and can reportedly produce up to 400 hamburgers per hour. According to the secretive creators, “serving a burger this great at such affordable prices would be impossible without culinary automation”. At nearby Zume Pizza, anthropomophic robots Marta and Bruno work with humans to create local favourites like pineapple express and supreme.

“Our mission is that in 10 to 15 years, a 3D printer will become a common kitchen appliance like an oven or stove.”—Lynette Kucsma, co-founder, Natural Machines

Next year, culinary automation is set to reach a whole new level of sophistication with the launch of a fully functional robotic kitchen. Created by UK-based Moley Robotics, the system consists of cabinetry, a cooktop, sink and oven, utensils and two robotic arms installed above the cooking area that replicate the recorded motions of a chef to create complete meals. An iTunes-style library houses the 100-strong recipe collection, to which chefs can add new menu items.

Crucially, founder Mark Oleynik says the robotic kitchen won’t make the role of chefs redundant. In fact, he says the opportunity to automate repetitive tasks will allow chefs more time to innovate and create new recipes.

Plus, he says the robot can’t perform all the normal functions of a chef, like taste food or adjust quantities. “Cooking is quite a subjective thing and only the cook can test the dish and understand whether it’s cooked well or not cooked well,” says Oleynik.

Kucsma agrees that automation is unlikely to affect hospitality workers’ employment prospects—or the need for restaurateurs to employ staff. “Will it take away a large number of jobs from the chef market?” she says. “We don’t believe so, because the chefs are the ones bringing the brain power; [they know]what dishes to print, what ingredients to put together.

“At a local bakery level, for example, maybe it will automate some things but not to a huge extent of taking jobs. Our mission is that in 10 to 15 years a 3D printer will become a common kitchen appliance like an oven or stove.”

As to whether restaurants and cafes should promote the use of robotics and 3D printers, Kucsma says some business owners may choose to while others may prefer to keep quiet.

“There are some restaurants that are very keen on advertising that they have the latest and greatest technology and 3D printing is still relatively new so it is something that will attract people to the restaurant to try,” she says.

“Or you might not even know you’re eating 3D printed food because if you go to a Michelin-starred restaurant, or any restaurant, they don’t put on the menu what kitchen appliance they used to make each dish.”

This sort of technology doesn’t come cheap. Foodini is currently priced at $US4,000 while Moley’s robotic kitchen is set to cost at least several times more. But experts agree restaurateurs serving everything from fast food to degustation are likely to grow increasingly reliant on automation and robotic workers.

“This is the future,” says Oleynik. “It’s not a question of replacing people with robots. It’s a question of how we can use technology to make people happier and more free.”

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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