“Yes, Chef.” It’s the first thing students learn in culinary school. It’s about respecting the person who’s cooking the food. As celebrity Chef and Founder of Craft Restaurants Tom Colicchio says, “Chef’ doesn’t mean that you’re the best cook, it simply means ‘boss.” From a grandmother cooking for her whole family all day to a college student making ramen for his roommate at 2 AM, there is clout for the chef — and appreciation for the food — that makes everyone at the dinner table grateful.
This intimate relationship between the hungry people, cooking and chowing down is not isolated from the dependence on our smartphones, wearables, and the rise of artificial intelligence. As cooking is so hands on, it’s very difficult (and unsanitary) to tap your phone when your fingers are focused on cracking eggs and seasoning chicken. As more appliances and devices open themselves to the accessibility of artificial intelligence — following the intuitiveness and emotional attachment of of companies like Nest — technology has a clear path to the seat at the kitchen table. There have been many more misses than hits when bringing cutting edge technology into the kitchen. The successful kitchen technology understands that the kitchen is a work station, and any new tool, technological or otherwise, must be just that: a tool that provides more utility than the incumbent or alternative.
The Lesson of the Microwave
Any technology that enters the kitchen must be simple enough for the average person to use, and powerful enough to change the way the average person eats. The significant time savings of the microwave — coupled with a keypad as simple as a grade school calculator — created a permanent space on our shelf. When it came to adding value, the microwave literally made people into better chefs. If you said in the early 20th century that you could — with no preparation — cook a frozen chicken breast in a couple minutes, and then you did it, you’d be considered a magician in the kitchen. Microwaves were introduced in the late 1940s, and their rise to commercial adoption took a half century. The early microwaves were too big, too expensive and people feared they may blow up their whole town. In 1971, 1% of American homes had one; in 1986, 25% of American homes had one; and in 1997, 90% of American homes had a microwave (BLS). As the microwave took its time to find product market fit, it’s underlying competitive advantage of reduced cooking time remained. People may not realize a better kitchen product right away or the price point may start too high, but if it is significantly more useful than the alternative, the new product will eventually find its way into the American kitchen.
What can other new technologies learn from the microwave to achieve product adoption? Above all else, products and technology need to save time. The microwave reduced the amount of time home cooks had to spend in the kitchen, saved them energy, and — importantly — the microwave was simple to use, reliable, and consistent.
This Millennium’s First Wave of Technology in the Kitchen
Much of the technology that enters the kitchen comes from elsewhere and doesn’t feel at home in the kitchen because of its novelty. A fridge with an LCD screen to see what food’s there before you open the door isn’t exactly saving you that much time. An on switch for coffee being moved from the machine to your smartphone isn’t exactly making it easier to make coffee. A mobile app for your egg carton to track the eggs age isn’t exactly making your breakfast taste better. Not to say these goods can’t improve a small moment in someone’s life out there… But by in large it is technology in search of a problem. Gimmicks may smell but they will not last. If a new product is to be successful in the kitchen, it must help execute cooking objectives simply, reliably, and while saving time.
The technology that will stay in the kitchen is the technology that betters an existing cooking process and is priced within the consumer’s willingness to pay. We’ve seen great progress in packaging and delivery. Juicero, who recently raised a $70m Series B, is streamlining how we make high quality juices by delivering you pouches of ingredients to go with their smart juicer. It’s a challenge to have the right ratio of ingredients. Blue Apron has also capitalized on this packaging problem with perfectly portioned ingredients, convenient deliveries for single serving and small family fees. At the core of these innovations is packaging. While Juicero did evolve the juice appliance itself, and Blue Apron did evolve the shipping process for temperature sensitive food, the core of their high valuations stem from their innovations on the packaging side. They both created units that were more convenient for the home chef.
To Cook with Artificial Intelligence
The American kitchen is a place of tradition, family values and Christmas dinners. When a new technology first permeates through the kitchen, will that adoption become ingrained? Does it create a better experience or is it a novelty? The answer to these questions depends on the utility gained. Microwaves, convection ovens, and refrigerators all caught on because they genuinely improved the experience for the home chef.
Artificial Intelligence has tremendous potential to become useful in the kitchen, but unlike some other areas — like asking Alexa to play your Saturday morning playlist — the tolerance for an AI’s learning curve will be almost non-existent when it comes to the kitchen. Cooking is some parts passion, sure, but it is an exact science, where the difference between success and failure can be measured in seconds, teaspoons and fractions of an ounce. Consider the June oven, which claims to just know how to cook whatever you put it in it. Can an oven really become smart enough to supersede the Chef’s decision (or at least an average home chef’s decision) on time and temperature? Cooking is high stakes. One mistake can ruin a whole evening or an entire holiday, few set out to be the family eating Thanksgiving dinner at Denny’s or the Parker’s eating Christmas Dinner in a Chinese Restaurant (yes, that’s “A Christmas Story” reference). The June oven is not yet available for purchase, but its website claims you can pre-order it for $1200. The price point will eliminate many, but enough will sell for the public to decide if it can deliver what it promises, the intelligence to just cook whatever you put it in it.
What will it take for AI to be that next technological revolution in the kitchen? The successful kitchen AIs will be the technologies that understand that the kitchen isn’t a place for bells and whistles, or gamification, or really anything other than better execution of rudimentary tasks, like how to follow a recipe book. The AI that will help us in the kitchen in the near term will have to be simple, reliable, and consistent.
The Conversational Kitchen
Remember the aforementioned app that could make coffee when tapping your phone? The problem with this use of technology in the kitchen is that it forces the user to dedicate its entire attention to hitting the button, whether it’s on the phone or on the device. What’s more useful is for the people to continue doing what they’re doing with their hands in the kitchen, and just say something like, “Alexa, brew coffee.” Talking is simply more practical than tapping your phone.
Conversational interface is finding its place in the technology revolution. From Google’s I/O announcements to Siri (finally) opening their API to Facebook’s bots everywhere to Wired’s coining of the Crazy Smart Digital Assistant Revolution, the conversational interface is the experience to build for. Top PhDs have been trying to build an artificially intelligent chef since the 1980s. AI powered chat bots are now capable of learning profession-specific dialect. If Luka can teach bots to talk like the cast of Silicon Valley, there’s no reason a bot can’t learn to talk like Julia Child, or even shout like Gordon Ramsey.
Why do you need to pull out your phone, unlock it, and re-open the app you were just in to know the next step of the recipe? Just talk. Why do you need to pull out your phone, unlock it, and re-open the app again to set an oven timer? Just say what you want it to do. I’m not the first to say this. Conversation’s common. It provides simpler, more useful interactions with your phone, specifically in the kitchen when your hands are occupied with seasoning chicken or cracking eggs. A startup out of Pittsburgh, Conversant Labs, is attempting to tackle this perfect storm of home chef meeting conversational AIs with it’s latest app, Yes Chef. It’s a conversational recipe that I’ve been beta testing for the last few months. While cooking, you can just say to your phone, “Chef, What do I set the oven to?” And your device, will just tell you the answer. We’re moving to a world where we have one conversation across our devices. With apps like Yes Chef, we can just communicate with our voices instead of our fingers, “ Chef, How much flour do I need?” or “ Chef, How long do I put the turkey in the oven?”
How We’re Connected to Our Cooking
The earliest oven’s date back to 29,000 BC. When mammoths walked the earth, people were cooking them in ovens. The origins of ovens moved from the earth pits to ceramic to masonry to gas. And with the gas oven there was an accessibility breakthrough, giving many families the opportunity to cook chicken, vegetables or whatever at unprecedented rates. For the technology that relates to our food, there is little tolerance for what does not work. There have been a lot of stupid gadgets for the kitchen, and everyone is promising AI, but the kitchen is perfect for providing real value to home cooks everywhere. New tech in the kitchen has to address a real concern, add a great value or consistently save people a lot of time to remain in the American kitchen. The smartphone is a decade old, but still, more often than not, it provides little value to someone cooking in the kitchen.
We already know how to eat, and the average American is not going to adopt another technology for the sake of technology. There are so many recipes and cooking guides available that we do not have access to while we are cooking. Using our voices instead of hands to prompt actions such as cooking instructions, playing music or talking to your smart appliances has a chance to secure a sacred spot in our increasingly connected kitchen. The home chef’s voice is a natural way for cooking technology to become a friend to the American kitchen.