A look into what meaningful roles technology could play in commercial kitchens.
STARTING A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION.
A little too often, chefs are content as spectators to the transformation of their own industry. Modern technology is entering the kitchen, and it’s being driven by technologists rather than chefs. That doesn’t feel quite right. If technology is changing the way we make food, we believe the voices of chefs need to be at the centre of the conversation.
Taking a step in that direction, we spoke with a range of people working in and around food to understand what it means to be a chef. We explored how chefs perceive their craft and how technology could change — for good or for bad — tomorrow’s kitchens.
We spoke with emerging chef talent, seasoned head chefs, food critics, leaders in food education, decision-makers at global brands and managers of professional catering services. We had conversations in kitchens in Shanghai, Los Angeles, Turin, London and Copenhagen — giving us a global perspective.
Everyone we spoke with has spent time working in commercial kitchens; even if their paths have veered away from the stove itself, their passion for food burns bright.
Gone are the days in which the food speaks for itself and being a chef is only about the cooking. There are more demands than ever on chefs, forcing them to stretch well beyond their core culinary skills. It isn’t rare anymore to see chefs juggling between pots and pans, balance sheets and social media. The trade is changing, and so is the definition of being a chef.
“You’ve got to figure out a way you can maintain consistency, run your business intelligently but also evolve it regularly.”
As if it weren’t challenging enough, competition is coming from all angles. People have transitioned into cooking professionally from other creative industries, whilst a generation of chefs with no formal food training are making waves on social media. While these shifts may not directly impact a brigade of chefs when the kitchen is fired up, they are building a set of novel pressures that influence them outside of service.
“You’re only as good as your next menu.”
Understanding these new demands and tensions was a necessary first step towards envisioning what meaningful roles technology could play in context of commercial kitchens.
DECODING THE CULINARY CREATIVE PROCESS.
Chefs are typically better at cooking than they are at speaking. For the most part we are glad it is this way, but it did make it more challenging to decode the cooking process of chefs. What is the journey that turns an idea into a dish?
Most chefs were either surprised or confused when we invited them to explain their creative process. Few have thought about this question, nor have they been asked to put words to it. Their knowledge — we realized — is so deeply rooted that they give the impression of being on permanent autopilot.
As conversations progressed, the key aspects of a chef’s creative process began to surface. We observed how chefs collect inspiration; the absorption process can be anything from fully conscious to the unconscious. We realized that inside a kitchen, people are permeable to each other’s knowledge, learning and building their own personal styles as if by osmosis. We learned about how chefs plan. We were exposed to the complexity of the information chefs need to consider in order to make a decision. And, of course, we watched them cook. That final moment, ephemeral and spontaneous, where all of the above converges and comes out in the form of an entree, a soup or a dessert.
We built a framework for our learnings. This helped us to explore where technology would be most useful and desirable.
THE FOUNDATION OF CREATION.
Capturing inspiration, exchanging knowledge and exploring one’s style happen simultaneously, building a foundation upon which chefs create. A lot of this happens seamlessly, with chefs barely realizing what is going on.
When it comes to inspiration, for example, chefs reference personal experiences, travelling and other cultures as sources to evolve their understanding and perspective about food. It’s impossible to pre-empt which past experiences might pop up and trigger an idea, yet reference points get stored in a sort of mental sketch-book that help forge the chef’s culinary identity.
Chefs today also have limitless access to inspiration. But such accessibility is a double-edged sword for creativity in the kitchen. The digital platforms that chefs use for food inspiration are the same they use for social media. This allows for near-constant, crudely targeted stimulation for chefs; not necessarily the right information to inspire them creatively.
“We have so much shared information now. This is one of the big challenges moving forward as chefs. Nothing is hidden really. Everything is there in images and text.”
With the limitless information, it would be a wonder for any chef to be able to leverage its full potential. Chefs explained that their inspirations don’t always come from the food itself, yet food is largely what they look at when they go online. Yet most of the creative tools available for chefs focus on food recipes; despite the fact that most of the chefs we spoke with don’t even follow recipes!
This is quite different from other creative industries, where analogous inspiration and cross-pollination of ideas are common practice. The idea of looking for inspiration outside of one’s industry is nothing new for designers, architects and artists. What’s holding chefs back?
KNOWLEDGE & STYLE.
Chefs keep a wealth of essential information stored in their head, imparting it verbally and rarely writing it down. They accumulate this knowledge working in different environments, sharing chef tips with colleagues and watching others work. Each kitchen compounds the combined experiences of chefs working there at that time. It is a fluid, constantly evolving body of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, it is rarely documented.
“It’s all in my head.”
The chef’s learning process is not just about copying like-for-like. It’s also about learning to interpret in their own unique way and being given the freedom to develop intuition. This freedom is what enables them to feel creatively fulfilled. Yet in order to create the consistency required by most food establishments, chefs also have to master specifics rules about a kitchen. This creates a tension between consistency and creativity. How should both co-exist in today’s commercial kitchens? How can technology play a role in preserving and expanding a kitchen’s knowledge?
Style is hard to cultivate without the core culinary skills in place. Most chefs can trace their cooking roots, but few were able to articulate their individual culinary style.
“You find your style while you are working, you don’t develop your style.”
Chefs find it hard to distinguish their style from the cuisine of the places they worked. This felt especially true of chefs who worked in kitchens where menus were created as a group. This collaborative approach to creation allows chefs to learn from different cultures and ways of working. But there’s a risk that the act of creating from many different backgrounds leads to menus that lack a distinct through line. One chef we spoke to even suggested that if a kitchen’s identity is defined by its concerted desire for diversity, this can detract from the cohesiveness of its vision.
“Now more than ever we should try to protect particularity in cooking; there’s a tendency now we have this mass of information to move towards generalised world cuisine.”
THE ART OF CREATION.
The visioning moment is where the chef’s experiences, inspirations and constraints-on-hand come together. Chefs combine creative judgement and technical skills, balancing their creative ego with the direction of the head chef or restaurant.
“Unless you are a high-end restaurant you are feeding and nourishing people, so there is that basic practical need you are fulfilling. If you get too lost in your own creativity you move further away from the basic purpose of a restaurant.”
Professional chefs rarely cook on their own. They are a team who need a clear vision to work towards. This adds an additional layer of responsibility to the head chef, who is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing that the vision and direction are relatable to all of the brigade.
Interestingly enough, even though most chefs were unable to articulate their own style, it was clear that their team understood it without it needing to be laid out in words.
LOST IN THE WORK OF MAKING.
Chefs deal with many variables in their head during the creation process. Part of a chef’s creativity is also working around constraints — whether it’s seasonal ingredients, their clients’ demands or whatever is leftover in the fridge. They rarely plan a dish in isolation, but imagine it alongside a combination of other dishes.
“It’s like the formal structure of a piece from a great composer. You can’t enjoy the crescendo until you have the right build up.”
Chefs are spontaneous, almost impulsive during the act of cooking, making it difficult to imagine technology’s role in such an unpredictable moment.
“There is no thinking when you are in the act of doing at all. That’s one of the reasons I love it.”
They love the spontaneity — and uncertainty — of creation in the moment. The potential for human error is a large part of what keeps the kitchen alive! What makes chefs interesting to study is how they use intuition, judgement and instinct. These skills are considered fundamental to the chef’s craft, yet they are traits that are difficult to quantify — and even more difficult for technology to simulate.
COOK, RINSE, REPEAT.
There is a sort of Cinderella quality to the structure of service. Midnight strikes. The day is over. Tomorrow it begins again. Chefs are constantly iterating, but for most chefs there is a lack of specificity in the feedback loop.
While they are more influenced than ever by the feedback of the public, the current channels for feedback — the restrictive and rational language of reviews and ‘likes’ — don’t give chefs the kind of feedback they really want. Feedback becomes a problem, rather than a value, enslaving chefs and restaurants to a ‘star’ and ‘like’ system that doesn’t make much sense. While chefs put a huge amount of emotion into their cooking, they aren’t usually there to witness the reaction of the people they just cooked for.
THE WRONG EASY.
The life of a chef is hard work. But chefs like the fact that it’s hard. There’s a masochistic dimension to some chef stories: sleeping under the stairs; tyrannical bosses; frustrating pay. It’s all part of the reality of being a chef.
Technology has always been in the kitchen and always will be. It’s advanced the craft of cooking, enabled creation in novel ways, and made the life of chefs easier (despite still being hard work).
But in the rush to introduce AI technologies, we should be mindful not to lose sight of the essence and role of people, the cultural roots of food, and the context of eating. The issue we see is that many technology visions are solving for the wrong easy.
The ‘problem’ with cooking is not to eliminate the act of doing so, but rather to find new ways to enhance chefs with new and intelligent tools.
The hype of AI technology often leads us to focus on the stunts of computers beating humans at different ‘human’ tasks. For chess there is AlphaGo, for food there is the Chef Watson’s perfect burrito. This can lead to a black or white discussion of the future and a divisive tension between us and machines.
The interesting, but often untold story in the world of chess, is that a human collaborating with a computer — known as a Centaur — beats both solo-human and solo-AI players.
This is a model of technology we want to advance. How could we create new collaboration between AI and chefs in the kitchen?
Many thanks for the inspiring conversations.
Danny Brooks | Danyi Gao | Giles Clarke | Rahim Mohammed | Jeffrey Caterret | Jose Antonio Yepez | Licia Grannello | Harmut Frederich | Jerome Laurent | Snow Chen | Michael Zee | Lasse Petersen
I’m a foodie and a design researcher. I spend my days studying people and the colourful context of their lives, and fill the times in thinking about food. So it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to join YEAST as a researcher-in-residence.
YEAST is a future venture laboratory where we imagine, build, and run companies that improve living through food and technology.
Kitchen Intelligence is a lab where we research and experiment using artificial intelligent technologies in the context of commercial kitchens. We seek to build ventures where technology augments rather than automates the abilities of chefs.
This is part of the series for Kitchen Intelligence, an YEAST lab.
- Kitchen Intelligence: Introduction to a YEAST lab.
- Kitchen Conversations: A look into what meaningful roles technology could play in commercial kitchens.
- Ghost Chef: Augmenting and supporting creativity for the future kitchen.
- Trainable Measures: Trainable and subjective devices for the future kitchen.