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Kitchen automation – Robo chefs, their use today and emerging scenario
Thursday, 16 May, 2019, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Gurbaxish Singh Kohli
The origins of kitchen automation may be dated back to the time when the first alternative for coal or wood was discovered and put into use. The first stove that replaced an open fire could well be considered as the first tiny step towards kitchen automation. It started as appliances that helped in the process of cooking, thus making life easier for the cook. Today a robot that assembles, heats, and cleans up after cooking may no longer sound like science fiction as it may have been imagined about before the turn of the century.

We see more and more appliances being used for specific purposes in the kitchen today. For example, the delicate task as beating egg whites into perfectly stiff peaks which of course, can be done with the human hands. The process is nothing but a specialised mundane task which a robot will be able to perform better than a human in lesser amount of time and with greater precision.

Automation and appliances are designed by humans to help chefs to perform certain specific tasks easily. The aim was never to replace chefs, but to assist them. However now, that has changed and more gimmicky establishments are coming around with almost fully automated kitchens.

In USA, a restaurant that offers a variety of salad bowls by replacing lined chefs with an assembly line of robotic woks is able to complete an order faster than a chef. The use of robots allows a pizza restaurant to halve the pizza, spread the sauce, top the pizza and place it onto a conveyor belt which takes it through the oven, cooking a perfect pizza in the least amount of time. This automated process reduces the preparation time considerably and invests in more resources elsewhere, rather than on workers who are carrying out repetitive tasks. But then there are instances where one might want to assign specific instructions for specific orders and to specific food stations which is presently not an option.

So, while there is a great future in kitchen automation, it would have to include a great deal of customisable options and features. One may prefer their pizza with less sauce and more cheese or with just a sprinkle of olives. Here we again arrive at the point where automation is used mostly for specific and repetitive jobs that do not really require human finesse or intervention.

Currently, robots have limited functionality. Full or near full automation is possible only in eateries that have a limited or fixed menu, with little or no deviation or customisation. Automation is far more suited for QSRs than to their fine dine counterparts. Here too, the final assembly is still done by humans. Humans are irreplaceable so it will probably be a very long time before we see a Michelin starred restaurant where the executive or sous chef is a robot.

AI suffers from a creativity gap and great cooking involves a thorough understanding of numerous ingredients and subtle cooking techniques that would be enormously challenging for machines or robots to adapt. Therefore acute customisation of food is not possible for a robot.

The options to think and customise food according to individual guests cannot be done solely by an appliance. One of the main problems in engineering a dynamic cooking system to handle new ingredients and cooking techniques is the need for large amounts of data to teach and programme robots to differentiate between a wide variety of ingredients with different shapes, colours, uses and positions.

A one-size fits all approach is fine for automation but then such restaurants do not have patrons lining up for a meal. A restaurant and its kitchen are unique, it therefore, needs a customisable approach and such high integration can only be done by the human mind. A celebrated chef will use AI and varied unorthodox ingredients and cooking methods to create a heady concoction of a wow meal experience. There are numerous automation options and their software available nowadays but they all have their own flaws, just like a bad chef.

Basic robots are adept at handling repetitive, precision tasks such as dough pressing - faster than a human can, and in perfect shapes and weight, sauce spreading - exact amounts and an even spread, every time and flipping donuts or similar kinds of jobs which require no thinking and finesse but only clockwork precision. There is no room for adaptation here.

A fine example would be a coffee machine, which at the touch of a button grinds, percolates, dispenses and also adds milk and sugar in the perfect quantity, finally dispensing it into the cup, ready to be consumed. But then this machine can only make coffee, making it a one item expert, unlike a chef who can do everything. One can argue, that this machine however sophisticated, cannot replace an expert barista. Automation suits certain types of concepts, like QSRs, coffee shops, a bakery and so on where the use is concentric and not adaptive.

Today, chefs drive the restaurant and have a fan following. One cannot fathom the thought of a robot chef Michelin star restaurant, at least not as yet. The fact is that the human touch, finesse, creativity and expertise simply cannot be compared with that of a robot chef.

But after all, human chefs and robot chefs/appliances co-exist and complement each other. As of now, robot chefs are designed to do all repetitive or precise work while humans contribute to the creative aspect of cooking. The reality is that robot chefs, like all appliances or machines are as intelligent as their user, but do not have a mind of their own and require humans to drive them. They can offer pinpoint precision and consistency that is hard for humans to master. But due to the robot's lack of spontaneity and immediate decision making, one knows it would not try and improvise or use imagination because it has none.

There are three main reasons to consider automation:
1) To cut labour costs - But the immediate cost of automation is also high. Hands down, where specific applications require a set action to be performed, appliances are far more reliable and accurate, therefore are more cost-effective and the RoI here would be sooner.

2) To increase efficiency, quality, sanitation, and uniformity - Self-explanatory.

3) Use automation for branding and publicity purposes - Drawing attention regardless of the practicality of its use. Appliances always draw a crowd which is good for business.

Kitchen automation is on the rise. More restaurants are utilising a form of tool that enables them to automate specific elements of the food preparation process. One of the main reasons for this is that new technology can help in reducing costs and in improving overall quality. Running a successful kitchen needs serving top quality food in a timely and organised manner. Kitchen management plays a large part in this, and new technology is constantly being developed to support a better kitchen experience.

The high-tech machine might be able to mimic a master chef, but it can never really cook with the human factor. The love and care will always be missing. Cooking with love is down to the effort that goes into it. If one makes you a specialty meal, then you know they love you because a specialty meal is a lot of work. The robot could make food that would taste just like how a human would make it but it can never really capture that sentiment.

(The author is president, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Western India [HRAWI] & vice-president, Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India [FHRAI])
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