This set of articles were originally published as part of a series for a YEAST lab on AI x CHEFS, during my time as YEAST’s Researcher-in-Residence. If you like what you read and want to stay updated with future YEAST posts like this, connect to its Medium channel or visit its site.
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. And that doesn’t feel quite right. If technology is changing the way we make food, we believe the voice of chefs needs 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 talents, 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 kitchen s— 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 the 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.
We’ll explore this in the next article Kitchen conversations II.
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.
AI x CHEFS 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.
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