How Important Are Humans in Restaurants?
WIth automation and A.I. poised to augment nearly every industry, we consider if it has a place in the revered kitchens of the world's best restaurants
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Ekow Essel, Senior Product Manager here at Blackbird Labs, Inc. Ekow will be using the space below to consider how A.I. could — or couldn’t(!) — augment fine dining kitchens in a bid to bring down operating costs and make these restaurants more economically sustainable.
In lieu of celebrating this Fourth of July with yet another grilling guide or a think piece on the transcendental experience of watching Joey Chestnut consume some 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, I’d like to take the holiday to consider a technology that naysayers warn could lead to the opposite of independence. Yes, I’m talking about A.I. here and, for the sake of simplicity, automation too. But rather than make any doomsday prognostications, I’d like to consider if these types of tech deserve a place in kitchens, particularly the kitchens of fine dining restaurants — would it help keep such institutions afloat, or even scale their businesses? Or would it sink them by being unpalatable to consumers?
Let’s start with automation, which is already happening in the fast-food and fast casual sector of restaurants. Flippy, a robotic cook, has been grilling burgers and salting fries to the tune of $3 an hour in California fast-food joints (as well as Dodger Stadium), while other automated “cooks” and FOH professionals are doing everything from stretching pizza dough to taking orders (even accounting for food allergies). Earlier this year, Sweetgreen debuted a fully automated franchise in Illinois, and Chipotle will soon test an automated makeline.
Speaking of Chipotle, founder Steve Ells is busy building his next venture Kernal, a plant-based QSR that his team describes as a “tech-enabled fast-food concept that leverages software and robotics.” According to the company’s pitch, automation will enable locations to rely on only three human employees, all in a space no larger than 800 square feet. As per The New York Post: “The pitch deck includes mock-ups and photos of Kernel’s compact kitchens — with three employee workstations surrounded by computer screens, robotic arms and an array of slots and chutes for moving food through an assembly line.”
“The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef's recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.” — Anthony Bourdain
Let Them Eat Cake Baked by Robots
Piggybacking off these QSR concepts/proof of concepts, I can’t help but think of automation and/or A.I.’s role in the future of fine dining — a sector of this business that continues to struggle. Take for instance noma, the world’s number one restaurant. Last January, chef René Redzepi announced that noma would shutter at the end of 2024, citing the unsustainability of the fine dining model as we know it (noma will live on as a “food laboratory” and occasional pop-up). Other chefs, like David Kinch of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa, have followed suit. Redzepi rattled off a litany of reasons for the impending closure of his restaurant, but his argument basically came down to one thing: it’s too expensive. Part of that expense? The fact that Redzepi can no longer rely on the work on unpaid interns.
But what about employing the haute cuisine iterations or robots in the form of Flippy 2- or 3.0? Couldn’t automation help augment the multi-Michelin-starred temples and other celebrated restaurants (stars or no stars) so that visionaries like Redzepi could keep on keeping on? If it works in QSR restaurants, why not elsewhere? I’m not proposing replacing chefs altogether, but rather entertaining the idea that automated robots could give them some help when it comes to chopping onions and mincing garlic. When musing about what he looked for in a line cook, the late Anthony Bourdain ranted in his tell-all memoir “Kitchen Confidential”: “The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator, somebody with ideas of his own who is going to mess around with the chef's recipes and presentations. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.”
Sounds a lot like automation doesn’t it? Let’s consider the examples above as early signals of how automation might be folded into fine dining, be it Michelin-starred or the type of cool, innovative, and vibe-y restaurants that have truly emerged as the leaders in this little industry of ours. As for A.I., we really don’t have much to go on just yet. Could it save kitchens? Help scale businesses? Allow these bleeding edge restaurants to remain profitable? Perhaps. It is, after all, not too outlandish a question. If experts are to be believed, A.I. will revolutionize every industry, so why not the upper echelons of dining, too? Imagine…
Orders and Reservations: Chatbots are perfectly suited to aid with reservations and orders, making things much easier by streamlining everything into a single platform.
Customization: By combing through all your previous orders and restaurant experiences, A.I. can better predict what you’ll want in your next dining experience. Think of it as the Spotify and TikTok algorithms, only for dining — scary smart and scary good.
Forecasting and Economics: Think Ells got the unit economics of moving burritos down to a science? Imagine the predictive analytics of A.I. when it comes to everything from estimating inventory needs to forecasting sales. Your restaurant becomes a Swiss watch.
Cooking? Herein lies the big question, can an automated chef, reliant of course on A.I., do what Midjourney has done for art and ChatGPT for writing? Could generative A.I. look at all the recipes out there, analyze all the techniques, and not only replicate the meals, but could it iterate in the way an innovative chef can, thereby surprising us with new culinary concepts, unexpected flavors and presentations etc.? Plant-based food company Firmenich believes A.I. can augment the human-side of dining, pairing a French chef with 18 Michelin stars to his credit with Sam, his A.I.-powered sous-chef. Together, the half-human, half-robot duo have been tasked with developing plant-based flavors that replicate the real taste of their meat counterparts.
I’ll admit, the product guy in me loves the idea of tackling these problems with such efficient and possibly elegant solutions, and all in the name of fine dining. And I believe some of these concepts will actually present viable solutions, especially behind the scenes when it comes to ordering and forecasting. But, at the end of the day, restaurants—and, on the macro, hospitality—are a human dependent business. Guests crave a human touch, that sense of empathy and creativity a robot could never replicate. Simply put: diners would never accept knowing their meal was coming from anything less than a human being. Sure, sci-fi might be palpable in a Chipotle, where burritos are more or less churned out on the assembly line already, but not in anything resembling a real restaurant, where the experience itself is what customers want. What’s interesting here is what this says about us as diners — we don’t want A.I. making our food, even if it’s simply executing on the most mundane aspects or building blocks of a human chef’s vision, for the same reasons we don’t want A.I. creating the museum-bound paintings we revere or writing the stories we fall in love with: because high-end food, like these other examples, is art, and we want our art, no matter however flawed, to come from our fellow humans.
For further evidence, let’s consider the outrage concerning the opening credits to Secret Invasion, the latest Marvel show to stream on Disney+. The show’s creators enlisted A.I. to create the trippy opening credits, and the Internet was not happy, with people taking to Twitter to deride the sequence as “whack” and “dumb,” and saying—more ominously—that it signaled things being “actually over.”
Allow A.I. in the kitchens of haute cuisine, and I fear chefs would deal with a similar response. Thankfully, that’s an issue we’ll probably never face. I’m just fine with my steak arriving a tad too well done, providing a human made the error and not some snobby version of the Terminator in a toque.
Senior Product Manager
Blackbird Labs, Inc.