This week I attended the Smart Kitchen Summit, an event that focuses on the future of kitchens, cooking and food. There were speakers discussing big picture plans to connect the entire food chain so we can understand how weather and soil conditions where wheat is grown affect the nutritional content and taste of the bread in our supermarkets. Startups building sensors that can determine the nutritional content of our food demoed their wares. Large appliance companies discussed ways to make cooking easier for novices or time-pressed families.
But aside from a few throwaway lines about the emotional and cultural importance of food, the focus was on tech. The end goal for many of the folks there seemed to be about taking the cooking out of cooking and making eating almost medicinal.
For example, a huge theme this year (and in previous years) was bringing automation and computer intelligence to the cooking process. In past years I’ve broken it down into elements such as inventory, meal planning, food prep, consumption and then nutrition tracking. This year the five elements were different.
A panelist suggested that creating smarter kitchens and making cooking easier might be more akin to autonomous driving: Much like there are five different government-defined levels for autonomous cars, cooking and food production might need a similar framework. In the vehicular world, Level 2 automation means that the car can handle two functions like lane changes and cruise control. The goal is Level 5 automation where the car drives itself, doesn’t even need a steering wheel and does it in every condition.
In food prep, Level 5 automation might be something like a computer that automatically prepares the food you request or it may even be a computer that performs an analysis and prepares the food you need (that’s the part of food becoming almost medicinal). But cooking and food prep isn’t just about nutrition or even just about eating.
Cooking is an expression of culture, of love, of individuality and at different times it may be all or none of these things. An engineer working through lunch might suck down a Soylent (perhaps produced through some kind of Level 5 automation) but then head home that evening to produce a home-cooked meal from scratch for her family.
Right now, most of the tech in this space seems focused on automating one or two aspects of cooking, such as meal planning and inventory (Blue Apron) or the act of cooking (June oven or the Heston Cue). This leaves consumers interested in kitchen tech buying something that will only solve one of their problems. Compounding this is that on one day ingredient prep may be the roadblock to a healthy home-cooked meal, while on another it might be the cooking process itself.
The smarter bets in connected cooking are probably less about fancy gadgets trying to replicate Level 5 and more about solving two core problems that any cook bumps into whether they love or hate cooking. The first is meal planning. The second is learning how to cook.
Meal planning is probably the toughest thing for novices to handle and is an excellent place to start throwing computing power because it doesn’t rely on robots, just an understanding of patterns and ingredients. Computers are good at this! Where they need help is understanding food databases, diets and recipes. There’s a lot of work happening on this, from Google’s new food cards to startups like Wellio.
The second aspect of learning how to cook is somewhat tougher but still do-able. This requires the knowledge of recipes and techniques and precision sensors to understand when the proper results are achieved. Startups producing sous vide machines, connected ovens with cameras inside, and even the cheese sniffing robot from Aryballe have something to offer here. Even devices like the Oliver from Else Labs, the Thermomix (it’s huge in Europe) and the GammaChef might fit into this category.
The challenge with many of these is they want to automate cooking instead of just help people prepare better food. I’m not sure that a smart kitchen is one where robots cook for you. Instead, it’s one where robots help plan the meal and ensure that the bread doesn’t burn and your hollandaise sauce turns out the same way every time.