The Robot Chef: FAQs

Many of you have by now seen the Moley robotic kitchen, which was revealed two weeks ago at Hannover Messe. I was hired as a development chef for the project and ultimately became a sort of spokesperson for it. My role was, in fact, quite limited when compared to the work done by the robot programmers and technicians at Shadow Robot, the company that designed and built the extremely sophisticated robot hands that make human-like cooking possible. I was really just hired to cook and fine-tune the food itself – a few trial recipes to begin with, and then several run-throughs of the first dish we decided on: a crab bisque. Though I have been involved with the project since autumn of last year, I only spent a couple weeks in total working on it. It was the people at Shadow who really put in the hours, especially as we approached the launch date, when they seemingly never stopped working. Those guys all looked pretty damn tired by the time we got to Hannover.

But despite my rather limited role and knowledge, I have been approached for a lot of interviews about the robot over the past couple weeks. I suppose this is because most journalists are more interested in the implications this has for the future of both professional and domestic cookery than they are about the technical aspects of the robot, which are quite… technical. I have noticed some of the same questions cropping up again and again, so I figured I’d address them myself here. This is also to clarify and correct some things that have been misreported entirely (for example, Engadget said that I designed the robot) or otherwise needlessly editorialised with uninformed speculation or testimonies from people who are not involved with (and have never even seen) the robot.

I should also note that these are not responses fed to me by a PR person. These are my own perspectives on the robotic kitchen that I’ve arrived at having seen what it can do, and having thought about these issues quite a bit.

How does it work?

The robot cooks using only pre-programmed movements; it has no sensors of any kind. Everything the robot does must first be done by a human (in this case, me) to ‘teach’ it how to move in certain ways. To do this, the robotics team set up two identical kitchen layouts in their workshop, one for the robot, and one for myself. With the ingredients and utensils laid out in precise locations on the worktop, I strapped on some motion-capture gloves and wristbands and cooked through the recipe as 3D cameras recorded my actions and automatically transposed them onto the robotic hands across from me. For the most part, I cooked naturally, as I usually would, but I had to make slight changes to my movements to accommodate the robot. For example, its grip is different from that of a human, so I had to hold a spatula differently from how I would normally, and I had to remain within a set area within the work station, outside of which the robot could not reach.

After recording the recipe five times, my work was essentially done until several months later when I had to come back and adjust the bisque’s flavor. But in those several months, the robotics team put together the smoothest, cleanest, most accurate movements that I made and tweaked them, often down to the millimeter, to ensure that the robot’s actions were always successful, since it had to operate without sensing or human guidance. And now we have a robot that will make an excellent crab bisque, using only rote actions, every time.

So it only makes a crab bisque?

Yes, for now. Bear in mind that what has been launched in Hannover is a proof-of-concept prototype, not a finished model for consumers. However, the process of making a crab bisque contains important actions, such as stirring, dosing, blending, and ladling, that could be remixed to create dozens, maybe hundreds more dishes. For example, if you were to stop the crab bisque program midway through, you would have a simple pasta sauce of butter, shallots, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and vermouth. If you were to use chickpeas instead of crabmeat and a blend of spices instead of salt and pepper, you could produce a chana masala.

There is obviously an enormous amount of movements that have to be programmed into the robot’s repertoire to enable it to cook with anywhere even close to the same range that a human has. But even with just the same movements that go into making a bisque, there is the potential to make a very wide selection of other dishes.

How is it different from previous examples of kitchen automation?

For the most part, kitchen automation in the past has taken the form of machines that only do one thing, or just a few of things. The most rudimentary things we might call ‘kitchen robots’ are perhaps rice cookers or toasters. Modern rice cookers often use computer-assisted moisture and temperature sensors to automatically adjust heat and timing to cook rice in a way that corrects variables like starting temperature and how quickly the rice absorbs water. Similarly, state-of-the-art toasters use light sensors to gauge the color of the bread inside, producing toast that is evenly and consistently toasted to the operator’s liking. Both of these are pretty cool. But ultimately, they only do one thing: make rice or make toast. Far more sophisticated examples would be the Japanese okonomiyaki and ramen robots, but although their movements are more impressive and the end products are far more complex, they are still only really capable of doing one thing.

The crux of what makes the Moley robot innovative and groundbreaking is the use of robotic hands. The robotic kitchen is the brainchild of Mark Oleynik, who was very astute in his assessment that human hands are the most important cooking tool we have; we use them for everything. So Mark’s stroke of genius was to use robot hands, which are potentially limitless in their capabilities, instead of a range of gadgets that are only capable of a few different tasks. Of course, the existing robotic hands are not quite as subtle or responsive as actual human hands, so there are still limitations. But personally, I believe they can be overcome. One chef who was (inexplicably) approached for an interview about the robot kitchen defied it to make sushi, claiming it is too delicate a process. But actually, sushi robots already exist, and robotic hands will only improve the quality of sushi produced through automation.

So if it can do anything and everything, does this mean it will replace professional chefs and home cooks?

Mostly no. (But possibly, in certain situations, yes.)

On the domestic front, this will not keep anyone from cooking when they want to cook. It isn’t intended, nor do I think it will be used, as something that will eliminate home cooking. What it is meant to do is give people a new option for when they cannot or don’t want to cook; if it replaces anything, it will be ready meals and takeaways. I love to cook, but I don’t always love to cook; sometimes, I’m too tired or too busy. The robotic kitchen would help in these instances, and would not detract from others. Whereas I may now resort to poor-quality food that has been pre-made and packaged, or delivered from a questionable local restaurant, in the future I could have the robot make a good meal from fresh ingredients. The kitchen is designed for human use first, and robot use second; it will allow you to cook when you can, and be cooked for when you can’t. I should also point out that the robot can collaborate in the kitchen; it can cook part of a recipe, allowing a human to do the rest, and it can also teach human cooks new techniques for them to use in the future.

As for professional settings, there are a number of reasons why the robot probably won’t replace working chefs in any significant way. Professional cooks rely on very human attributes to succeed in their job. They must constantly look, smell, feel, listen to, and of course taste what they are cooking in order to assess the food and adjust their actions accordingly as they go. This is down to the irregular nature of ingredients and the speed at which professional kitchens move. There is no time for a chef who didn’t cook an onion properly because it failed to understand that it didn’t chop it right in the first place, and then wasn’t able to intuitively account for differences in that onion’s size, sugar content, moisture content, etc. that may cause it cook (or burn) at a different rate. Professional kitchens are places where quick reactions to new, surprising situations are crucial; this sort of intuition will be beyond the robot’s abilities for a very, very long time. There is, of course, capacity for the robot to take on some of the repetitive drudge work in the kitchen, like basic prep and cleaning. But even these tasks require an ability to see and understand what is happening; dicing a banana and washing dishes will are basic tasks, for sure, but it won’t be easy for the robot to comprehend when it has just chopped a bruised banana or missed a spot of egg yolk on a plate. I believe the robot can and will be used for certain jobs in professional kitchens, but they will arrive so gradually and in such a minor way that any job replacement will hardly be noticed.

And even if the robot can be made just as intuitive and dextrous as a human cook, there are two reasons why it will never come to replace humans entirely. Firstly, it cannot create new dishes. To be able to combine or recombine ingredients and techniques, to improvise with flavors, and to gauge the seasoning and balance of a finished dish is beyond the robot. This means, at the very least, we will always need humans to create dishes and ‘teach’ them to the robot. Secondly, humans value things that are handmade because they are handmade. There’s an awful lot of things that could be produced entirely through automation– everything from beer to furniture –but they aren’t. Often, this is because the end product won’t be as good, but possibly more often it’s because we appreciate the idea that what we consume has been produced with craftsmanship, knowledge, and passion, by a human being.

I may be wrong about all of this. Perhaps someday the robotic kitchen will be so sophisticated that its output and creative capabilities will be indistinguishable from that of a human. But having witnessed firsthand what the robot can and can’t do (albeit at a very early stage), this seems extremely unlikely.

Is it safe?

Yes. A few articles have insinuated that if a pet or even a human were to get in the way of the robot, it could be harmed or killed. This is simply untrue. Even in its current, prototypical form, the robot kitchen is outfitted with a plexiglass shield that closes in front of the unit to keep out curious cats or wandering hands so they don’t get in harm’s way. When the unit is launched for consumers, the robot will not operate unless this shield is closed, nor will it operate if it detects any foreign object in the kitchen. It will be no more dangerous than a food processor. Maybe less so.

If you have any other questions I haven’t covered, please do leave a comment!

 

#Cornography Day 90 (THE END): Baked Salmon with Miso-Roasted Vegetables and Hyugarashi Corn Salsa

Well guys, this is it. The challenge is over. I’ve won the bet, and soon I’ll have a brand new used PlayStation 3 to show for it.

image

I had hoped to go out on a bang – cook something really special, maybe even a multi-course corn feast. But alas, my schedule has been a bit hectic lately, and having only arrived back in town from Germany this afternoon at 3:00, a big, complicated dinner just wasn’t going to happen. In fact, I didn’t even cook. Laura did. Or at least she mostly did. I made the corn part. Laura dressed cauliflower, broccoli, onions, and mushrooms with a light miso-and-oil mixture. They were then roasted at 200ºC for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, she baked some salmon and I made a corn salsa: corn, Hyugarashi, and a little splash of fish sauce. It was a delight. The salsa was hot and tangy, a perfect foil to the oily fish and the sweet, rich vegetables.

image


In retrospect, this challenge was (mostly) a lot of fun. If there’s one important lesson to be learned from the whole thing, it’s that when you really focus on something, and look at it from all possible angles, that one thing can actually open up virtually limitless possibilities. I’ve done a lot with corn over the past three months. But really, I barely scratched the surface. To be honest, there are still canned corn dishes I actually want to try that I didn’t get around to making. The weirdest thing is, I’m not even really sick of it.

I also hope I’ve inspired some of you to revisit our old friend canned corn. It’s surprisingly good, and incredibly versatile. Even Laura has come around to it – maybe she’s acquired the taste, or maybe she’s just come to appreciate how many ways it can be made delicious. Today I’ve come up with a list of my top ten #cornography dishes, and I have to say, it wasn’t easy! There were many more hits than misses. But here they are:

Thanks to everyone for supporting me along the way, and for your concern about my digestive system (it’s fine).

Now then. I’m off to play some outdated video games! Adios, amigos.

#Cornography Day 89: Crab Bisque with Corn

On this, the penultimate day (!) of Cornography, I find myself in Hannover, Germany. I’ve been sourcing ingredients for a demo next week, at the launch of one of the coolest projects I’ve ever been involved with. What it is, I cannot divulge. But all will be revealed next Tuesday.

image

I can divulge that it involves crab bisque. I ran through the recipe today, which includes butter, shallots, garlic, cherry tomatoes, vermouth, cream, tarragon, truffle oil, and white and dark crabmeat. When it was finished, I added some corn. Corn and crab is always a good combo; this was no exception. Not an improvement, I must say, on the original recipe,  but certainly a lovely and luxurious way to get my corn in.

image

Now then. Roll on day 90…

Nanban: Calendar of Events

Photo of ingredients from Nanban by the great Paul Winch-Furness.

Photo of ingredients from Nanban by the great Paul Winch-Furness.

This is shaping up to be quite a busy and exciting month with activity surrounding the publication of my cookbook, Nanban: Japanese Soul Food! If you haven’t already, you can pre-order it here or here. And you can also come and get one or just say hi at any of these awesome events!

10-11 April: BBC Good Food Show Spring
Harrogate

I’ll be there on Friday and Saturday signing books and doing interviews and stuff. The Good Food Shows are great fun anyway, so you should definitely swing by if you’re in the area!

14 April: Hannover Messe
Hannover

Since autumn of last year, I’ve been working on some super-secret sci-fi stuff. I had to sign an NDA so I can’t talk about it, but we are launching it at Hannover Messe next week! And it is AWESOME. Probably the coolest project I’ve ever worked on. But I don’t want to oversell it. If you’re in Germany, just come see for yourself. I’ll be at stand E84 in hall 17 on the 14th.

16 April: Talk and Tasting at Stanfords
Covent Garden

Publication day! To celebrate, I’m hosting a talk and tasting (including the exquisite Nanhattan cocktail) at the great travel bookshop Stanfords. Tickets are only £3! Why wouldn’t you come?!

17-19 and 24-26 April: United Ramen × Nanban Pop-up
Islington

I’ll be working alongside United Ramen’s head chef Girish Gopalakrishnan at their site in Islington, serving a special selection of dishes from the cookbook alongside UR’s standard offerings. The menu will include Nanban classics like yaki-curry, chanpon, kake-ae, and of course, shochu!

21 and 28 April: United Ramen × Nanban Tasting Menus
Islington

In addition to the Nanban a la carte menus served on the weekends, on each following Tuesday, Girish and I will be serving special tasting menus of brand new collaborative dishes, bringing together the flavors of Nanban and United Ramen. Hatchō miso duck ramen, curry goat tsukemen, ume-katsuo cucumber salad, and Okinawan sugar and kinako mochi ice cream sundaes are all involved. These events will be ticketed and are limited to just 36 seats each day, so snap ’em up!

23 April: Talk and Tasting at Topping and Co.
Bath

The lovely folks at Topping and Co. in Bath are hosting an intimate event where I talk and cook, and you listen and EAT!

30 April: JNTO Yaki-Curry Competition Closes

The Japan National Tourism Organization is offering a chance for you to win a copy of my book. For FREE! All you have to do is make yaki-curry (recipe in link above), snap a photo of it, and share it with me and the JNTO on social media. We’ll choose the best-looking dish as a winner. And even if you lose, you still get delicious yaki-curry.

7 May: Beer and Japanese Soul Food Masterclass at Divertimenti
Kensington

Beer and Japanese soul food: this is me, in a masterclass. Participants will learn to cook three southern Japanese dishes, and then enjoy them with lovely craft beers selected by yours truly. If I weren’t hosting, I would totally sign up for this.

That’s it for now, but there will be more to come in the summertime as well. Check back here or follow me on Twitter for updates!

#Cornography Day 88: Beefed Corn Hash

You’ve heard of corned beef hash, but have you heard of beefed corn hash? I guess you have now.

DSC_0845

I cut a thick slice of the leftover roast sirloin from Sunday, and trimmed off the band of fat along the top. I cut the fat into small chunks and put them in a hot pan to render. I then added sliced onions, Seasoned Salt, and LOTS of black pepper, and let the onions brown. I added corn and let that brown as well. Meanwhile, I poached an egg. To finish the hash I added some beef juice from the container it was in along with a little Tabasco and miso mustard. Lastly, I stirred in strips of the lean meat from the sirloin, off the heat, so they didn’t overcook. I put everything in a bowl and topped it with a little aonori and katsuobushi. It was rich and sweet and strong, like a bowl of filthy cheeseburger. The meat was tender and juicy and full of flavor. It was extremely fortifying and delicious.

Japanese Soul Food: Key Ingredients

Clockwise from left: soy sauce, rice vinegar, shochu, mirin, dashi powder, miso, and yuzu-koshō. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness.

Clockwise from left: soy sauce, rice vinegar, shochu, mirin, dashi powder, miso, and yuzu-koshō. Photo by Paul Winch-Furness.

In Nanban, I spend a few pages detailing some of the most important ingredients for Japanese home cooking. I begin with five essential items: soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, miso, and dashi powder. With these five ingredients in your cupboard, you will be able to create a huge range of Japanese dishes, sauces, and seasonings by combining them in different ways, and almost all of them are now widely available at big supermarkets.

I would highly recommend buying a good-quality Japanese brand of soy sauce; Kikkoman is common, and though it is more expensive, its flavor is superior; balanced, fresh, and aromatic. For mirin and rice vinegar, usually own-brand supermarket varieties are absolutely fine, but if you have a choice, I would recommend Takara Hon Mirin and Clearspring Brown Rice Vinegar. With miso, there are so many varieties and flavors out there, I’d suggest you buy a few to try, and choose whichever you like best. I like Hikari Awase Miso as a go-to, all-purpose miso; it is very well balanced between the light, sweet freshness of white miso and the rich, fruity, malty flavor of red miso. It works well in just about everything, including desserts. Dashi powder is probably the only ingredient you’ll have trouble finding at a big supermarket, but any Asian grocer should have it, and it really is fundamental. I prefer Shimaya, but this is also often a matter of buying a few kinds and figuring out which you like best.

(By the way, it is far, far more common for home cooks in Japan to use dashi powder instead of fresh, homemade dashi, since it is so convenient, cheap, and generally quite tasty. But if you’d prefer to make dashi from scratch – and everyone should try it at least once – you will need kombu and katsuobushi instead.)

Yuzu-koshō

Yuzu-koshō in situ. The label reads: ‘The aroma of home! Miyazaki: the land of yuzu.’ Photo by Paul Winch-Furness.

On top of these ingredients, I also recommend two more if you’d like to inflect your Japanese cooking with a distinctly southern accent: yuzu-koshō and shochu. Yuzu-koshō is a highly aromatic condiment made by pounding fresh yuzu peel together with hot chillies and salt. After a period of ageing, the resulting paste has a delightfully resinous, herbal aroma and a powerful tangy-pungent-salty flavor. Just a quarter of a teaspoon or so is all you need to lift a bowl of porky ramen. It also tastes great with chocolate. Kyushu is known generally for its delicious citrus fruits and its chilli-spiked dishes like karashi mentaiko and motsunabe, and specifically for its yuzu-koshō, so buy a jar and experiment with it to get an idea of what sets southern Japanese food apart.

Shochu, the spirit of Kyushu, is sometimes used in cooking, but really you should just buy a bottle to have with the meal. It is stronger than sake, distilled rather than just fermented, and can be made using a variety of methods and a virtually limitless range of ingredients. In Kyushu, the most popular shochu is distilled from sweet potatoes, which give the finished product a sort of nutty and sometimes smoky flavor. The aroma of any given shochu is also strongly influenced by what kind of mold (kōji) is used to kick off its fermentation. For example, ‘white’ mold tends to be cleaner, fresher, and more floral; ‘black’ mold is often richer and earthier, reminiscent of fermenting fruit. There are two good entry-level shochu I’d recommend, depending on your taste for booze. If you like the light, clean flavors of vodka or premium sake, go for Unkai, a smooth, bright, floral buckwheat shochu that works very well in cocktails. If you’re more of a single malt whisky fan, try Kuro Kirishima, a black mold sweet potato shochu with a strong, funky, slightly peaty, overripe melon flavor. They will both be good for cooking, either in place of mirin or in recipes that call for it specifically, like tonkotsu, a sweet miso-and-shochu pork rib stew from Kagoshima.

Japan Centre still has the best range in the country for any of these ingredients, and they’ll deliver basically anywhere. But have a close look at your nearest big supermarket or your local Asian food shop. You might be surprised at what you can find.

#Cornography Day 87: Thai Orchard’s Gaeng Pa with Corn

Our order from Thai Orchard on Friday night included gaeng pa, a light, brothy curry with a variety of vegetables. It wasn’t really punchy enough, but enjoyable all the same. The chunks of aubergine in particular were delicious, having absorbed masses of flavor from the lemongrass and galangal in the broth. Today I reheated the leftovers along with some corn, and little extra lime juice and a tiny pinch of Haimi. I topped it with a poached egg and some freshly ground sanshō. It was hot and sour and extremely filling thanks to all the veg, which still had plenty of texture.

image