will robots and high tech one day replace chefs?

The fashion for molecular cuisine has brought high-tech machines into the kitchen. For some chefs, these smart robots boost creativity. Others do not hesitate to speak of gadgets that erase any personality. Behind the scenes investigation.

It all started with the espuma. Suddenly it was realized that it was possible to transform the most diverse ingredients into a light mousse: vegetables, fruits, spices, cheese, biscuits, and even fish and meat. For this, a special device came into play: a pressurized stainless steel bottle, comparable to a bottle of whipped cream.

The idea came from Ferran Adrià, the Spanish chef of the once world-famous El Bulli restaurant. This concept has conquered the world in record time. Every cook worth their salt has wanted to include an espuma in a dish, preferably from an ingredient no one has used before.

I use devices mainly to attract attention, to create surprise effects. But respect for the ingredient remains the most important thing.

Gert De Mangeleer, Hertog Jan

Today, this technique no longer surprises anyone. But Ferran Adrià has inspired a new generation of cooks around the world. Culinary creativity is no longer limited to the combination of ingredients, it also involves new cooking techniques that modify the texture and even the molecular structure of products and intensify taste sensations. The company International Cooking Concepts, founded in Barcelona, ​​was launched to make the innovative ideas of chefs possible by developing high-tech appliances.

Gert De Mangeleer from Hertog Jan opted for high-tech in his kitchen early on. “The goal was to be at the forefront of the trend,” he explains. But respecting the ingredient remains the most important thing in my eyes. I’m not looking for the show, but the contrasts between tender and crispy, hot and cold, sweet and sour, terroir and modern. And devices can be helpful in this quest. In fact, I mainly use them to attract attention, to create surprise effects. But in general, I strive for purity and balance.”

© Illustrations Flore Deman

Two men, one machine

Shortly after Ferran Adrià, the Roca brothers from Girona established themselves in the world of gastronomy. They were all the rage with their El Celler de Can Roca table, especially because they cooked at low temperatures. With this technique, the ingredients do not lose moisture, the aromas and tastes are preserved or even enhanced, and the texture remains intact, even after long hours of cooking.

Normally, cooking at low temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria. This is why Joan Roca – together with Narcis Caner from the restaurant La Fonda Caner – developed the technique of sous vide cooking. The two chefs created a device called Roner: a contraction of their two names, Roca and Caner. It’s the beginning of a new era: that of cooking below the boiling point.

This machine is actually an electronically controlled hot water bath. An ingredient – ​​meat, fish, vegetables, fruit – is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and placed in water. The temperature and cooking time are then set. The process is reminiscent of the classic bain-marie, with the difference that the temperature can be much lower, and that it is moreover maintained with extreme precision throughout the entire volume of water. This extreme precision makes it possible to cook a soft-boiled egg by cooking only the white: the white of the egg solidifies at 62°C whereas it takes 64°C to harden the yolk.

The Roner has been very well received by chefs around the world. Suddenly the fish could be cooked evenly without falling apart, and the meat was tender from the outside to the core without drying out or burning. Perfection, hitherto almost unattainable with traditional techniques such as frying and baking, seemed within reach. And this technique impresses customers.

Small practical advantage: the entire cooking process can be regulated electronically, so that the cook does not have to constantly monitor his preparations, as is the case with conventional cooking methods. Fish and meat can also be prepared for a whole week and the vacuum bags keep in the refrigerator. At the time of service, the contents are then cooked or reheated. In short, the Roner saves labour, time, personnel and therefore money. So many arguments that encourage cooks to get one.

the leader of tomorrow high tech robot
illustration Flora Deman © Illustrations Flore Deman

Take time

There are also other low-temperature cooking technologies, such as Alto-Shaam: Alto stands for “Always Low Temperature Oven”, and Shaam is the inversion of Maahs, the inventor’s surname. Originally, it was a so-called “Cook & Hold” oven intended to keep dishes warm until ready to serve. But today, the Alto-Shaam is increasingly used to continue cooking a piece of meat at low temperatures. There are also so-called slow cooking ovens, specifically designed for temperatures below 100°C.

Note that Spain seems to be a mecca for technology, since the Gastrovac was also born from the minds of two Spanish chefs, Javier Andrés and Sergio Torres. The two brothers worked on their invention with the University of Valencia. There is again talk of sous vide cooking, but here the bags are superfluous: all the oxygen is taken out of the device itself. Therefore, it is possible to cook at a lower temperature, but also to fry at 90°C, for example. The oil no longer burns, and the flavors and nutritional value of the fried ingredient are preserved.

In addition, this device makes it possible to impregnate the ingredients better and more quickly in a liquid. Indeed, passing from an oxygen-free environment to a normal situation, the products absorb the surrounding humidity: the result is a concentration of flavor that is not possible with traditional marinades or macerations.

© Illustrations Flore Deman

Induction cooking – in which heat is generated by an electromagnetic field – is a technology for reaching higher temperatures faster than with gas or electricity. An important advantage is that almost no ambient heat is dispersed, allowing chefs to work in a cooler kitchen.

Kitchen in laboratory

However, not all chefs are fond of high technology in the kitchen. The starred David Martin of La Paix strongly opposes it. He is convinced that cooks use the Roner just because it makes their job easier: “The chef doesn’t need to cook anymore, by the way: he doesn’t even need to know how to cook anymore. A real pro experiments with different techniques for different ingredients and preparations, he tests, compares and tastes, then makes the best choice.

But this tradition is being lost: hop, hop, hop, everything in the Roner. It’s no longer cooking. When I eat somewhere, I want to feel the talent of the cook, his personality, his temperament, his emotion. A machine will never give me that.”

‘When I eat somewhere, I want to feel the talent of the cook, his personality, his temperament, his emotion. A Roner will never give me that.’

David Martin, Peace

Michaël Vrijmoed, from the eponymous restaurant in Ghent, talks about the risk of “soulless perfection”. “I’m happy to have started my career when there was no high technology, he confides, because I still know the classic techniques. But I understand that cooks use them. Especially if they have to prepare large quantities or if they are understaffed. Technology can then be very useful.”

Disappointing results

And besides, technology and perfection do not always go hand in hand. Originally, the Roner was mainly used for ingredients that our grandmothers already knew had to be simmered for a long time over low heat, such as meat with a lot of connective tissue (pork chops, oxtail, lamb, shoulder of lamb).

“But this new device is so practical and easy that it has gradually been used for products that don’t really suit it,” explains Wim Vanleuven, importer of Spanish wines, but also of Iberian cooking technologies. “The time and temperature are also not always set correctly, nor adapted to the ingredient.” The results are then disappointing: game with the taste of liver, meat transformed into tasteless and structureless matter, sterile fish and shellfish without taste or bite. Dishes that seem to come out of a laboratory rather than a restaurant kitchen.

© Illustrations Flore Deman

Back to basics

Despite the skepticism of some chefs and the horrors that sometimes come out of the machines, culinary technology is advancing. What’s on the menu soon? The Pacojet, to make an airy and creamy mousse from frozen ingredients using a diamond blade. The Rowzer, which turns frozen food into ice cream or sorbet. The Teppan Nitro, variant of the Japanese plancha Teppan Yaki, which, instead of briefly frying the ingredients on both sides, freezes them.

The Bamix, a high-speed manual mixer, makes it possible to whip ultra-light emulsions. The Thermomix, a mixer that can heat at the same time, which allows you to make emulsions and mousses. Rotaval enhances the flavors of ingredients or infuses them with other flavors. Among the new technological processes, there is also the extraction of aromas and flavors by ultrasonic vibrations, a technique used by Sang Hoon Degeimbre of L’Air du Temps, among others.

Technology isn’t everything

Sam Van Houcke, from the Ghent restaurant Maste, regularly takes part in international competitions and sees how important it has become for chefs to be at the cutting edge of technology. Amateurs trying to cook like a restaurant shouldn’t be frustrated if they can’t put on the plate what the pros can do: it takes cutting-edge technology.

But the interested party believes that this is not everything: “For me, the taste comes first. Improper use of the machines can lead to an alteration of flavors. I therefore notice a return to fundamentals in more and more competitions. And Gert De Mangeleer concludes: “It always starts with the product itself. If it is not of quality, technology cannot do anything.”

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