I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's Only Money

Last night I watched the first episode of Junior Master Chef with my kids. I was truly astounded at the skill shown by these kids - they were making things which even I think are pretty complicated. Baklava, gnocchi, poached eggs with truffle, a pomegranate and walnut dish... and even a beef dish which was a roll filled with cheese, soft boiled egg, and so on. Seriously, these kids could put quite a few adult chefs to shame. It was an absolute pleasure to watch (except for George's incessant arm waving and his irritating talking-slash-shouting style of speech). These kids were all so excited about food, excited to show off their skills and proud of themselves for having made it this far. Almost every kid talked about their family being proud of them for getting into the Top 50, and about how they love cooking and love food. Truly it warmed the cockles of my somewhat jaded food industry heart.

And then...and this being MY blog, you know there is an "...and THEN...." :)

Today I went to the Fine Food Australia show, which is an industry-only event showcasing all manner of food products, food machinery and related stuff. Today I saw an oven which requires NO skill to operate, beyond pressing buttons. Literally. You slide in a tray of fish, select "skin on fish" and then "well cooked" and then walk away. No need to do anything else, it just sensor-cooks everything...and I mean everything, from croissants to beef roasts to cheesecake to potatoes. Monkeys could do it.

I was at the show with a friend of mine (also a chef), and we were commenting on the preponderance of "monkey cooking" machines and gadgets they had. The thing is, I totally understand the need for efficiency, and precision, and making more money through reduction of waste (either product or time.) I also understand that the hospitality industry suffers from a constant skill shortage - there are just very few skilled people out there, and the ones who are skilled often don't make enough money to survive, or burn out easily because of the difficult nature of the job. I won't even begin to talk about the training which is available for chefs (long time readers will remember my complaints of useless students and useless teachers.) So I can actually understand why there is a perceived need for these machines in the first place. We need machines which don't require trained people to use them. I get it.

It makes perfect economic sense that these machinery companies are spruiking products which require less time and less skill to actually operate. However you can't help but notice what is happening in the food world around us - Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food, the preponderance of Slow Food events, the popping up of farmer's markets, the push for sustainable food supplies, the concern about things like food miles. We are all busy trying to return to the earth, return to cooking skills of old, embrace cooking as not only a skill but a lifestyle....and yet, the industry would appear to be clamouring for yet more machines which make things faster and cheaper.

It also did not escape my notice that said machines cost thousands and thousands of dollars (many of them in 6 figure sums.) You might argue that they cost so much because over the space of 2,4, 10 years - they'll be saving you that much and more. And it's entirely possible that they WILL save you the money and time they promise to... but it's also entirely possible that you'll be "saving" the industry from having to produce and employ capable, passionate cooks.

...and that, my friends, is no savings at all.


Cameron said...

These machines may cost several thousands now, but I'd be willing to wager that they'll be available at consumer prices in the next 10 years if it really works as well as advertised. Based on the performance of the 'popcorn' button on most microwaves, I remain a sceptic.

That being said, I don't know if I'd fear, personally. Isn't putting the thing in the oven, setting the temperature and figuring out how long, really the least interesting part of the cooking/baking process? To look on the bright side, wouldn't inventions like these free the great chefs of the world to focus on other details? The best case scenario of devices like these is that it turns mediocre cooks into good ones, good ones into great ones, and great ones into even greater chefs. Would raising the bar on cuisine all around be a bad thing?

In my industry (software development) there is a trend towards automating the creation of certain types of applications, but it has done nothing but increase demand for developers, especially smart ones, as the bar for what an application needs to do in order to be competitive has risen.

Maybe I'm not seeing the big picture, but isn't the real enemy McDonalds and the other industrialized fast food restaurants, which already employ a robot army of cooking machinery?

emzeegee & the hungry three said...

Figuring out how long it takes to cook something isn't all that interesting, but it's certainly a basic skill for cooks to have. I can think of at least two reasons: 1) Not every kitchen you work in will own the "cook itself" shmancy oven. What do you do when you need to bake something but have no idea how long to cook it for? and 2) Consumer safety. Suppose I assume the oven knows how to cook chicken (as it's advertised to be able to do)...but I have NO idea of knowing if that chicken is cooked, or even if the machine did it's job. Just because it LOOKS cooked doesn't mean it IS, nor does it mean it's cooked to the right degree. For my money I want a chef who can tell the difference between sending out salmonella and sending out a decent meal.

The great chefs of the world are able to focus on details because they already know the basics. Shmancy foams and sauces won't do you any good if you cannot actually cook the meal in the first place.

...and as for McDonald's, you might be surprised to know that ex-fast food cooks are highly regarded in the food industry as good employees. Not so much for their ability to press buttons to cook, but because they are all excellent at following procedures, working within a hierarchical system, cleaning thoroughly and being aware of food wastage (and hence loss) issues.

Maybe I'm a pleb, but I just think you cannot replace good, basic skills and knowledge of food with fancy machines.