Monday, December 16, 2013

Food Automatons: Machines Cooking Zi Char For You?

I just read this article (screenshot above):

The TungLok Group has added three Artificial Intelligence Cooking (AIC) machines. They can stirfry your ee-fu noodles and gongbao chicken.

At first I baulked at it, recalling the Ruyi Kitchen automated wok machine. The mechanical arm tossing fried rice in a wok. Gosh, machines can never replace the artistry of the cook. Does it not take the heart and soul out of cooking? Then I saw the video. Hey, that rolling hot barrel is pretty neat. Just the thing you need when cooking for a big party. It does save a lot of elbow grease, and sweat too, in front of that hot wok!

Cooking for big numbers is clearly what TungLok does in its 15,000 square feet central kitchens. I googled and found out more about their automated processes, which are supposed to make food preparation cheaper, better and faster.

From the SPRING press release, it's said that the gains are numerous:

"More than 75 products are prepared daily at TungLok’s central kitchen including semi-processed food, sauces, soups and dim sum. The high volume of food production made it more economical for TungLok to invest in automation. This has subsequently enabled the food preparation processes in the various outlets’ kitchens to be simplified and less labour-intensive. As a result, more employees at the outlets can be redeployed to better serve customers instead.

An example of TungLok’s automation is the “Char Siew Bao" 2 maker, which can produce close to 1,000 pieces per hour, with only six employees. Previously, the manual method, by hand, required 20 highly trained employees to produce the same quantity and quality. With the maker, TungLok’s value-added per worker increased by three times for that section.

The use of specialised equipment has also cut down food preparation time. For example, it now only takes two hours to boil soup using a pressure cooker, as compared to the conventional way of boiling which takes eight hours. Automatic cookers with robotic stirrers are able to prepare large volumes of sauces and soup broths, with very minimal supervision from TungLok’s employees."

Wow, now you know how your food gets prepared at TungLok.

Personally, while I'm all for productivity gains, I'm still a little skeptical when it comes to food. The most important ingredient in cooking (err, not to quote Stephen Chow in his God of Cookery movie) is "heart".

But then again, human beings do make crappy food too. And good cooks can have bad days. At least a machine is consistent. So, maybe it's good enough food at a good value price that wins the day.


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