Story by Wired Magazine
The experimental chef has joined the board of Karakuri, a startup trying to automate the mass customisation of sandwiches and salads.
Credit: Daniel Stier
Heston Blumenthal flips through a small notebook. Inside are sketches and handwritten notes in beautiful calligraphy. On one page, he stops and indicates a mesh of thick scribbles that slowly resolves into the shape of a human skull. “Twenty-three degrees,” he says. “The angle that the spinal column enters the cranium is the same as the tilt of the earth on its axis.”
Blumenthal is one of Britain’s most famous chefs – his scientific, multi-sensory approach to cooking has won him critical acclaim, and a total of six Michelin stars for The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head in the Berkshire town of Bray, and Dinner in London. His signature is misdirection: a tangerine is shaped from chicken liver, playing cards melt into chocolate.
But he has a wide range of interests: over the course of a couple of hours in his company, conversation veers from toxoplasmosis – an infection caused by a cat-borne parasite that can cause neurological problems in humans – to the politics of fear and irritating airline safety videos.
His latest venture involves robotics. In October 2019, Blumenthal joined the board of Karakuri, a London-based startup that wants to bring robot arms to restaurant kitchens. Co-founders Barney Wragg and Simon Watt worked together at chip-maker ARM, and in the music industry at Universal, and have backing from Brent Hoberman, the co-founder of lastminute.com and chair of Founders Forum. Karakuri has raised more than £7m in funding, and has 20 employees based in a former bicycle factory near Hammersmith, in west London.
In one demonstration, a robotic arm turns and twists to collect pick’n’mix sweets from automated dispensers. In another, a precise amount of yoghurt and granola are added to a cereal bowl. Eventually, Wragg says, the system will be able to enable mass customisation of food at restaurants, cafes and sandwich shops. Pret could be about to get predictive.
“People are much more sensitive about allergens and how their diet makes them feel,” says Wragg. “That’s putting huge pressure on the day-to-day food industry because it requires a lot more configuration.”
Credit: Daniel Stier
Karakuri’s technology is based around off-the-shelf robotic arms, which are normally found on factory assembly lines. Its key intellectual property will be in developing the infrastructure that goes around them, and building dispensers that can tackle the varying attributes of different foodstuffs: figuring out, for example, exactly how long you have to squeeze a container of mayonnaise to get precisely ten grams, or how the viscosity of honey changes depending on the temperature it’s stored at.
Food-delivery firm Ocado has made a £6m investment, and will soon be installing a robot arm in its test kitchen, where it could be used to prepare customised meals for home delivery. Right now though, Karakuri is focused on resolving a staffing problem at quick-service vendors – the kind of places where you might grab a sandwich on your lunch break. “Those restaurants, by their very nature, become very repetitive, very hard places to work,” says Wragg. “The move towards customisation actually makes those jobs more boring, and more difficult, and people are making a decision with their feet not to take those types of jobs.”
Chains and supermarkets have become experts at predicting what demand for a particular sandwich filling will be on a certain day, but they still get things wrong. “There’s a huge amount of wastage in the food chain,” says Wragg. Customisation will help improve efficiency, and Wragg says that robotics will help accelerate the adoption of big data by putting sensors on the frontline. “It’s about knowing where things are, what state they’re in, when they were grown,” says Wragg. “A lot of the good that data is going to do will be around sustainability.”
Eventually, Blumenthal hopes that robotics and artificial intelligence could have a wider impact. “We eat too much,” he says. “We do not appreciate food, and we throw food away. We need to change our relationship with food.”
Connected sensors and robotics could enable a future where you can track in real-time how your body and the microbes in your gut react to certain types of food, and where your meals could be automatically designed with your happiness in mind. Blumenthal is adamant that this shouldn’t be about prescribing people the foods they “should” be eating, though. “It’s not telling you to eat more spirulina, or not to drink or not to eat sugar. All it’s doing is mirroring and giving you the opportunity to know more about yourself.”
It’s not just sandwiches and salads. At Michelin-star level, Blumenthal says robotics will free up chefs to be more creative – to try things they couldn’t before because they would have been too difficult for humans to measure accurately or replicate consistently. “Unknowingly I created the most consistently precise, linearly driven restaurant system that exists in the world,” says Blumenthal. “Let’s get robots to do the measurement stuff for us much better than we can do, and let’s allow human beings to be human.”
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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