About a week ago, my wife and I ate a meal that was entirely prepared by a robotic chef.
The GammaChef — a machine akin to a large coffee maker — did everything on its own. It heated the pot and added the ingredients — beef steak chunks, pasta, mushrooms, water, oil, seasonings and sauces — then stirred them until the meal was done. To my surprise, the food was delicious. The meat was perfectly cooked and tender, the pasta was al dente, and the aromas and flavors were rich. It was perfect.
Dražen Drnas and Đulijano Nola, the two Croatian entrepreneurs that built the GammaChef prototype and intend to launch it in the near future, weren’t surprised.
“We’ve pitted GammaChef against an actual human cook four times already, in a blind taste test. Every single time, our robot won — easily,” Nola told me during the 30 or so minutes it took for the robot to prepare the meal.
The meal preparation started with a verbal command, through an Amazon Echo that was wirelessly connected to the machine. We could have also done it through the mobile phone app, which is far along in development, or through the built-in touchscreen on the device itself.
Once the ingredients, which come in plastic cartridges of various sizes, are loaded into the GammaChef, you can have it cook even if you’re not around. Let’s say you’re returning home from work at 5 p.m., you could ask the GammaChef to have your meal ready by 5:10 p.m.
Suddenly, I’m no longer skeptical of a robot cooking my food. I’m interested.
The two entrepreneurs are based in Croatia’s town of Split, in the region of Dalmatia, widely regarded for its excellent food and wines. The duo’s background is tech, not food: One previous project of theirs is a real estate search engine, another is a local Groupon clone. First and foremost, they see the GammaChef, which has been in development for a few years now, as a fun challenge.
“Everyone who hears about the GammaChef thinks there’s some big secret about its development. But there’s none. In fact, it’s the thousands of little tweaks we’ve done that make it good,” says Drnas. “See this?” he says as he points to the silicone pot stirrer. “If it just went in regular circles, it wouldn’t be any good. We hired a mathematician to design a pattern for the stirrer so that the meal is always regularly stirred,” he says.
The GammaChef isn’t your typical humanoid butler. There are no big robot arms making a mess in your kitchen. Instead, it’s like a large food processor that’s almost fully automated. Once you’ve placed some food cartridges into the designated area on the top right area of the machine, it will scan them all to see which recipes are available. When that’s done, you can choose the recipe, and it’ll start cooking. You’ll also need to add the main ingredients — meet, fish, pasta, and such — into the three large containers on the top left, but that’s all you have to do; the robot will take care of everything else by itself. It cannot make you a steak or bake a cake; it’s limited to meals that can be cooked in a pot. Soup, goulash, pasta, brodetto, risotto — the selection is larger than you might think and potentially includes thousands of recipes.
“Look, we could tell you a thousand technical details about how we made this or that part work. But the main thing that makes this thing good is this: It cooks really, really tasty meals. Every single time, without errors,” Nola says.
He’s right. Had I been served the same meal at a restaurant, I would’ve sent my compliments to the chef. And in hindsight, it’s not that surprising. Cooking a good stew boils down (no pun intended) to adding good ingredients into the pot at the right time, at the right temperature, and then stirring until it’s done. Once you have the recipe nailed down, a machine can replicate it in exactly the same fashion every time, and provide a meal big enough for up to 5 people.
Still, it doesn’t sound like something that will impress anyone who likes to cook — I’ve heard enough stories about “magic” in the kitchen and secret recipes to know that many people will scoff at this level of cooking automation.
“Our robot cooks good food, period. Some people don’t have time to cook. For offices, this might be far more cost-effective than having everyone leave for an expensive lunch or order takeout. In restaurants, the GammaChef could lend a hand to the human cooks. There are lot of scenarios where the GammaChef makes sense,” Nola says.
“The question was: Can a robotic chef cook a good meal? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Everything else comes naturally,” Drnas says. “Everyone who saw it in action is interested in one way or another. Literally everyone.”
The GammaChef is still in development and there are still some details that need to be ironed out, but the founders have one important thing nailed down. They’ve partnered with one of Croatia’s largest food producers, Podravka, which will take care of the food cartridges and their ingredients. “Food is a tough business,” Nola says. “So Podravka’s expertise there is exactly what we needed. We take care of the software and the hardware, they take care of the food.”
The idea is to launch hubs in big cities through which GammaChef owners could order their cartridges and have them delivered to their doorstep. Food is delicate and in some cases spoils easily, so mail order is out of the question for now. “It’s going to be a slow process, but we’ll get there, one city at a time,” says Drnas.
The GammaChef that prepared my lunch is a prototype, one of two in existence. The final product is not on the market and the price hasn’t been set yet but it should be in the $2,000 ballpark. It’s a pretty penny for a household appliance but then again, for someone with limited time and/or cooking knowledge, it could be quite useful; for a small office, it could be a sound investment.