‘Recipes are dead’: Future of cooking

  • Maura Judkis
  • Washington Post
Dec 27, 2017
The Innit app can control some smart ovens. CONTRIBUTED BY INNIT

There will be no more cookbooks from chef Tyler Florence. Sure, you’ve welcomed him into your home through his books “Tyler Florence Fresh” and “Dinner at My Place,” and such Food Network shows as “Tyler’s Ultimate.” But he will not print any more recipes. Why bother?

“I’ll publish a cookbook and I’ll have 125 recipes. People only use five,” he said. And they won’t even follow them: “They’ll use those as like a guide that they’ll kind of interchange different ingredients with.”

All of this has led Florence to a conclusion that seems unusual for a person who has spent his career producing recipes. “Recipes are dead,” said Florence. “They’re dead the same way paper maps are dead.”

Think about it: Maps help you find your destination, but it’s still pretty easy to get lost. But now we have GPS, which can precisely guide us to our location, automatically reroute us to avoid obstacles and tell us where to find gas or a sandwich along the way.

At the Smart Kitchen Summit in October, Florence announced that he had signed on with what he says will be the kitchen equivalent of GPS. He joined Innit, a start-up building a “connected food platform” — connecting the smart kitchen with software that aims to personalize and automate cooking. The company’s newly released app, the thing Florence thinks will be a recipe-killer, promises highly customizable “micro-cooking content.” It will offer thousands of permutations of meals, and it could preheat your oven, too. Eventually, it could go further — perhaps suggesting foods based on your genetic profile or how many steps your fitness tracker registered that day. It might be able to order your groceries or help you build your own meal kit. Someday, it might even know the entire contents of your fridge.

We have been writing recipes down for thousands of years. Yale University’s Babylonian Collection contains some of the world’s oldest, carved into three tablets from approximately 1700 B.C.

And recipes were similarly vague for the next few thousand years, because technique was something you learned from your mother. They’d call for “a piece of butter” or “more apples than onions,” but no quantities. Scientific precision entered the kitchen near the turn of the 20th century, introducing measurement, substitutions, calorie count and instruction.

The way we find and store recipes has evolved, too. But while the content on Epicurious or Allrecipes.com is easier to search, its recipes are still fixed entities. You can improvise, but you’re on your own.

Meanwhile, consumers have grown to expect customization at fast-casual restaurants: Choose your protein, some vegetables, some sides, and some sauces or garnishes.

That’s how Innit’s eponymous app will work, too, but it’s more elaborate. First, you input some basic information — whether you’re allergic to shellfish or on the Paleo Diet. Then you pick a style of dish, like pasta or a grain bowl, select from an array of ingredients, and Innit will configure a recipe — er, some micro-cooking content — for you. It’s launching with a couple of broad templates — a few swipes will transform a chicken taco to a beet-pineapple salsa lettuce wrap, for example — with more to come.

The recipes of the future won’t just be instructions for people. They’ll be instructions for appliances. Our devices will know more about how we cook.

It’s the concept of “the internet of actions,” said Sarah Smith, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. First, the internet connected us with information, and now, our objects can supply that information. The next step is for objects to perform tasks. After all, “a recipe is a series of instructions to take action,” Smith said. “The role of the recipe … becomes even more important when it’s fed into kitchen systems that are acting on your behalf.”

Bridge Kitchen, a forthcoming app, will eventually walk users through recipes by listening to what’s happening in their kitchen. Yes, you can call out to the app to ask how much paprika you need, but the company promises it will also hear audio cues to know where you are in the recipe — the sounds of chopping, or the sizzle of a frying pan. Those will encourage the app to automatically move to the next step, such as setting a timer or preheating your oven.

“For high-temperature stuff like searing, where you need to very carefully control the amount of time, we can synchronize a timer to the moment that searing sound starts,” said Arun Bahl, the company’s founder and chief executive. It raises privacy concerns, but Bahl says the audio is analyzed by software within the app, not on the cloud, and is deleted afterward. Bahl is also working toward a feature that would allow users to take a photo of any cookbook recipe, whose text would be automatically incorporated into the app.

What food-tech companies are working toward is a vision of the future in which our digital assistants, appliances and health data are unified into a system that makes decisions seamlessly, guiding us to healthy choices and less food waste. It would look something like this: Midday, your phone’s personal assistant pings you with a few options for dinner. It knows that you went for a long run this morning and also that you’re a bit iron-deficient, because you supplied data from a company such as Habit, which uses DNA samples to suggest a personal nutrition profile. It also would know that you have chicken and kale in your fridge via sensors or computer vision — and that you should use the kale up soon. The meal you select calls for chickpeas and a few other ingredients you don’t have, so your phone automatically orders them from a grocery delivery service. Your phone has already preheated the oven, too. Your pan will monitor its own temperature so you don’t burn anything. Cooking will be automated, but not too automated.

“It’s the Ikea furniture effect: People have an irrational attachment to furniture they’ve helped to build,” Bahl said. “We need to still give them a role.”