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Smart Kitchens Need Smarter Ideas to Solve Real Problems

October 19, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC
With Ki, users can install a wireless transmitter under a nonmetal surface to generate a cordless hot surface to power supported kitchen appliances.
Wireless Power Consortium

In one of the opening presentations at this month’s Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle, the annual conference that brings together people working at the intersection of food and technology, Beth Altringer of the Flavor Genome Project at Harvard divided the idea of improving kitchen time into two categories. The idea—theoretically—behind much of the technology looking to make cooking easier is to first reduce the drudgery or the times spent doing the tasks we enjoy less. Dishwashers, microwaves, and countertop fryers have all contributed there.

The second, her focus, is how we increase the time we spend doing the parts we enjoy—be that the actual cooking, or perhaps the sitting down to eat with the family.

The problem, over the five years of the conference, has been that much of the focus flies to what people are doing because they can do it (operate your oven from your phone, have a spoon that tells you when to stir) because it reduces total kitchen time (potentially the enjoyable parts), or because it improves how the showrunners view cooking—which, when the speaker list is only 25% female and the gender split of who does the cooking in American households is the reverse—can be limiting.

Some panelists spoke to the gender and culinary diversity issues of the systems—particularly something like the June oven, one of the most buzzed-about products of the event, which learns from how users interact with it. The company’s smart oven, currently in its second generation, learns how each food product is cooked. However, cofounder and CEO Matt Van Horne explained, the oven’s developers built the product for themselves—admittedly young, white, male, and in the tech industry—and were written about by their peers as such. That compounded the issue by limiting the oven to what it could learn from what the people who purchased it were cooking, which, says Van Horne, was mostly steak. As the company launches in Whole Foods this month, it’s likely that will expand. But, as Altringer had said, the June oven tends to take away some of the rare parts of the cooking experience that many people want to do, rather than the “drudgery” tasks like prepping vegetables or washing dishes.

One of the few innovations that did address just that is the Ki from Wireless Power Consortium. The idea is that users can install a wireless transmitter under the counter (any nonmetal surface) and create a cordless hot spot that would power any kitchen appliance that uses the technology. That opens up counter space that might not have otherwise been usable because of a lack of outlet. Ki-powered surfaces would also be usable as burners for smart pans.

But while getting rid of a cord or two is appealing in reducing hassle (especially in small kitchens where each appliance is stored away between each use), the real upside is that the wireless technology allows every appliance to be completely sealed—and thus easy to clean: think throwing your entire food processor in the dishwasher. Realistically, the technology is about a year away and doesn’t yet include the kind of kitchen-standard brands like Cuisinart or KitchenAid. But it gets at one of the most interesting parts of the conference—not the technology that currently exists, but the technology that might someday make those improvements in how people cook or eat—the kind of change brought about by the microwave, refrigerator, or dishwasher when they made it to home kitchens decades ago.

For now, though, the products tend to look for members of the same aforementioned niche demographics who spoke at the conference. “Who is your customer?” I asked the man showing off a Breville pizza oven. The countertop oven, which goes to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (about 200 degrees higher than most home ovens) made a damn fine pizza—especially when prepared by star Seattle chef John Sundstrom of Lark and Southpaw restaurants. But it was the size of a large microwave, and I couldn’t figure out who might have the space or the wherewithal to purchase such a thing. “Chefs,” he said, who use it for events where they can’t bring their restaurant oven with them. “And pizza fanatics. People making pizza two to three times a week.” I’m not sure who is making pizza multiple times a week from scratch, save a few fanatics. But the food writer in me also couldn’t help but dream about what else I could do with a 750-degree oven of some sort: crusty breads of all kinds and charred vegetables.

The conference still doesn’t seem to be looking for how technology might help the people who actually balance the burden of producing a dinner each night with the joy of cooking, still bogged down in the idea of what is possible and not how it was possible to help—someday.

With at least one notable exception: Yo-Kai Express’s ramen-dispensing vending machine, which is currently at various locations around the Bay Area and has the infrastructure in place to launch in at least a half-dozen other cities around the country (including New York, Orlando, and Seattle) in 2020. With quality well above a Cup ’o Noodle, though not quite at that of a full-service ramen-ya, the machine dispenses steaming hot soup (and the utensils to eat it with), complete with vegetables, noodles, meat, and garnish—in just 45 seconds. A hot, good meal, available for purchase 24 hours a day? That’s the kind of food technology that seems like it is solving actual problems.

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