I Feel Like David Chang is Missing the Point About Food Robots

Look. The hackiest thing in the world is for me, a complete unknown, to publicly drag a celebrity chef and TV personality like David Chang. He doesn’t know or care about me. He’s probably never read my work. And, calling him out will only look like a desperate ploy to ride on his coattails to generate more clicks for me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve re-blogged Chang in the past in an attempt to get clicks for me. I thought his views on delivery and moneyballing menus were interesting and worth discussing more broadly so I wrote posts about them.

But the reason that I’m writing this post is because like a parent, I’m not mad at the first episode of Chang’s new TV series The Next Thing You Eat, I’m just disappointed. The episode is titled “Delivery: Rise of the Machines,” but honestly, the machines part feel a bit tacked on as he mostly talks about the evils of delivery (fair game!). I don’t disagree with him on many of his points… until he gets to food robots. Well, actually, it’s more like Chang doesn’t get food robots.

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I understand that The Next Thing You Eat is produced for general audiences. I don’t expect them to get super deep into the weeds of food robots (like we do here). But the episode only featured Serve Robotics delivery bot and Miso’s Flippy (it probably helped with production costs that both of those robots are in the Los Angeles area). It also talked about Zume, which, sigh, was not a robot company, it was a data company that used robots to make pizza (nerdy distinction, I know, but important!).

But there are so. many. interesting. robots around the world making lattes, mixing drinks, frying up takoyaki, assembling whole meals in a box! Stick around to the end credits of the episode and you’ll see a parade of them flash by.

I think the fundamental problem is that Chang sets up food robots and automation as an all or nothing proposition. Chang talks like food robots are out to take over every restaurant and put every chef out of work (there’s even the very tired Terminator 2 reference).

Chang seems to be outwardly hostile towards Silicon Valley. Some of that ire is warranted (delivery companies with high fees, for example). But there are two moments that stood out to me.

The first is at the beginning when Chang recounts talking to some tech people. In his retelling, these tech bros act like creating food robots and replicating what Chang does is easy. In my experience interviewing just about every food robot startup founder out there, they all talk about how hard making a food robot is (ask them about cheese clumping). Food robots are hard to make because food is squishy and odd shaped and goes bad. That’s why big companies like Sony and NVIDIA invest heavily in robots that work with food. If a robot can manipulate an egg without breaking it, or pluck a strawberry off a plant without squishing it, then that robot can take on a lot of non-food related tasks.

Food robot companies respect food, they just want to make it more available (ed. note: I get that you can take my opinion with a grain of salt as I make money off of the food robotics industry).

That leads me to the other moment in the show where they talk with a pizza chef who crafts a beautiful artisanal pizza. They joke about whether a robot could do the same thing, and of course reject the notion. Again, here’s where Chang and Co. miss the point. Pizza robots aren’t meant to completely eradicate human pizza chefs. You know what pizza robots are for? Cranking out hundreds of pepperoni pizzas an hour to drunk sports fans or college students. Sure the human pizza chef can make a beautiful and delicious pizza. Now have that chef sit in a hotel lobby and do it for 24 hours a day every day.

Do I want robot pizza when I go out to a fancy restaurant? Heck no. Do I want it from a vending machine when my plane lands at 11 p.m. and I’m hungry because my flight was delayed on the tarmac and I haven’t eaten anything in hours? Sure.

Food robots will allow us to feed more people, in more places, more often, at a lower cost. Yes, there will be job losses. And yes, we should work now to make sure those entry level jobs are shifted elsewhere so we can all partake. But food robots aren’t for every restaurant.

At the end of the day, Chang knows how to put on a good TV show. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past, and will watch the remaining episodes of The Next Thing You Eat. I just wish he and his production company had put a little more thought into the cool things robots are doing instead of dragging them so readily.

Now, if someone else wants to make a TV show about food robots, I know someone who can help you out…

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