What Chefs Don't Understand About Technology

It's not their enemy.
desperate women chef looking at the laptop computer with knife and ladle in her hands
desperate women chef looking at the laptop computer with knife and ladle in her hands

Chefs are Luddites. They hate technology. Can't stand it.

Or at least that was the impression I got after attending several panels at the Interactive portion of this year's SXSW Festival in Austin under the rubric of "Food and Experiential Dining." Every chef I saw speak had harsh words for technological progress -- which was honestly a little awkward, given that most of their audience consisted of tech geeks.

The chefs' reasons for disliking technology were legion. Brisket savant Aaron Franklin, at a panel called "How Tech Lit The Flame For Celebrity Chef Culture," expressed a variant of the navel-gazing critique of social media, saying that he doesn't often use Twitter or Instagram because he doesn't believe random people would be interested in reading about his thoughts or seeing whatever foods he happens to be eating.

"Whenever I see chefs who are on Twitter all the time, I can't help but wonder, 'Aren't you busy working? What are you doing? Are you just on your phone all the time? Why do you think people care what you have to say?'" Franklin said.

And David Chang, at a talk about "The Future Role Of Tech In Food and Dining," said the Internet has made dining out boring, because chefs everywhere in the world can instantly learn about, and copy, things that are happening in the restaurant capitals of the world.

"Once upon a time, if you wanted to see what Alain Ducasse was doing at Louis XV, you had to actually go to Monte Carlo and experience it yourself. If you couldn't, you had to just dream about it," Chang explained.

"Today, you can just log on to Instagram and see what they served at Louis XV tonight. That's fantastic, on some level, but it means there's no more dreaming, no more struggle to come up with new ideas," he continued. "So now, I can go to any place in the world, and if I close my eyes, I feel like I could be eating in New York City."

Chang also offered up some measured praise for food apps such as Seamless, OpenTable and the Taco Bell app. And he revealed plans for a forthcoming fried chicken restaurant, Fuku, that incorporated a new proprietary iPhone app for placing food orders. But his ultimate convictions seemed to lie firmly against technology. He predicted, for example, that the next great restaurant -- the next Noma or El Bulli -- would be a place with no technology, an idyll that forges a new path untainted by the hurly-burly of mainstream, social-media-savvy restaurant culture.

I understand where this vitriol comes from. Cooking -- with the possible exception of the modernist strain, which has, in any case, fallen out of fashion -- is a deeply analog craft. Its power derives from fire and blood, not coding and gadgets; soil and sweat, not silicon and Siri. And the same goes for the rest of the dining experience. As convenient as it is to order a pizza on the Domino's iPad app, no program or robot can ever compare with a skilled waiter or maitre d' when it comes to making customers feel happy and at home in a restaurant. So it makes total sense that chefs would speak out against technology.

But here's the thing: In the age of digital reproduction, that which cannot be digitally reproduced only becomes more alluring. And good food cannot be digitally produced, at least not until the Replicator from "Star Trek" becomes a reality. Yes, the Internet has made it easier than ever before to look at pictures of dishes and written accounts of meals from restaurants on the other side of the world. But it has not made it much easier to actually taste that food. This sets food apart from almost any other cultural artifact. You can access just about any book, song or photograph in the world using a computer or phone, but in order to eat the food from a specific restaurant, you have to go there yourself.

To use a real-world example, I had read about Franklin's restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, dozens of times on my laptop, my iPhone and my iPad before I went to Austin. I had seen countless pictures of the meat served at the restaurant, and I understood, from everything I'd read, that it tasted superb. That convinced me to get in line at the restaurant at 8:20 one morning a few days after attending the panel at which Franklin was so dismissive of technology. But not even the most skillful of the descriptions and photos I'd seen prepared me for the splendor of the brisket I was served when I finally got to the front of the line five hours later. It's one thing to read a blog post that says Franklin's meat is as smoky and moist as meat can be -- but another entirely to experience that with your own senses.

So not only does technology not pose the existential threat to food that is poses to so many other fields -- including journalism -- it actually offers the culinary world, especially the top tier of which Franklin and Chang are members, a uniquely potent kind of advertising. Some chefs -- Twitter-loving Mario Batali, contentious blogger Marc Vetri -- already understand this. It's time for the rest to get on board.

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