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Humans have been innovating in the ways we prepare and enjoy  food since our early ancestors rubbed two sticks together to discover the wonders of fire, however, in recent decades there has been an unprecedented progression in the way in which we provide ourselves with sustenance. From the spit, to the oven, to the microwave; the constant progression of the methods, techniques, and tools demonstrates that we have an inherent desire to experiment and innovate with what is essentially a primitive need to provide nourishment to our bodies. Whilst our daily lives have been transformed by technological innovation, and we have become a largely digital society, our perennial relationship with food is something that has kept a firm grounding in tradition and age old techniques. Many are often dubious of the role that technology can play in food, but similarly to every other tenet of lives, the technological world is not only providing a means to excite and surprise, but makes our lives easier. You say you don’t need Sushi Bazooka, but ask yourself how you would keep your hands clean whilst saving time when making homemade sushi?   How else would you make a Hamdog without a HamDogger, or separate egg yolks without your trusty Yolkr? Whilst many kitchen gadgets can be easily laughed off, you only need to delve a bit deeper to see that the interjection of technology into the world of food is increasingly being used to advance the industry.

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Take for instance the Retail food industry, where one need only look at the large-scale impact that internet shopping, self-service checkouts and fast track shopping has had on the customer experience. Taking the next step to ease the stress of the food shopping experience, Sainsbury’s have begun trailing their new shopping app. Allowing customers to create their shopping list before they get to the store; customers simply scan the items barcode with their phone and pay for the items using their smartphone. Placing a lot of trust in consumers by allowing them to skip the queues, Sainsburys are playing into consumer’s desire for the physical shopping experience in a shorter time frame. Tesco’s have taken a similar stance with their virtual store in Gatwick airport, which allows consumers to avoid returning home to an empty fridge by pre-ordering essentials. Using scrollable touchpad screens and smartphone barcode technology, milk, bread and eggs can be pre-ordered for delivery whilst you are unpacking on your return. Whilst probably the most boring use of virtual reality technology yet, Tesco have recently released further plans for a fully immersive virtual reality store. Whether shoppers are ready for a fully virtual shopping experience may not be clear, however, the seamless integration of the physical and digital shopping landscape is a trend that is taking hold. Many retail experts are predicting 2015 to be the year that shoppable content makes it mark, and its use on Jamieoliver.com provides evidence of its relevancy to the food industry. Site users can now purchase the perfect amounts of ingredients from their favoured retailer using a single link on each of his recipes page. Taking note from the popularity of Amazon’s 1-click option, this innovative technology means that very few obstacles now stand between consumers recreating their favourite Jamie Oliver recipes.

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With many bemoaning the use of technology as an enabling force for our laziest instincts, the foodservice industry is increasingly seeing it differently, as a way of streamlining operations and providing more efficient service. One needs only to look at the success of the digital ordering platform for fast food, and the continued growth of sites like Just Eat and Hungry House. Whilst this may not be such a good thing for public health, fast food purveyors are continuing to make it easier for consumers to get their fix, and Domino’s remain at the forefront of this. Integrating their ordering system into the new Xbox with voice control, consumers can even watch live streams of their pizza’s being made. Consumers appear to embracing the technological turn with open arms, as Mcdonald’s states that half of all its tap and go payments in the US are now done via Apple’s new in phone payment platform, Apple Pay. It is not merely in fast food that technology is providing more efficient service, but in more and more upmarket dining.  Wahaca and numerous other London restaurants now use Fly Pay, a Smartphone payment platform, whereby customers avoid the often tortuous task of asking for the bill by merely scanning a QR code on their table to pay for their food.  In the fight against food fraud, and to enhance the dining experience, Moshi Moshi has put edible QR codes on their sushi that provide information about provenance and origin. London Pan-Asian restaurant Inamo has been providing customers with a fully digital service experience since 2010. Diners not only order their food and pay the bill through a digital touchpad menu set in the table, but can use it to change the table theme, get info about the surrounding neighbourhood, and even play games. Its owners argue that Inamo provides diners with a fully customizable and malleable dining experience, that frees up waiters to provide better service when needed, and gives consumers a freedom of choice to interact. Whilst many would argue that the personal interaction at point of service is one of the reasons that people enjoying eating out, the concept has been described as highly intimate and fun.

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Food preparation has in recent years seen an obvious increase in the use of technology with the rise of molecular gastronomy and its bountiful array of ‘must have’ kitchen equipment. No top professional kitchen is complete these days without its anti-griddle flash freezer, Vac Pac machine with sous vide cooker, and its spherification kit, however, one of the most interesting and widely applicable technological developments remains the 3D food printer. Working on the same premise as normal 3D printers using fluid ink jets which solidify to produce 3d objects, this digitally controlled form of food production is being commercially used for a number of novel purposes. No longer are we a slave to the wobbly writing of the average Thornton’s employees, as new chocolate printers can not only write personalised messages, but map faces to create our very own chocolate replicas. Tokyo’s Fab Café pioneered this service, and are now offering full body 3D mapping to produce life like gummies, and the same technology is being used to produce personalised messages within cakes and desserts. The US designed Buritto Bot also uses the same technology to allow customers to produce Mexican wraps to their exact specification with no need for human interaction. Once again, whilst many people see this as bad thing, the 3D printer does has several other redeeming features. One of the hallmarks of modernist cooking is taking familiar flavours and showcasing them in new exciting textures and forms, therefore 3D printing ability to manipulate shape and texture to the minutiae detail can spur innovation. Whilst currently what comes out must go in, in terms of raw food material, it has been suggested that by using hydrocolloids (flavoursome gels that form when they hit water) 3D printers can be used to provide answers to global food sustainability.

Many see these technological advancements as unneeded and a route to idleness, but whatever your opinion on them, they can serve to make our life easier.  Technology, like any invention, hinges on the provision of a solution to a human want. Be it the want for an easier shopping experience, consistently better service, or food that is customised to your desires, technology is providing creative ways to make all these far more easily attainable. In my opinion, because of the highly primal relationship we have with food we will never let technology come between the personal connections that tasting, cooking and sharing food with others provides. However, what is clear is that it is being used in the most inventive and innovative ways to take the stress out of the dining experience, and get back to doing what we love doing – eating.

Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD assistant

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