Should you swap your husband for a ROBO-CHEF?


While I relax with a glass of wine, I can sit back safe in the knowledge that tonight’s meal is in the capable hands of a MasterChef.

This gourmet is totally on top of it — making sure the Arborio rice is perfectly moist and combined with chicken, chorizo and vegetables for a mouth-watering paella.

Indeed, today it seems my husband Anthony has a rival in the kitchen.

But instead of some of the huffing and puffing and banging of saucepans that have been known to erupt when things don’t go to plan, this time there’s just a quiet thrumming as this kitchen whizz gets on with it.

That’s because tonight’s chef is a £250,000 kitchen robot, affectionately dubbed Moley, in homage to his makers, Moley Robotics.

Human chef Anthony with Tanith, judge Jean-Christophe Novelli and Moley in the background

This ultimate culinary gadget is the brainchild of Russian computer scientist, Mark Oleynik, who is now based in West London.

His invention is a unit which runs along a gantry over the cooking area. At the end are two dexterous robotic hands which can lift and move pans and utensils around, as well as pour ingredients and stir the pots.

Optical cameras and sensors help the robot locate exactly what it needs for each recipe from specially designed compartments built into the integrated kitchen around it.

But while Anthony cooks for the love of it, this rival, now on sale direct from the manufacturers, commands a high price: £248,000 to be precise.

The robot, known as Moley, pours out pasta as it tries to prove machines know best

The robot, known as Moley, pours out pasta as it tries to prove machines know best

So will this robot make human chefs obsolete?

To find out, we pitted man against machine for three recipes: a chicken and chorizo paella, a fish stew and a mushroom Alfredo with penne.

While the robot did its magic at the firm’s London headquarters, Anthony followed the same recipe with the same ingredients in a parallel workspace next to it.

Then we asked chef and restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli, of Belfast restaurant Novelli at City Quays, which will reopen in April, to decide who was the better cook…

MUSHROOM ALFREDO WITH PENNE

ANTHONY SAYS: For years, inventors have set out to create gadgets to minimise kitchen labour. So it is a little intimidating going head-to-head with a machine which has been designed by teams of engineers and software experts to outdo them all.

To kick off this futuristic version of Bake Off, I choose a recipe from the selection of 5,000 on a giant screen to the left of the robot’s workspace — a mushroom Alfredo with penne.

Anthony Harwood prepares his chicken and mushroom alfredo as he does battle against a machine

Anthony Harwood prepares his chicken and mushroom alfredo as he does battle against a machine

This allows me to follow the same steps in roughly the same order with the same ingredients as Moley. 

The pasta dish I have opted for is a relatively simple concoction consisting of a creamy white sauce made from butter, cream and parmesan cheese. It can be poured onto any type of pasta but in this case we are using short, tube-like shapes.

However, my opponent is a daunting foe. As well as being unflappable, it has been well-taught.

Tim Anderson, a former BBC MasterChef winner, ‘trained’ the robot’s movements by recording his own techniques in 3D. These were then translated into algorithms for the robot to copy and its smooth, assured movements are impressive.

The robot stirs its mushroom alfredo but will it be better than the dish by its human counterpart

The robot stirs its mushroom alfredo but will it be better than the dish by its human counterpart

The process starts when I press GO on the smart screen and the robot whirrs into action. First, one hand lowers from the robotic torso, and extends an articulated finger to turn the hob on.

After that things take a turn for the worse and my rival seems painfully slow, and rigid, in mixing the sauce. It takes Moley more than a minute to take the cream out of the container in the cupboard, move towards the pan, and rotate to pour it.

It makes me five seconds, so I feel like a positive whizz. But then Moley has the advantage of knowing, to the minute, when dinner is served.

As with any meal, I have to use my human judgment to decide when the cream sauce has thickened and not overheat it. Too much and it could separate.

I also check the flavour — yes, a soupcon more salt than the recipe dictates should do the trick — not an option for my rival who has to stick to his fixed formula.

As I present my dish in half the time it takes Moley, I hope Jean-Christophe will notice I have added a certain je ne sais quoi, which will put me out in front.

Jean-Christophe’s Verdict:

ANTHONY’S ALFREDO: My first thought when I heard about this robot is: ‘Should I be worried?’ on behalf of my fellow chefs and my industry.

But the more I watched Moley at work, I felt that, no matter how sophisticated the gadget, you can’t replace a human who can use their five senses to see and taste what they are cooking as they go along.

I wasn’t told whose dish was whose. But I admired the flavour of this. The mushrooms were sweated in such a way that the flavours came out well. It was neither too garlicky nor too creamy, and the texture of the pasta was absolutely perfect.

In fact, I liked it so much I wanted some more. 8.5/10

Anthony's alfredo was 'absolutely perfect' according to restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli, of Belfast restaurant Novelli

Anthony’s alfredo was ‘absolutely perfect’ according to restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli, of Belfast restaurant Novelli

THE ROBOT’S ALFREDO: You have to be extremely delicate when cooking cream. And in this case, the cream had been over exposed at a high temperature for too long, possibly in a pan that was too big. So it turned muddy-looking, instead of staying white. It felt overdone and heavier, and I could tell the human instinct was missing. 5/10

WINNER: Anthony

The robot's cream was over exposed at a high temperature for too long and turned 'muddy-looking'

The robot’s cream was over exposed at a high temperature for too long and turned ‘muddy-looking’

CHICKEN AND CHORIZO PAELLA

ANTHONY SAYS: I have always felt that cooking is an art, not a scientific formula. And where better to challenge that theory than on a notoriously difficult paella?

The key ingredients are rice coloured with saffron, mixed with vegetables and meat or fish.

This recipe involved heating onions, carrots, garlic, beans and chorizo, combining them with (hopefully) perfectly cooked arborio rice and then mixing in chicken stock, lemon juice and paprika to add flavour.

The robot puts in the chicken for the paella dish which won over the judges

The robot puts in the chicken for the paella dish which won over the judges

While I fretted over simmering the rice, the robot seemed more assured, stirring only occasionally.

I finished 25 minutes early, taking 50 minutes compared with Moley’s one hour 15 minutes. 

Moley takes longer because it uses a lot of different automatic movements for every step, but I am wondering whether I rushed mine, and the taste has suffered as a result.

Jean-Christophe’s Verdict:

ANTHONY’S PAELLA: I felt this paella was a good try but a little dry. 

The smoky flavour was very good but there was a tiny amount of bitterness coming through in the aftertaste. 

The chicken felt like it had been overcooked on too high a heat. A strong effort but not the best paella I’ve had. 5.5/10

Anthony's paella dish ultimately fell short, according to the judge

Anthony’s paella dish ultimately fell short, according to the judge

THE ROBOT’S PAELLA: It’s important to stir the rice to extract the starch in paella so that it ends up being nice and sticky — and so the flavours will come through.

In this paella, I felt the rice was more moist. It had more of a glossy sheen and had been cooked better. The beans were also cooked perfectly on both sides. 

The chicken was more tender, too, and all the ingredients were mixed together properly.

Overall, it looked less mushy and the rice grains were more defined, so, aesthetically, it was better. For me, this was the winner. 6/10

WINNER: The Robot

The robot's winning effort had moister rice, a glossy sheen and perfectly cooked beans

The robot’s winning effort had moister rice, a glossy sheen and perfectly cooked beans

FISH STEW

ANTHONY SAYS: There are many types of fish stew, but this one was a light soup base with chunks of hake. 

The vegetable base is made of leek, carrots and shiitake mushrooms, with some broccoli florets and radish, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, chives and miso.

Human chef Anthony chops away as he prepares his fish stew dish

Human chef Anthony chops away as he prepares his fish stew dish

The secret to this dish is time and patience. I am prone to panic if things aren’t going smoothly — and the children are demanding to know where dinner is.

So I worry that Moley has the advantage over me because it stays calm.

Indeed, I nearly falter when I think I’ve timed everything wrongly — and the broccoli is getting overboiled before I’ve even added the fish.

To save it from going soggy, I add the fish to the pan earlier than the recipe instructs.

I can only pray my broccoli will still be in one piece by the time Jean-Christophe tastes it.

The robot Moley hard at work preparing the fish stew which would decide the contest

The robot Moley hard at work preparing the fish stew which would decide the contest

Jean-Christophe’s Verdict:

ANTHONY’S FISH STEW: This looked appetising, and the ingredients were all well combined. 

It looked like the liquid had been reduced properly without overcooking the vegetables or draining them of colour and flavour. 

The shiitake mushrooms, the fish — and even the broccoli — all had a good texture, so the whole dish was aromatic and tasty. 8/10

Anthony's fish stew was aromatic and tasty and looked appetising

Anthony’s fish stew was aromatic and tasty and looked appetising 

THE ROBOT’S FISH STEW: The vegetables were overcooked so it didn’t look pleasing to the eye, and was dull in colour. The fish had turned spongy and chewy. 

In fact, I thought it was bits of cauliflower floating in it. 4.5/10

WINNER: Anthony

Moley's fish stew was sponget and chewy and fell short of Anthony's

Moley’s fish stew was sponget and chewy and fell short of Anthony’s

TANITH’S CONCLUSION

I always knew I was on to a good thing with Anthony, but now that a Michelin-starred chef has showered him with compliments I am certain of it.

Of course, I was initially tempted by the idea of a robot chef, an uncomplaining kitchen aide beavering away in silence to concoct a freshly prepared meal for my family. 

Not only that but I could programme it to create meals to suit the dietary requirements of everyone, be that gluten or allergen-free or vegan.

However, I could employ a personal chef for this amount of cash. And while the makers point out the price will come down, this isn’t Moley’s only issue.

Victorious Anthony poses with his three dishes which proved too much for the robo-chef

Victorious Anthony poses with his three dishes which proved too much for the robo-chef

For all the technological wizardry that has gone into designing those articulated fingers, they aren’t yet up to cracking an egg. 

Not only that, but Moley can still create only one-pot meals, and it can’t do any food prep either. All the ingredients have to be cut up and prepared in advance.

The most important thing it cannot do is taste the food, and I’ve watched enough tv cookery shows to know palate is everything. 

So I have to agree with Jean-Christophe, who insists humans still have the edge.

That’s why, for now at least, Chez Carey, it’s Anthony all the way. (And we’ll overlook the occasional kitchen tantrum!).

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