There are many forms of culinary busywork: slicing, dicing, chopping, peeling, prepping. If you're a home cook, making a meal for family or friends, that work can be pleasantly repetitive. For restaurant cooks, however, it can easily become drudgery. Chopping one onion is very different from chopping 100 of them.
Enter ... robotics. In 2006, restaurateur Cui Runquan, owner of a Beijing noodle bar, got sick of cutting his shop's handmade noodles down to size -- or, more specifically, of looking for workers who were both willing and skilled enough to engage in that exacting task. He developed a device that would cut noodle dough into long, uniform strips -- via a high-speed, mechanized shaving system. Cui developed, basically, a noodle-cutting robot. Which he named, yep, the Chef Cui.
In 2011, Cui put his army of humanoid noodle-cutters into production, marketing them at a cost of ￥13,000, or around $2,000. And more than 3,000 members of Cui's bot battalion have been sold so far. According to one restaurant worker interviewed in the video above, "The robot chef can slice noodles better than human chefs." According to another: "It is great machine, and it is better than man."
So, will it be only handmade soba being sold in the soup shop of the future? Pho-ggedaboutit. "It is the trend that robots will replace men in factories," Cui says. "It is certainly going to happen in sliced-noodle restaurants."
The economics -- factory on the one hand, food on the other -- are quite different, of course. And a good part of the sell here is, it's worth noting, the Chef Cui gimmick itself. The humanoid form! The glowing eyes! The Ramsey-esque brow! At this point, as far as consumers are concerned, part of the appeal of frequenting a robot-enabled noodle shop is the fact that it is, you know, a robot-enabled noodle shop. And yet Cui's confidence in robots is more interesting when it's projected onto the restaurant of the future, two or five or ten years down the road. As robots move more and more into the realm of consumer products, they will almost inevitably automate more and more of our culinary work. Mise en place, put in its place. And that will have big implications -- for cooks and consumers alike.