Knives and Fire in the Age of Thinking Machines

Although technology can be a huge benefit for kitchen environments, the hands-on craft of cooking remains reliably human.

Rick Green, Director, Culinary Development

We live in a time of rapid transformation. In the coming years, with the quick rise of chatbots and other generative artificial intelligence, many of us are likely to see a massive shift in how we work, play, and fit into a changing world and workforce. Although artificial intelligence is likely to augment or disrupt many jobs (LinkedIn projects that 84% of their U.S. members could see at least a quarter of their skills impacted by AI), some things remain squarely in the domain of humanity

Food is vital not only for our individual nourishment, but also as a driver of community and connection in the workplace. The varying preferences of a multigenerational workforce and an increased focus on employee well-being are enabling a mindset shift around how we work. Corporate food service is reflecting these changes and providing culinary options that keep people excited and engaged.

As AI and other technologies expand and become more essential, hospitality-driven services, soft skills, and the craft of cooking will only grow more important. Here are a few ways chefs can build the right team, meet the demands of those they serve, and help create a more engaged and human culture.

Scaling Up & Building the Right Team

To build an effective team, leaders must set strong standards, be willing to repeat themselves, and be hands-on in their training to get results that drive excellence and exceed expectations. Specificity is critical. In a kitchen environment, repetition is necessary to provide structure and guidelines—for skilled cooks, it’s less about imparting cooking knowledge and more about nailing the desired form.

A team should be instructed on specifics for the needs of that kitchen. For example, instead of telling someone to boil eggs, you give them the specifics of how many eggs to boil at a time, how to peel the eggs, how to display them, etc. Over time, this repetition becomes a springboard for how a kitchen operates at a larger level. It might not be possible to build a castle in a day, but you can build it gradually and expertly one brick at a time. And that’s largely done through conversation, mentorship, and setting and enforcing clear expectations. Once you start scaling up and adding new members to your team, there’s already an established culture and community that helps them find their flow and quickly adapt to their responsibilities, no matter what they are.

Leaders should embrace the humanity of their teams and understand that we all have faults and strengths, and leadership often means helping others have clarity and understanding of their personal mission. That’s not something that can be taught, but rather has to be cultivated with time.

Avoiding the Technology Crutch

When putting in that time to develop people, technology can play an important role. It helps us do things like standardize our recipes, speed up our food preparation, and reduce the amount of waste we create. But technology represents only a part of what we do and is often overengineered, negating its own intention to help chefs be better at their jobs. Does a fridge really need a touchscreen? Does a toaster need to connect to your Wi-Fi? Technology can be complementary, but the human skill of cooking something expertly is still about knives and fire. It’s hands-on, requiring dedication to the craft and nailing the fundamentals.

Cooking with quality ingredients in a simple but expert way creates the classic flavors we all know and crave. For example, mortadella is something that oxidizes quickly. You have to work with it quickly and sometimes, even when prepared in high-end modern ovens, there are a few failures that have to be thrown away. Meanwhile, if you eat it in Rome, you’ll experience flawless, flavorful mortadella that’s prepared in a traditional way with an old-school conventional oven—and it’s better than anything you’ve ever tasted. Although technology can be a big help and a time saver, it can’t compete with a skilled cook preparing food the way it’s been done for generations.

Cast iron follows the same principle. Cast iron cookware is what your grandma worked with, and it’s a classic choice for a reason—it does its job really well and it’s impossibly durable. While advancements have led to all kinds of cookware with different purported functions, items like cast iron and carbon steel work best because of their longevity and simplicity. Many technological advancements no doubt deliver some great results, but they can also act as a crutch and keep cooks from doing their best work; our humanity remains the top factor in the creation of amazing food.

Focusing on the Food

In the business world—notably in tech environments—there can sometimes be a kind of disconnect with the outside world. Especially in organizations that do insulated work requiring a lot of heads-down attention to detail, the nature of it is somewhat divorced from the very human-focused world of food preparation. And that’s precisely why chefs have to nail corporate food service. It’s a connection point, a tether to the day-to-day, a reminder that we’re all just people doing what people do. 

A lot of restaurants fail because they lose focus on their food and get lost in things like lighting or atmosphere, even though everyone knows the best restaurants are usually hole-in-the-wall spots that let the food do the talking. In restaurants, there’s often an attitude of, “Here’s my place. If you don’t like it, it might not be for you.” But in the corporate world, your food is for everyone—the answer is always yes, and your cooking is at the forefront.

When the food is for everyone, then everyone is part of the conversation and has a stake in what’s being served. People have a variety of reasons for eating what they eat and it’s up to chefs to provide them with options that align with their preferred flavors and nutritional needs. We have to get away from the old-school mentality of exclusivity and embrace becoming more dynamic and inclusive human beings.

An Eye Toward the Future

In our high-tech era, the act of sharing a meal allows us to slow down and remember our humanity. At work, eating together fosters a sense of community and helps forge bonds over shared experiences—it strengthens relationships and introduces people to new things. 

By prioritizing diverse menus, quality ingredients, sustainable practices, and the craft of cooking, companies create better environments for their people. AI and increased automation offer a lot of exciting possibilities for the future of humanity, but we can’t sever the connection to a shared history spent cooking over fire and sharing food with people we care about.

About the author

Rick Green

Director, Culinary Development

Contact Rickmailto:rick.green@guckenheimer.com?subject=Inquiry