There will be no more cookbooks from chef Tyler Florence. Sure, you’ve welcomed him into your home through his books Tyler Florence Fresh and Dinner at My Place, and such Food Network shows as “Tyler’s Ultimate.” But he will not print any more recipes. Why bother?
“I’ll publish a cookbook and I’ll have 125 recipes. People only use five,” he said. And they won’t even follow them: “They’ll use those as like a guide that they’ll kind of interchange different ingredients with.”
All of this has led Florence to a conclusion that seems unusual for a person who has spent his career producing recipes. “Recipes are dead,” said Florence. “They’re dead the same way paper maps are dead.”
Think about it: Maps help you find your destination, but it’s still pretty easy to get lost. But now we have GPS, which can precisely guide us to our location, automatically reroute us to avoid obstacles and tell us where to find gas or a sandwich along the way.
At the Smart Kitchen Summit in October, Florence announced that he had signed on with what he says will be the kitchen equivalent of GPS. He joined Innit, a start-up building a “connected food platform” – connecting the smart kitchen with software that aims to personalize and automate cooking. The company’s newly released app, the thing Florence thinks will be a recipe-killer, promises highly customizable “micro-cooking content.” It will offer thousands of permutations of meals, and it could preheat your oven, too. Eventually, it could go further – perhaps suggesting foods based on your genetic profile or how many steps your fitness tracker registered that day. It might be able to order your groceries or help you build your own meal kit. Someday, it might even know the entire contents of your fridge.
The evolution of recipesWe have been writing recipes down for thousands of years. Yale University’s Babylonian Collection contains some of the world’s oldest, carved into three tablets from approximately 1700 B.C. “Instructions call for most of the food to be prepared with water and fats, and to simmer for a long time in a covered pot,” wrote The New York Times.
And recipes were similarly vague for the next few thousand years because technique was something you learned from your mother. They’d call for “a piece of butter” or “more apples than onions,” but no quantities. Scientific precision entered the kitchen near the turn of the 20th century, introducing measurement, substitutions, calorie count and instruction.
The way we find and store recipes has evolved, too. Who among us hasn’t walked past a shelf of cookbooks while scrolling through Pinterest? But while the content on Epicurious or Allrecipes.com is easier to search, its recipes are still fixed entities. You can improvise, but you’re on your own.
Meanwhile, consumers have grown to expect customization. Consider Cava Mezze rice bowls or Sweetgreen salads or the vast array of poke toppings at other fast-casual restaurants. It’s a premise thoroughly embraced by millennials: Choose your protein, some vegetables, some sides and some sauces or garnishes.
That’s how Innit’s eponymous app will work, too, but it’s more elaborate. First, you input some basic information – whether you’re allergic to shellfish or on the Paleo Diet. Then you pick a style of dish, like pasta or a grain bowl, select from an array of ingredients, and Innit will configure a recipe – er, some micro-cooking content – for you. It’s launching with a couple of broad templates – a few swipes will transform a chicken taco to a beet-pineapple salsa lettuce wrap, for example – with more to come. Florence’s flavor profiles keep the meals from becoming an episode of “Chopped.”
It’s about giving users “great combinations that are somewhat guardrailed,” said Joshua Sigel, Innit’s chief operating officer. “If they want to, we jokingly say, add Thai peanut sauce on top of a cupcake, that’s (their) prerogative.”
It might remind you of another experiment in futuristic recipes: IBM’s Chef Watson. The computer program analyzed thousands of recipes, as well as data on the chemical compounds in food, to create flavor combinations encouraged by “computer-assisted creativity,” said Florian Pinel, a master inventor and trained chef who worked on Watson.
Though Chef Watson was originally intended to aid professional chefs, plenty of customers were more interested in menu variety than dish creativity, Pinel said. “Something that’s different from the other nights, but not wildly different; something that fits your dietary constraints or helps reduce food waste.”
Pinel says the company is no longer updating Chef Watson – though it may explore some nutrition or smart kitchen projects with the program in the future. A consumer-facing site, in partnership with Bon Appétit, remains active.
The difference between Innit and Watson is that the former will not only design a meal for you, it will also walk you through how to make it with a video stitched together from hundreds of techniques that Florence filmed in the Innit offices. The steps are resequenced and times and nutritional information update dynamically as you swap ingredients in and out. The app will also operate certain smart appliances, and there’s more automation to come. Florence contends the app can even help novices learn how to cook.
“This is your sous-chef in the kitchen, and if you go along with the guidance, it’s going to help you get it right,” Florence said.
The internet of actionsThe recipes of the future won’t just be instructions for people. They’ll be instructions for appliances. Our devices will know more about how we cook.
It’s the concept of “the internet of actions,” said Sarah Smith, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. First, the internet connected us with information, and now, our objects can supply that information. The next step is for objects to perform tasks. After all, “a recipe is a series of instructions to take action,” Smith said. “The role of the recipe ... becomes even more important when it’s fed into kitchen systems that are acting on your behalf.”
Bridge Kitchen, a forthcoming app, will eventually walk users through recipes by listening to what’s happening in their kitchen. Yes, you can call out to the app to ask how much paprika you need, but the company promises it will also hear audio cues to know where you are in the recipe – the sounds of chopping or the sizzle of a frying pan. Those will encourage the app to automatically move to the next step, such as setting a timer or preheating your oven.
“For high-temperature stuff like searing, where you need to very carefully control the amount of time, we can synchronize a timer to the moment that searing sound starts,” said Arun Bahl, the company’s founder and chief executive. It raises privacy concerns, but Bahl says the audio is analyzed by software within the app, not on the cloud, and is deleted afterward. Bahl also says the app will help you time out multiple recipes so they can be completed at the same time. He is also working toward a feature that would allow users to take a photo of any cookbook recipe, whose text would be automatically incorporated into the app.
What food-tech companies are working toward is a vision of the future in which our digital assistants, appliances and health data are unified into a system that makes decisions seamlessly, guiding us to healthy choices and less food waste. It would look something like this: Midday, your phone’s personal assistant pings you with a few options for dinner. It knows that you went for a long run this morning and also that you’re a bit iron-deficient, because you supplied data from a company such as Habit, which uses DNA samples to suggest a personal nutrition profile. It also would know that you have chicken and kale in your fridge via sensors or computer vision – and that you should use the kale up soon. The meal you select calls for chickpeas and a few other ingredients you don’t have, so your phone automatically orders them from a grocery delivery service. Your phone has already preheated the oven, too. Your pan will monitor its own temperature so you don’t burn anything. Cooking will be automated, but not too automated.
“It’s the Ikea furniture effect: People have an irrational attachment to furniture they’ve helped to build,” Bahl said. “We need to still give them a role.”
Cookbooks strongNew-wave recipe apps target kitchen-shy millennials and harried moms – not people who live and breathe cooking. With their never-ending permutations of unfussy, healthy meals, they’re intended to break up the monotony of weekday cooking, not to help you make a showstopping holiday dinner. For that, we have cookbooks – which, despite Florence’s pronouncement, are holding strong. Cookbook sales were up 6 percent in 2016 over the previous year, Publishers Weekly reported. And most cookbook sales are print books; e-book sales are a minuscule part of the category. Maybe it’s because people are afraid to have pricey screens near hot oil – or that they find books easier to navigate: Dog-ear your favorite pages, and they’ll always be at your fingertips.
“Cookbooks are getting more and more tactile, with special flourishes on the cover and inside pages. They’re just getting more cookbooky,” said Rux Martin, editorial director of Rux Martin Books for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who called recipe apps “just a blip in consciousness.” (Florence, naturally, disagrees: “A cookbook is an iPad with a screen that doesn’t work.”)
But it’s also because cookbooks aren’t merely reference. They’re aspirational. We want to be the kind of person who cooks her entire way through The French Laundry Cookbook, even if we manage only one recipe. A cookbook is like a New Year’s resolution: a commitment to a better version of yourself. You know you might fall short, but it’s the promise that counts.
So recipes may be dead in the eyes of Silicon Valley, but Martin suspects they aren’t going anywhere. The apps are practical, but will they make us swoon the way an Ottolenghi book does?
“Efficiency takes all the pleasure out of the kitchen,” Martin said. “We have enough recipes in the world. We don’t need new recipes. We need sources of pleasure.”