I have eaten the future, and it is made by our robot overlords. It tastes of the world’s great civilizations, thousands of years of human preference, meaning, hand labor, and history distilled into bowls named for the cultures that first wove these flavors together — Moroccan, Latin, Indian, Thai. Before we invented robots, we invented cooking. Which creation is more complex?
The robots don’t care about any of that. They are just here to make us lunch. They don’t invent new dishes (yet). They (still) do what they are told. This is the lay of the land at Spyce, a new fast-casual restaurant that eliminates the middleperson, literally. Humans prep the ingredients, and humans garnish the finished dishes. But in between, the machines run the show.
On opening day last week, I line up with the other customers in the Downtown Crossing space to see how it works. There’s a row of screens where we place our orders and pay — much like the self-check aisle at the grocery store, only without the option of a cashier. It’s a misanthrope’s perfect setup. There’s no need to talk to anyone. Just order up a beet bowl, say, or a take on halal-cart chicken and rice, then customize it as you wish with add-ons like soft-boiled eggs and smoked salmon. There are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, too.
I proceed to the front of the room and lo! Before me is the robotic kitchen, which does all the cooking: A bright orange, oblong runner darts friskily back and forth along a track as hoppers dump ingredients into seven woks below. Above each, there is a round screen that features reassuring sequential messages: “Hi, Devra F,” “Now cooking Latin bowl for Devra F,” “Devra F we’re completing cooking,” “Ready to plate.” The woks turn, cooking the food and spilling it out into the waiting bowl. The bowl spins forward, steaming volcanically, and a human returns to the scene, calling out my name. The machinery is mesmerizing to watch, like the board game Mouse Trap writ large.
The system is the invention of four MIT graduates, Michael Farid, Brady Knight, Kale Rogers, and Luke Schlueter, who refer to themselves collectively as “The Spyce Boys.” They say the robots can serve up to 210 meals an hour, with each meal completed in three minutes or less. The kitchen runs on nothing more than electricity and water. In other words, it is efficient, in a way humans will never be. The reduction of labor leads to a reduction in costs. Each bowl is $7.50, about $2-$4 cheaper than those sold by competitors such as sweetgreen and Dig Inn.
Yeah, they taste pretty good, too.
The Moroccan bowl brings together ingredients you might find simmering in a tagine: chickpeas, tomatoes, currants, olives, preserved lemon, cilantro. They’re layered together with kale, tomato-cucumber salad, the grain freekeh, and a dollop of yogurt. That these flavors were combined by machines doesn’t make them any less timeless or soulful. The one issue here is the aggressive spicing. The dish tastes the way a candle shop in a hippie town that is home to a small liberal arts college smells. The addition of pomegranate seeds for an extra $1 helps offset the spice problem, however. And it’s easier to tweak a program than it is to convince your grandmother to lay off the allspice a bit.
The Latin bowl is even better, although it deserves a more-precise name. This is a burrito bowl: chicken, black beans, cabbage slaw, corn, radish, and avocado crema over brown rice. The slaw is pleasingly spicy, the whole bowl harmonious. There’s real flavor here.
There’s an irony in calling something made by robots in less than three minutes the Hearth bowl; it’s like calling a television “the fireplace” because that’s where the family gathers. Regardless, this homey combination is a favorite. Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes are glazed in balsamic, served up with kale, quinoa, and freekeh, topped with yogurt and chopped Granny Smith apples. It is appealingly simple, autumnal, and nicely balanced. It’s real food, like you once would have made yourself before robots stepped in and did it faster and cheaper.
And here’s where I start to feel uneasy.
I’m not worried about a Kubrick scenario wherein the robots decide that pomegranate seeds actually don’t belong atop my Moroccan bowl — “I’m sorry, Devra F, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” When it comes to matters of taste, we (still) need people: The Spyce inventors enlisted famed chef Daniel Boulud, who is culinary director of and an investor in the company. In turn, he brought in Sam Benson, formerly at Cafe Boulud and now Spyce’s executive chef. Benson is the one who thinks about the interplay of balsamic, fall vegetables, and bright, tart apple. We cannot (yet) grope our way to good recipes without human input. This model could free people up from some of the tasks of cookery and give them time to focus on creativity. In Japan, according to the Wall Street Journal, dairy farms are starting to use robots to milk the cows. “Installing the robot made more time for me,” says farmer Yoshie Kato. Now she also makes and sells cheese.
But won’t these robots take jobs from humans? I’m not that worried about this either. One of the biggest challenges facing the restaurant industry right now is a labor shortage. A few reliable robots in the kitchen might come as a relief to restaurateurs engaged in the constant struggle to find and retain employees.
For comparison’s sake, I went to a sweetgreen the day after I had lunch at Spyce. My salad was so gritty I could barely eat it. And employees ignored me just long enough to make me miss Spyce’s attentive robots. Machines are free of human bias — circuit boards just aren’t wired to bend over backward for one subset of customer while calling the cops on another.
So no, it’s not the robots I’m worried about. It’s the cooking, that most human of human tasks. Spyce’s $7.50 bowls are generously portioned. I can easily get two meals out of each, although your mileage may vary. At that price point, why would anyone go grocery shopping, mess up the kitchen, expend valuable time?
Because these things have meaning. Centuries of it. The real hearth is where we come together, to chop vegetables side by side in companionable silence, to talk while we wait for the water to boil, to taste the sauce and agree it needs more salt. We put what we have made on the table, and we sit and we eat. This is slowed-down time, resonant time, time together, and standing in line while we look at our phones is no kind of replacement.
Then again, on opening day at Spyce, the street musician Keytar Bear stands outside, entertaining the waiting customers. Inside, people are making up funny fake names for display on the round screens. Friendly greeters and customers fall into conversation, and strangers bond over their inability to reach the cups, stored on a high shelf.
You can take the humans out of the equation, but the humanity isn’t going anywhere.
241 Washington St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, www.spyce.com. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.