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Momofuku founder David Chang talks robots and restaurants at SXSW

In what feels like the far-off southeastern corner of Manhattan, stands a small restaurant attracting foodies from across the world. They serve tiny buns that wrap around a certain deliciousness, the type this journalist doesn’t have the proper vocabulary to describe. It’s called Momofuku and has since it opened in 2004, made its owner David Chang one of the most celebrated chefs in the US.

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When restaurants saw their most valuable assets reduced to Instagram fodder, David made many enemies by outlawing social media use at his restaurants. Instead of spending time on social media, David seemed to say, he wanted customers to enjoy the experience of his food without any possible interruptions.

Robots and restaurants

Although it would therefore seem like David is anti-technology, he came to SXSW to talk technology and food, a field that has not experienced the same amount of disruption as that seen elsewhere in the service industry.

“Tech and restaurants are an interesting thing. We still make food. It’s still a craft or [considered] a blue collar labour. I don’t see robots replacing that. There probably will be a time where a huge portion of the labour will be marginalised.”

What the internet replaced, David says, is how chefs learn. Instead of going into the kitchen and making a mess, they learn from expert online tutorials and how-to videos.

“Chefs aren’t looking at what other chefs are doing anymore. To me the internet is obviously [to blame for that] — it’s the one thing that prevents trial and error. Sure, that is fantastic but what’s sacrificed is the process of fucking up. There’s nobody that’s born a fucking chef genius. It’s whoever make the best mistakes. Right now the internet just makes people do it immediately. The individuality is lost. Plenty of innovation sometimes gets lost.”

‘Not great’ OpenTable and long lines

When it comes to the consumer side of food, tech companies haven’t brought about much innovation. “There should be a way for us and the customer to tell a customer that ‘last time you ordered this, can we suggest you order the same thing or can we open a bottle of wine an hour before you come’.”

Then there’s reservations. “OpenTable is good but not great,” David says of the reservation app that has had little success especially in a city like New York where most restaurants don’t take reservations. That obviously causes long lines as people queue all over the city to get their food fix, something that bothers David.

“Why are we waiting in line? That’s the dumbest thing. People are not waiting to use payphones any more. It’s a matter of time. I think a waiting line will disappear. It’s exciting to see people waiting to eat. It’s like preparing for battle. But at the end of the day I would want them to do something else than waiting in line. Also from a business point of view it’s stupid. We should be able to exchange some kind of commerce while they’re waiting.”

Care for food

Although technology hasn’t influenced the way him and his team make food, David says the pressure that exists since every smartphone owner is a critic, has made it much harder to achieve what he’s been able to do over the last 11 years.

“I don’t know if we’d be successful if the internet was there. I feel really bad for up and coming chefs because they have to be really good from the start. I would’ve been written off completely if the internet was as big in 2004 as it is today.”

For David good food isn’t defined by the ingredients or even the preparation. The thing with food is care. After visiting the barbeque restaurant Franklin’s in Austin just before his talk at SXSW, something stood out for him. They were using the best beef that they could get but it wasn’t any different from other BBQ spots. The thing that was visibily different was their entire approach to making food. “You can see they care. Franklins care.”

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