Welcome to the future: South Indian startups are developing robots that can cook for you

In today’s fast-paced urban life where time is of the essence, Indian entrepreneurs are using AI and technology to automate the cooking process.
Welcome to the future: South Indian startups are developing robots that can cook for you
Welcome to the future: South Indian startups are developing robots that can cook for you

When Bengaluru-based Yatin Varachhia and his wife moved to the Whitefield area in the city in 2017, they began looking for a cook. An electronics engineer, Yatin was freelancing at the time while his wife had just started a new job.

“We tried almost five cooks, but we were not happy with the outcome. We decided to manage cooking between the two of us, and it turned out to be a big task considering added factors like work timings and traffic,” he says.

So in his spare time, Yatin began working on an automated cooking machine to simplify the process. After months of trials along with his friend Devang Gajjar, Yatin set up his company Euphotic Labs in March 2018. “We cooked our first dish using the machine in May 2018, which was Potato fry. Since then, we have been building and evolving the design,” he adds.

Automated cooking machine from Euphotic Labs
About 10 km from Euphotic Labs is where another automated cooking machine is stirring ingredients and adding accurately measured spices. The Mechanical Chef, founded by Cohan Sujay Carlos, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) consultant, can cook over 45 recipes. Once a dish has been selected from the app, the instrument prompts the user to load the main ingredients into special containers. It then slowly dispenses the vegetables and spices onto a hot pan while a robotic arm mixes the concoction, cooking the meal to perfection.

Click and cook

In makeshift labs and small buildings, Indian entrepreneurs are coming together to automate the cooking process. In today’s fast-paced urban life where time is of the essence and machines are taking over most domestic chores, cooking seems to be the last piece of the puzzle. World over, AI and technology have entered kitchens, as entrepreneurs are adding a dash of innovation to food.

Barcelona-based Natural Machines created Foodini, a 3D food printing machine in November 2012. Videos of Moley, the world’s first robotic kitchen, show two robotic arms chopping and stirring ingredients as it recreates recipes with ease. Washington-based Spyce is the world’s first restaurant where a robotic kitchen makes all the meals.

Even before complete cooking came into the picture, entrepreneurs like Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni introduced us to the Rotimatic, the robotic roti maker, in 2016. The product launch video has over 65 lakh views on YouTube, and the most popular comment is someone asking for a ‘Subjimatic’ and a ‘Daalmatic’. Looks like entrepreneurs in India have decided to make that wish come true.

Mechanical Chef at work
The ease of not cooking

“Nymble was born out of the recognition of an ordinary everyday problem – cooking,” says Raghav Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Nymble Labs Pvt Ltd, in an email interview. Raghav, who holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, worked in the family food business before turning to food automation. He founded Nymble with Rohin Malhotra, who has a background in Mechanical Engineering. Rohin first identified the problem when he saw how difficult it was for his mother to come home after work only to spend her evenings cooking for the family.

Nymble is working on creating a smart kitchen robot called Julia, which will be launched in the US. “Julia is designed for ordinary domestic kitchens and can cook most one pot meals with ease. The goal with Julia is to eliminate the stress from home cooking. This does not involve just the actual cooking process, but also meal planning, prep and clean-up,” Raghav explains.

What should we eat? – is a question that looms large in urban life today, and users who came in to try out the initial prototype of the Mechanical Chef were equally elated by the food and the fact that they get more time for themselves. “With automated cooking being an option, people could envision setting up the machine and heading out to the gym or spending time with their families, without getting up to check on the food. This was a bit of feedback we got repeatedly,” says Cohan.

Mechanical Chef at work
But above all, the entrepreneurs insist that the biggest selling point for these machines is making home-cooked meals a definite option. “People want home-cooked food made their way, and this is where such machines will fit right in,” says Yatin. He explains that automated machines give users the ability to alter recipes based on taste and health preferences. “Just imagine, amid all the madness of working late and dealing with traffic, you will get to eat home-cooked food with flavour, oil content, sugar and salt adjusted to your preference,” he adds.

The current ecosystem does provide options to bypass these issues – a quick bite at a local eatery, hiring cooks or ordering in. According to Zomato’s 2019 Annual Report, their delivery revenue was $ 155 million, four times higher than the previous financial year, and Swiggy averages about 14 lakh food orders per day across the country.

“Food delivery has seen a lot of growth in the past few years and is without a doubt a convenient and easy solution to the problem of not having the time to cook. However, at present, we are increasingly noticing a shift towards healthier, more conscious eating. Consumers want to know what goes into their food, what kind of ingredients are used, how nutritious it is, and how their food habits affect the environment at large,” says Raghav.

Cohan, on the other hand, points out that while cooks are an option, they will not be able to replicate the consumer’s exact taste preferences. “Practically, it is not possible for cooks to learn the styles of every house they go to,” he says.

Food first

The people behind these ventures all agree that what matters the most is the outcome – the food. On a whiteboard in the Mechanical Chef office are multiple recipe names scribbled with various codes next to them. Names from veg pulao to cabbage palya to vermicelli kheer find a mention on this board of tried and tested recipes. Mechanical Chef recently began trials with chicken recipes as well. Euphotic Labs has tested a host of everyday recipes like upma, poha, suji halwa, chole and paneer gravies. Julia has been busy cooking bhindi masala, paneer-based dishes, khichdi and even a ratatouille, which have all received the stamp of approval from the team.

The Mechanical Chef team is now working on finetuning the process and adding more recipes. They hope to be market-ready by next year and estimate that the price of the final product will be around Rs 30,000. Euphotic Labs shared that their final  product will be priced at Rs 45,000 and will soon be available for beta users and people interested in demos.

Scaling up

While these are examples of purely domestic machines, last year Chennai-based entrepreneur Saravanan Sundaramoorthy launched RoboChef, which is a fully automated robotic kitchen capable of large-scale cooking. With about 600 recipes programmed in it, RoboChef can prepare large batches of food without human intervention. A giant stainless steel structure by appearance, RoboChef houses separate containers for solids, liquids and spices. Using sensors and IoT metrics, this Chef is capable of churning out recipes with precision, and can chop ingredients, cook and perform auto-cleaning once the dishes are done.

RoboChef, automated robotic kitchen for large-scale cooking
“The machine can cook two dishes parallelly. It can make a biriyani for say 120 people, gravies and similar dishes for about 500 people, and sweet dishes for 800 people,” says Vignesh Kumar, Technical Architect at RoboChef. After catering for multiple events, the team is now focused on sales. They have also come up with a domestic version of the machine.

As these startups gear up for their audience, which include residents of metro cities, dual working couples and single-person households, to dedicate space in their kitchens for automated cooking machines, the only question that remains is – will consumers open their kitchen doors? According to team Nymble, they will, because, “ At the end of the day, people want a warm, healthy meal to come home to.”

Sharmila Vaidyanathan is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. Her articles have appeared in Scroll, The Better India, The Goya Journal, Nature in Focus and other publications.

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