When chef Oliver Li answered an ad in his native hometown of Shanghai for the Hilton, the first-ever international chain to set its sights on China, his life changed. He was working as an engineer in a small factory and at the time, China was just opening up to the outside world.
After an entire year of training, which included everything from language courses and sanitation to cooking skills and etiquette, the hotel had a soft opening and Li started his culinary career as an in-house apprentice. Currently the executive chef at George Brown College’s teaching restaurant The Chef’s House, Li has had a career spanning decades and continents, having also worked in Germany before immigrating to Canada. The student-run restaurant serves as a concept restaurant to prepare students for future jobs as cooks, servers and restaurant managers.
But as restaurants are adapting to newer technologies from immersion circulators that can crank out the perfect medium-rare steak to robot bars that can craft the perfect cocktail to self-serve kiosks where diners can place their own orders, will there still be a need for culinary schools in the future?
“Technology has completely changed what the industry is all about. At the same time, we are culinary educators. Whatever you want to build, you start from the bottom and at George Brown College we seek to help students build a solid foundation and to develop fundamental skills. But you can also use technology to open students’ minds and excite them,” says Li.
When technology fails, a good chef can still go by the touch, feel, and smell of the food – all part of the fundamental cooking skills taught to culinary students.
While Rational ovens, which Li has used since he started his culinary career in the 1980s, have existed for decades, “the technology in those ovens, even though they look the same” has been rapid. It’s true you can now replace skilled cooks with any one piece of kitchen technology but “at the end of the day, you still need the finishing touches, which requires a skilled cook.”
There have also been many advancements on the service side of things. At George Brown College, professor Doris Miculan Bradley teaches a course called Dining Room Service where students use TouchBistro, an iPad point-of-sale (POS) to simulate the ebb and flow of a dinner service – from ringing in an order to receiving and preparing a chit – to give them a grasp of timing.
At The Chef’s House and in the simulation lab, chef Li and professor Miculan Bradley use the reporting features to track sales, popularity of menu items and ingredients so they can make informed decisions when it comes to engineering their menu – a way to see what items are underperforming and overperforming in order to make the necessary changes in real-time.
Having come from a 30-year career managing the CN Tower’s 360 Restaurant, Miculan-Bradley knows the importance that technology plays in high-volume and high-end restaurants. “I was one of those managers who brought manual written cheques, manual payroll and manual inventory to computerization,” she says. At 360 Restaurant, with an inventory of 540 wines at any given time and 48 waiters on the floor “having immediate communication and an intuitive POS system that’s easy to teach, easy to use and that can also integrate into your payroll” was essential.
“There’s no question that the industry will not survive without technology,” says Li, who points to increased labour shortages despite record-high enrollment rates at culinary schools across the country.
“Technology can certainly help fill some of the gaps, but can’t be a total replacement for the human touch.”
And while technology certainly has played a key role in driving efficiencies in the culinary world, chef Li doesn’t think that new technology changes the food on the plate or changes the way people think about cooking. Rather it is the cultural exchange between chefs through travel, seeing what their peers are doing and taking those learnings that lead to the true innovations in culinary.
“When they find something completely new, something they never had when they were in school and take that back to their kitchens, they will find a way to use the technologies available to them, not just the food or the flavour but the cooking techniques and then evolve it into something new.”
That’s what makes every chef unique. So for now, humans are better than robots at least when it comes to dazzling us with culinary ingenuity and creating dining experiences that we will remember fondly.