Cui Yunquan’s robots look like they’ve roved off a holodeck. Clapped in chrome, eyes glowing, their arms slice like rapiers because he designed them that way: for precision and otherworldly service.
Beijing’s Cui makes noodle robots, mechanical men built to cut from lumps of dough at quick, automated intervals. Priced at US$2,000, these “Chef Cuis” cut costs for Mainland restaurant owners in the face of labor costs rising throughout the nation—chefs earn an average of US$4,700 in annual salary.
Three thousand have been sold since their introduction over two years ago. Though Cui’s work surely inspired the creation of robotic wait staff in Harbin, sales of 3,000 units hardly qualify as a revolution in China’s restaurant business.
But the Chef Cuis’ very existence symbolizes the absence of cultural status within the country’s swelling service industry. In the West, chefs are characterized by gritty coolness: In Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, author Anthony Bourdain depicts chefs as swaggering, tattooed Bohemians:
In the kitchen, [cooks] were like gods…They dressed like pirates: Chef’s coats with the arms slashed off, blue jeans, ragged and faded headbands, gore-covered aprons, gold hoop earrings, wrist cuffs, turquoise necklaces and chokers, rings of scrimshaw and ivory, tattoos-all the decorative detritus of the long-past Summer of Love.
The Chinese reality is far different. Not only does working behind a hot grill not hold any cachet, but it’s perceived as difficult and dirty. “As there are more and more job opportunities, the young people don’t want to work as a chef to slice noodles, because the job is very exhausting,” said Cui, in an interview with Zoomin.TV. “It is the trend that robots will replace men in factories. It is certainly going to happen in sliced-noodle restaurants.”
Beyond the sweat and grime, being a cook in China garners little professional esteem. Fuchsia Dunlop, the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, attributed such longstanding “snobbery about kitchen work” to the writing of Confucian philosopher Mencius who famously said that a “gentleman keeps his distance” from the bubbling wok. In Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China, Dunlop writes:
The development of a refined palate and an appreciation of food was part of the education of the Confucian gentleman, but the actual cookery fell to the lot of the uneducated masses…Boys from poor households went into service in restaurants or private kitchens, often simply because their families knew they would be given three square meals a day.
Nonetheless, the centuries-old stigma is slowly softening. Dunlop describes post-reform chef friends that live in high-rises, own designer clothes, and make enough scratch to work and play abroad. But old habits die hard. À la his predecessors President Xi Jinping is steering the best and brightest toward more prestigious careers in the sciences, determined to put the country out in front of the pack.
“My own Chinese friends have always been baffled by the fact that I choose to associate with dumpling makers and beancurd sellers as well as ‘intellectuals,’” Dunlop writes.
These predilections against China’s bean curd sellers bump up against the growing popularity of shows like “Hot and Scrumptious” and “The Food Trump Card.” Shanghai Daily reported that Channel Young’s cooking programs alone generated more than $23.8 million in ads pitching condiments, sauces and kitchenware.
The rooftop vineyard in the last episode reminds me of the grape vine trellis that grandpa set up when I was little; the grapes were green and there were big fuzzy worms on them. It reminds me of a dog grandpa raised, and the goldfish in the huge water jar…
In a country that is fundamentally communal, food is everything.
In a country that is increasingly competitive, though, the yuan usurps; spurred by lofty government rhetoric and pushed from primary school to excel, young Chinese feel compelled to hunt for a career that tests their academic mettle. That doesn’t require a knife set.
Meanwhile, migrants from the country who have come to cities to work as restaurant waitresses, bartenders, and line cooks are hard-pressed to pay rent. Unable to afford ground-level housing, an estimated one million in the capitol have taken to living underground. It’s harsh existence to start, one that’s made worse when workers are gradually phased out for robotic replacements.
For now, chefs remain tucked behind the swinging doors. Their feet are dog-tired after a dinner rush; their backs, leathered by the heat of the stove. While China eats, they taste and create and then get drinks after everyone’s home and asleep. All part of an ages-old process that they surely hope can never be mastered by a machine.