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From smart to the invisible kitchen
CHEFS, beware. Going by what was on show at last week's Eurocucina 2016, people will be eating what their kitchens cook for them.
Crammed into two pavilions as part of the mammoth Salon del Mobile Milano - the annual furniture fair which makes our Food&Hotel Asia look like a pop-up flea market - kitchen brands big, small and super-exclusive were on hand to extol the virtues of the latest cooking range, dishwasher, coffee machine and ovens with near artificial intelligence.
There were cooker hoods that you could use to suck cooking fumes out of your stir-fry, but shaped like cool lamps that you can also use to light up your living room. There's even a thoughtful slot for you to stick your cellphone in. There were cooking stoves that come with recipes you can download into an iPad. Take a photo of any ingredient you want to cook and the iPad automatically comes up with recipes you can choose.
There are stove tops that can sense how big your pot is and calculate the time needed for simmering your stew. And those that control the temperature too - so if the doorbell rings while you're frying eggs or pancakes, you can just leave them there without worrying about burning your breakfast.
How does one bring together the mind-boggling variety of existing and future technology, distil it and make it useful and accessible to both IT-savvy millennials and their less adventurous parents?
If you can do all that, you will have the kitchen of the future, says Andreas Enslin, head of design at German appliance maker Miele, at the brand's mega-booth at Eurocucina in Milan earlier this month. Together with its range of new and upgraded appliances, Miele also hosted a secondary event at Zona Tortona to showcase its futuristic concept, The Invisible Kitchen. There, a cooking demonstration took place in a futuristic setting that was equal parts "Beam me up Scotty" Star Trek and Tom Cruise cooking a three-course meal in The Minority Report.
It wasn't so much about showcasing groundbreaking new products but about Miele's vision of what a kitchen in the future would look like. Literally a virtual assistant, The Invisible Kitchen suggests recipes, tells you how to make use of leftovers and if you're bad at measuring ingredients and tend to leave pots boiling over, the software swoops in to correct the situation. And instead of having to go through repetitive instructions such as the phone messaging service of banks and government offices, the system will remember what you know and adapt to your level of experience. "It's not so much about new technology or products, they are already here," says Mr Enslin. "It's about how you interact with them. We have the products now with all the automatic programmes but it's the missing links in between which we don't have.
"In the future, we will have an assistance system that will guide you - on different levels - through the cooking cycle. If you're a newbie who has only ordered pizza before, the system will make recommendations, help you to buy the ingredients and guide you through the cooking process. It will even know your health status, your allergies and who is dining with you, whether family or friends."
While much of The Invisible Kitchen is about appealing to the younger customer demographic who fancy the idea of cooking via Bluetooth, it's also about cooking as a life process, adapting as the user ages.
"We are all getting older, and an ageing society means people will need help to stay independent for as long as they can. It's not about dementia, it's about being able to cook for yourself and not having your children worry about whether you're eating properly," says Mr Enslin. "One of the advantages of the smart home is that we can take everything - cameras, recognition software, etc - and connect it to the kitchen so that, say, if grandma forgets to turn off the milk she's heating, the stove automatically cuts off and it can alert you to the situation."
The physical form of The Invisible Kitchen has yet to emerge, and having been in gestation for some eight years, it's been one of the longest ongoing development projects that Mr Enslin has taken on in the 10 years he has worked at Miele.
It helps that Miele isn't a listed company but independently owned by the families of its founding partners Carl Miele and Reinhard Zinkann, whose philosophy of Immer Besser (Forever Better) began in 1899 when they invented butter churning machines.
"My great-grandfather was living on a farm and saw how difficult it was to churn butter," explains great-grandson Marcus Miele, who now runs the company with co-proprietor Reinhard Zinkann Jr. "He said: 'If you have better quality, it makes life better for the farmers, and that's what we strive for. Technology has to be there because you have to create the possibilities, but that's just one part. The other is, do you really like to use it, and is it beneficial?"
Given its premium status and cool gadgets, and its reputed 20-year life span of the products it creates, obviously many people agree and have contributed to the company's healthy bottomline. At Eurocucina, there was plenty to drool over, be it its expanded range of steam-cum-microwave ovens, handle-less appliances, temperature controlled induction cookers or ultra-large free standing cooking ranges.
If you're thinking of redoing or just adding on to your kitchen, check out the ArtLine series of appliances that won't spoil the uninterrupted smooth flow of your handle-less cabinets. Ovens, combination steam-microwave ovens, warming drawers and vacuum sealers all come with flush, protrusion-free surfaces, opened by a simple touch.
The vacuum sealer is a level above your home version which can even seal meats in liquid, thanks to its vacuum chamber. Pop the packages into the steam oven and you're ready to cook sous vide.
Seven years in the making, the XXL range cooker is a giant, free-standing appliance that's up to 48 inches wide with an oven big enough to cook two turkeys at a time or even a small pig, topped with heavy duty gas burners that could well provide all the wok hei you need.
There's also the aforementioned temperature-controlled induction stove where you can leave your egg frying as you answer the phone or deal with the delivery man without coming back to a charred mess. And try to resist the blackboard covered fridge - a whimsical nod to school and fridge magnets. The entire front of the fridge is covered in blackboard material complete with a white 'chalk' pen that you can use to write reminders or shopping lists then and there.
"In spite of all the smart home innovations, we still have a lot of analogue innovations," says Dr Miele. A lot of emphasis goes into studying how people use their appliances and how they tweak the technology to make life easier and more fun. "It's not a huge investment but it's of great benefit to the user."
So forget about technology taking over our lives, at least where Miele is concerned. As chief designer Mr Enslin puts it, it's about "taking technology and making it work for humans."