How Tech Is Mixing Up the Professional Chef Playbook
Get Tony Liano talking about flavor for long enough, and he might urge you to conduct an experiment.
“Buy some jelly beans, plug your nose and tell me what you taste.”
Whether the bean flavor is cherry or rotten eggs, the result will be the same: utter tastelessness. The same can be said of bland, uninspired cooking—which Tony and his wife, Jodi Liano, sought to combat when they opened the San Francisco Cooking School (SFCS) in 2012.
In just six years, the school has rooted itself in San Francisco’s food world, supplying some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants with a new crop of savvy cooks every six months. But SFCS graduates are also venturing down career paths that have less to do with farm-to-table cuisine and more to do with San Francisco’s other notable industry: technology.
For Mandy Morris, a 2014 graduate of SFCS’s culinary arts program, exposure to the diverse possibilities of life beyond a professional kitchen is what convinced her to enroll. After an 11-year career in corporate IT, Morris informed a slack-jawed CIO that she was quitting to pursue cooking. She didn’t know where the decision would take her—only that she loved to cook.
As part of her education, SFCS placed Morris in a four-month externship at a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. She stayed on at the restaurant for a year after graduating while trying multiple part-time culinary jobs: She was an assistant to a food stylist, a recipe tester at a magazine, a production manager at a granola company, a video producer at a plant-based food company, and a baker.
In February 2017, she accepted a permanent position as culinary content creator at smart-oven maker June. The company’s oven uses an AI-powered camera to recognize more than 25 types of foods and suggest recipes and cooking temperatures. Morris creates recipes for the smart oven, analyzing user data to decide where to start. For example, when a user slides a salmon filet into the oven, the smart camera will recognize it and suggest a pre-set cooking option. Morris sees which pre-set options are most popular—say, roasted salmon—and works in June’s test kitchen to create recipes that extract the most flavor from the main ingredient.
Beyond that starting ingredient, Morris has full control over the recipe’s direction. She credits the SFCS curriculum for her creative approach — to begin with a few abstract flavors, to select ingredients that will provide those flavors, and then to improvise as the recipe grows more complex.
Once Morris has constructed a recipe from scratch, she manages freelancers to produce all the accompanying copy, photography and videos, which users can access through the oven’s interface or mobile app.
The Kitchen as Consummate Training Ground
The Lianos designed their approach to culinary education as a response both to restaurants’ demand for experienced cooks and to the growth of food-related opportunities in tech and media—whether it’s tech companies competing for gourmet chefs to feed nutrition-conscious employees, or the evolution of the picture-perfect meal.
In collaboration with some of San Francisco’s top culinary talent, Jodi wrote a curriculum that teaches students the purpose behind every technique they apply and every decision they make in the kitchen. Rather than reproducing recipes from memory, students learn about each step’s purpose and how it contributes to flavor. Once they’ve mastered a recipe, the students can get creative.
Jodi says that mastering the holistic cooking process requires learning about the broader food world, too. That’s why, in a given week, students might stop by the local fishmonger’s shop, meet with a cookbook writer, bake a loaf of sourdough, and learn from a chocolatier about bean-to-bar production. At least once weekly, students walk into “menu days,” where they’re expected to prepare four-course meals using techniques learned in the classroom. The sessions are intentionally fast-paced and stressful to help students develop creative problem-solving skills and to deepen their appreciation of flavor.
The Lianos say that success stories like that of Morris are the result of the school’s culinary education philosophy. (It’s proximity to the Bay Area tech innovations that are disrupting every industry—food included—doesn’t hurt, either.)
Still, like any San Francisco-based organization worth its salt, they’re prepared to revise their approach based on what they’re seeing in the industry. The goal, after all, is to prepare graduates for a successful career, whether working the line in a professional kitchen or R&D at a culinary startup.
“We never want to be that school with the old curriculum,” Tony says.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.