The invisible kitchen
What exactly is or was the invisible kitchen? This question has been asked of me many times since I returned from Miele’s big reveal in Milan recently and I’m struggling to answer it. I’m prone to a bit of high-end-kitchen-appliance-lust now and again and that’s honestly what I thought I’d be doing at Eurocucina, part of Milan’s design week (Salone del Mobile). The implications of what we saw were so unexpected, so far-reaching in terms of how we might cook and eat, that it even sparked a philosophical discussion among the group I was with. This was way more than just covetable cookers and fridges.
Miele tried to give us a few clues by sending some videos and a huge tome with attractive pictures of kitchen but I was really none the wiser. I struggled to put together questions to submit to Andreas Enslin, Head Design Director of Miele, for such an abstract idea. How could I ask about something not apparent to the naked eye which I knew nothing about? It certainly added to the sense of mystery and anticipation.
So what would you imagine that kitchen manufacturers look at when developing new products? I thought they would try to make things a bit more energy-efficient, add in a few new features and slightly improved look. My discussion with Andreas revealed that the research is of extraordinary depth, looking at least five or six years into the future about food trends, methods of cooking, ways of living, people s’ lifestyles, attitudes and cultural backgrounds. They conduct group research around the world to predict the potential impacts on future societies particularly looking at how people will shop, travel, cook and store their food.
One conclusion from this is that the lines are blurred between the kitchen and eating space and the rest of our living spaces. Andreas told us that other research has shown that customers no longer trust the food industry and want more control over what they eat e.g. the rise and rise of farmers’ markets. They seek greater transparency. Also because people are living longer, this empowered, aged society is alert to the need to stay healthy.
Standing in part of a darkened warehouse space in the trendy area of Zona Tortona, a flying saucer style display pulsed and changed colour above our heads illuminating plates, cutlery, vegetables and other culinary props. After a quick preamble, the show began above us and we stared up to watch a duo in action, cooking and explaining how we might prepare a three course meal in the future.
Can you imagine putting your food down on an intelligent work surface which tells you where vegetables came from, how many nutrients they contain, how fresh they are, and gives you ideas for supper based on what is in your cupboard and your fridge? It weighs the items and tells you exactly how much of them to cut for the amount you’ll need. It detects the heat of a chilli, the provenance of your produce, the best before dates of your ingredients. You can put a pan down anywhere and it will heat the food while all around it stays cool. The oven door opens automatically when it detects you are holding a baking tray. It recommends the most healthy way of cooking and when you are using ingredients it will tally if you’re running low and put them on your shopping list. It will even order them electronically to be delivered. It will do an audit of your fridge tell you what’s about to go off and give you ideas about how to use up the leftovers. It will even play the right music to go with the occasion.
Watching this all happen in front of our eyes was absolutely fascinating, there were audible gasps from the audience. How did I feel about it? For the keen cook it’s all slightly disconcerting. It feels like the kitchen is taking away all the things that bring pleasure; the decision-making and hands on connection to the food (for the very reason I dislike bread makers).
But hang on a minute let’s compare this to driving. People like driving and don’t want to delegate responsibility for it, they want to feel in control. Yet it would be much safer if the car calculated the distance and speed rather than leaving it to human judgement. And we all now use automatic functions like power-steering and sensors to tell all sorts of things about the car environment and even the things outside the car. How many people really rely on their wing mirrors when parking rather than the bleeps? Driverless cars are being trialed in Dubai right now. One of our group predicted that driving will become a leisure activity – is that where food preparation is going? Andreas certainly thinks so.
Cooking is simple. With a knife, a chopping board, a pan, a spoon, a flame can turn a few ingredients into a meal. Somehow cooking has become complicated or seen as too difficult or time-consuming. If we don’t cook we transfer the power and responsibility for what nourishes us to other people. In the main these are ready-meal manufacturers, big processed food companies and supermarkets or restaurants (from take-away to the finest dining). We have choice, but not to the degree that cooking and shopping for ourselves makes. It’s easier to choose good, chemical free produce and limit sugar, salt and fat levels (the profit generating trio of the food industry). Rather than being disassociated from our food because of time or skill levels, this intelligent kitchen could be seen as taking back more control over what we eat and the cooking process.
Empowerment. In The Archers, when Brian Aldridge was left alone without his wife in their brand new kitchen he struggled to identify, let alone use, the coffee machine – a story line in drama that writers obviously felt reflected real life. I asked Andreas about the schism of ever more sophisticated technology which is supposed to make life simpler but which baffle consumers in complexity. He acknowledged this and said that they need to ‘create a bridge between the technology and the consumer’ and that often designers want to put everything into a product but the art is to leave some things out, to simplify.
Sustainability was a concern for me. Would ever more increasing sophistication lead to consumers replacing their kitchen equipment with every upgrade (as per phones)? Andreas assured us that the hardware and technology is being designed to last for decades and will be able to be upgraded (similar to a software update). Miele has been turning to more natural materials such as glass too. Add in the savings of energy efficiency and food waste and the whole equation starts to stack up. While we were at the Eurocucina exhibition we saw many examples of it already in practise on the Miele stand such as steam ovens and dishwashers which reuses the heat from water used in the last cycle towards the next one.
Watching the invisible kitchen in action truly felt like being on the set of ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ but most of the advances we saw are already in development and some things, such as the advanced steam oven and a coffee machine programmed to be personalised to each person’s taste, are already within the Miele range. One thing that struck me from our interview with Andreas was that he didn’t focus only on function but rather more ephemeral topics such as designing a ‘kitchen about the senses’ with a ‘Zen feeling’. The kitchen of the future will probably disappear out of sight once you’ve finished using it, to become truly invisible, hence preserving the uncluttered lines of your streamlined existence. Forget about cooks – neat freaks will love this!
As for the immediate future, here a few other impressions of the latest from Eurocucina:
On the Miele stand they demonstrated an induction hob which had a sensor to regulate the heat of the pan (rather than just the heat source). This means that something would never, ever burn as proved by a fried egg with a runny yolk which had been in the pan for 45 minutes. Pancakes were produced one by one with exactly the same level of brown-ness; no new induction pans were needed as the technology is in the hob.
We saw a refrigerator with sealed drawers to retain moisture so no plastic wrap (with its health damaging side effects) is needed. There was also a fridge with a flat handle-less door, flush with other units and covered in a blackboard surface suitable for magnetic chalk. Lots of fun.
There were ‘bean to cup’ coffee machines with auto descaler, extractors within the hob rather than above it (for small spaces), built-in woks and grills on the work surface. A sous vide drawer has entered the domestic kitchen; apparently chefs routinely use it to tenderise steaks before grilling so people can now try this at home. Inside the energy-saving dishwasher, the grids were designed so wine glasses could hang vertically to alleviate that annoying last drip. A new compact wine unit opened up like a small oven to reveal the perfectly stored wine. Extractor hoods took on a variety of forms including one which reminded me of early apple mac designs for some reason. There were handle-less ovens, handle-less everything – no knobs to clean, all touch technology.
Looking round the rest of the exhibition, the stands seemed full of very pared down streamlined appliances and units, lots of clean lines, paired with natural elements either as decoration (herbs in abundance) or as part of the whole kitchen (hobs set in granite for instance). Cooking on hobs was either induction (the majority) or flame.
An exception to all this was the Smeg stand which had limited edition fridges. Each one of the 100 in the series were hand-painted by six Sicilian artists and designed by Dolce and Gabbana. At a cool 30,000 Euros each they were already in hot demand. We preferred the rather kitsch drinks coolers which looked like car bonnets.
When I think that my Babcia (Polish grandmother) didn’t have a fridge but kept her milk cool in a bucket of cold water this brave new world seems centuries away instead of a few decades. Miele seem convincing and determined to be charting its course.
PS Thanks to Foodiva who sent this brilliant list of restaurants and bars to visit during Salone del Mobile including the wonderful Dry (more about it from my last visit to Milan).
This video with Andreas Enslin – Miele Head of Design – predicts the future and explains more behind the concepts.
I was a guest of Miele at Eurocucina and for the VIP launch of the Invisible kitchen.