Chef Timothy Roberts is Creating a Personalized Dining Experience
When someone says their favorite food is pizza or a chocolate chip cookie, that affinity likely isn’t from taste alone. Favorite foods are often associated with a food memory, multi-sensory and emotional experiences that create strong, positive associations. These unique food memories play a huge role in creating a personalized dining experience. For pastry chef Timothy Roberts, a potent food memory is apple pie. For him, the American classic conjures more than sugary apples or buttery crust; it reminds him of his grandmother and learning how to bake with her.
“It’s that feeling you have when you’re with family, and you feel safe and loved,” he says.
Now, after nearly 20 years in the food industry, Roberts credits the pie for his decision to become a chef. And lately he’s interested in finding ways to give the dining experience a more personal feel. For now, that means developing menus around people’s flavor preferences. But, in the future Roberts hopes to harness the power of food memories to delight diners. He says data-gathering technologies will make it possible for restaurants to serve diners on a one-to-one basis. More so, restaurants and chefs will be able to stay ahead of larger industry trends.
A Personalized Tasting Test-Run
Roberts applied his vision of personalized dining for the first time in October 2017. While working at Vox Table in Austin, Texas, he hosted a one-night event called Flavor Tripping. He created a taste profile for each participant by recording their likes and dislikes on a piece of paper. Participants also received a chemical taste test. This involved placing a piece of paper on their tongue laden with phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and thiourea. For some, the chemicals taste very bitter, signifying those people are “supertasters” with a more sensitive palate. Others, called “non-tasters,” can’t taste the chemicals at all. Still others detect only a slightly bitter flavor and fall somewhere in between supertaster and non-taster.
Armed with this information, Roberts served each taste profile a different course: Complex seasonings went to the non-tasters, while supertasters received less aggressively seasoned dishes.
“I quickly saw the limitations of doing it analog,” he says of collecting this data from patrons before the dinner. “For this to go to the next level, we need technology.”
Mixing Data into the Personalized Dining Experience
Culinary circles have long circulated the idea about more holistic and personal menus. One celebrity chef from the U.K. is famous for trying to create an emotional association with his food by engaging all five senses as part of the personalized dining experience—for example, playing the sound of crashing waves while diners eat shellfish.
But Roberts wants to get even more customized. Though he works full-time as a pastry chef, he uses his free time to create an app that would store and track taste preferences similar to those he gathered during the Flavor Tripping event. Artificial intelligence algorithms would process that data to better understand a person’s specific preferences. The goal is to help diners interact with a restaurant’s menu and chef much the way today’s reservation apps do.
He explains that users could use the app to build a taste profile that includes basic preferences and whether they are a supertaster, non-taster or somewhere in between. The app could record a thorough food history and even include specific food memories. When dining out, users would be prompted to enter real-time information on factors like their mood, the type of meal (to differentiate between a business lunch and a romantic dinner), and how adventurous they’re feeling. The kitchen staff would use this data to assemble a tailored menu for each patron.
“It’s that idea of hospitality taken to its logical conclusion,” Roberts says, “where it’s almost like I can anticipate your needs well in advance. I can customize everything to you personally.”
He sees this kind of experience as the next logical phase in the food industry, but acknowledges it’s a major departure from the way things work in most commercial kitchens today.
“You have to almost rethink the way you work, because so much improvisation has to happen,” he says. “A lot of chefs are used to having structure, [but with] this you would have to have more of the components of the dishes separated into their very basic forms, and then be able to customize it at the last minute.”
Mining for Macro Trends
In addition to helping restaurateurs serve personalized dining meals, Roberts sees potential for this individual taste profile data in helping to predict larger industry leanings.
“Chefs that are succeeding are the ones that are paying attention to tastes and trends,” says a former executive chef turned culinary consultant. Being able to track the preferences and habits of restaurant-goers on a macro level would arm chefs with insights useful for constructing their own menus. Couvelier cites locally sourced ingredients and the importance of “share-worthy” dishes as top trends that have emerged during the past several years. Adherence to these trends, Couvelier says, can make or break a restaurant.
One emerging trend Roberts has noticed is a transition to the classical.
“I’m making Alsatian apple tarts, and I haven’t done those for over 15 years,” he says. “This is a perfectly executed French tart: no local improvisation, no futurist anything. But I feel like that’s just the trend at the moment.”
While Roberts’ app is still in the early stages of development, he’s excited about the possibilities and hopes that, in time, he’ll be able to serve dishes that delight diners on an individual level. Ideally, Roberts would know his patrons as well as he knew his wife or children, he says, and would craft dishes that “make people feel so cared about and so well taken care of.”
“I think all this stuff is possible,” he says, “based on what I’m seeing artificial intelligence can do. It’s wonderful.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.