Leaving aside self-aware computer networks that send cyborgs back through time to terminate humanity’s saviour before birth, few technological developments are quite as terrifying – to Spanish palates, at least – as the prospect of a paella cooked not by a trusty Valencian hand but by a cold steel one.
Since it was unveiled at a hospitality industry fair last month, the world’s first robotic paellero has been causing a bit of a stir. Set the program, load the sofrito, rice, stock and seafood, leave it alone and the robotic arm, which is hooked up to a computerised stove, will do the rest.
The robot, a joint project between the young company br5 (Be a Robot 5) and the paella stove manufacturers Mimcook, has so far attracted interest from hotel and restaurant chains, as well as a Japanese company.
While purists may blanch at the idea of a robot being allowed anywhere near the precious marriage of rice, stock, vegetables and protein, br5’s founder insists it is simply the latest in a long line of labour-saving devices that save humans drudgery and allow them to focus on creativity.
“It’s a multifunction robot: right now it cooks rice because it’s hooked up to a Mimcook, but you could hook it up to a fryer so it fries potatoes, or you could attach a grill so it can cook burgers, or an oven so it can cook pizza or croissants,” Enrique Lillo said.
“At the end of the day, it’s an assistant. I like to say it’s a bit like the orange-juicing machines where you put oranges in the top and get juice out of the bottom. That’s a robot too – people just don’t realise it – and so is a coffee-vending machine. No one looks at those and goes: ‘Crikey! It’s stealing jobs from people!’ No. It’s elevating human capacity.”
Lillo, a 41-year-old industrial engineer who named his company after the robot from the 1986 film Short Circuit, says all the machine needs is a good recipe and the right ingredients.
“The robot will make sure the rice doesn’t burn; that the right amount of stock is used, and it will be there if someone’s having an off day or if your rice cook goes off to work in another restaurant.”
Mindful of the fury called down on those foolish enough to use paella to describe any rice-and-stock based dish – and on Jamie Oliver when he had the audacity to add chorizo – Lillo stressed his machine made rice dishes and not paella, “otherwise Valencian people will get really angry”.
And then, dangerously, he added: “But it’s quite funny because the paella is the pan itself and not the food you cook in it.”
The engineer and entrepreneur said he had been surprised at how good the finished dish was – right down to the crunchy crust, or socarrat – when he first tried it.
All too often, said Lillo, easily distracted humans just get it wrong.
“It doesn’t make sense for us to be stirring rice – especially because you’ll be looking at WhatsApp while you’re doing it and it’ll burn. That won’t happen with a robot.”