We have a rule in our house where we try to use the word “and” instead of “but.” So it is in that spirit that I write how I’ve met WIRED’s Joe Ray. I’ve eaten dinner with Joe Ray. I think Joe Ray is a brilliant writer and product reviewer.
I think his recent piece on how “The ‘Smart Kitchen’ Is Very Stupid,” misses the mark and is worth responding to.
You should read the full piece, but the gist of what Ray’s complaint can be summed up in his opening graph:
The app-connected kitchen gadgets, the experimental tiny ovens, the microwaves you can talk to, and the recipe apps? They’ve failed. While our first whack at the connected home kitchen was interesting and occasionally even fun, for the most part, it has flopped like a soufflé.
To be fair, there is a lot Ray gets right: kitchen appliances should have controls on the actual devices, not just controls via an app; the apps themselves have pretty weak content; and don’t even get me started on voice-controlled microwaves.
I think the underlying issue is that Ray likes to cook. Though I haven’t eaten his food, he’s probably a really good cook. I, however, am not. And honestly, I don’t really want to learn all about cooking. Food tech, however, and connected kitchen appliances in particular, have actually helped me become a decent cook.
For example, a few weeks back I made ribs for the first time, thanks to the Traeger WiFi-connected electric smoker. I had never tried making ribs before because they seemed to take such a long time and be so complicated. Who wants to spend that many hours making something that doesn’t work out? Or, my greater fear, makes people sick because it wasn’t cooked properly.
While the Traeger had controls on the device itself, I was also able to follow the in-app recipe and more importantly, monitor the smoker remotely. Rather than going out to the smoker itself, I just pulled out my phone to make sure it was still at the right temperature and check on the timer.
The same goes for my June oven. Sure, with some practice, I could probably learn how to make cod well. But the June does it all for me with the tap of a button, and the fish turns out great. Plus, the June has multi-generational appeal in the Albrecht house. My septuagenarian parents like the fact that the oven shuts off when you’re done so they won’t forget (my dad literally used to touch all the oven burners with his hands before leaving the house to make sure the stove wasn’t left on), and my 9 year old son is able to make pizza and chocolate chip cookies (super healthy eating in the Albrecht house) on his own thanks to the June’s computer vision and automated cook programs.
It’s important to realize as well that food tech is an entirely new category in cooking; there will be some bumps in the road as appliances and consumers figure out the best way to work with one another.
I think Ray is right that if startups and appliance makers are going to disrupt the kitchen, they should spend a lot more time working on creating products that are intuitive and make the act of cooking easier. There needs to be a particular emphasis on not just hardware design, but app UI design as well.
And what I want to remind Ray of is that the needs of cooking experts are not the same as those of the n00bs or the never-want-to-be’s.
Having said all that — see you onstage at SKS in two weeks, Joe!