As a writer, it should come as no surprise that I’ve never been a fan of AI-created art. To enter in some basic information and have a replication of what a bunch of zeros and ones THINKS is an artistic rendering be spit out has nothing to do with true art. Whether it be music, film, or painting, we’re beginning to see this robo-art creep into every endeavor in which creativity is a cornerstone.

And it seems that the culinary arts are the next on this soulless hit list.

Earlier this year, a completely AI-ran fast-food joint was opened in Southern California. Being the first of its kind, CaliExpress by Flippy is using AI technology to serve up burgers that are untouched by human hands. When asked about the reasons why this restaurant was opened, the creators/owners said that the reduction of burns and falls was a major factor.

I think they meant that the reduction of labor costs was a major factor, but I digress …

To find out the truth, I spoke with the Michelin-starred chef of Denver’s Beckon, Duncan Holmes. During the interview, we discussed the realities of how pervasive burns and falls are in a professional kitchen, along with his thoughts on robo-cuisine. And interestingly enough, by the end of our talk, he actually softened my views a bit about the potential uses of AI in the culinary world.

But before tackling the tough questions, it’s important to know that Holmes is definitely an authority when it comes to food. His badass resume more than says so.

By helping out at his mother’s restaurant growing up, the culinary world became a fixture of his life at a very young age. Though it seemed his future as a chef was a no-brainer, Holmes found himself taking a detour into economics during college. Unfortunately, his fortunes took a drastic turn for the worse when the Stock Market crashed in 2008—right after graduation and before looking at an internship,

After many failed attempts at securing a job in the field of his degree during the economic tailspin, Holmes “sent out a resume to one restaurant in Berkeley [California], it was called ‘Eccolo.’ And I heard back from the woman in the kitchen there in, like, six hours or something.” And that woman was none other than Samin Nosrat, the James Beard Award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” With Nosrat becoming his mentor, Holmes was off to the races.

After spending the majority of the early part of his career in California, he came to Denver in 2015. Three years later he went on to open Beckon and never looked back. Since then, his restaurant has been a smashing success, ultimately winning a Michelin star in 2023.

When I asked him about his initial thoughts concerning a completely AI-ran restaurant, his feelings were mixed. “I guess I have several. I don’t have any ‘formed’ opinions yet, because I think I perhaps would want some context, or to try it and see it, you know? But, I think there’s potentially a place for something like that.” He continued, “To me, [AI] just equates the food to the modern-day vending machine. Where, you’re kind of in a weird moment in your day or whatever and you just need something to put your money in, push ‘E5’ and the thing comes out. And there’s no connection to it, it’s merely just to satisfy a quick craving.”

Quick and convenient, all being done with the least amount of cost and waste possible—perfect for fast food.

With keeping cost in mind, I asked Holmes if he felt the reason being given by the creators/owners—that AI will help reduce burns and falls in a restaurant—was legit, or perhaps it might be something more on the economic side. Are there really so many burns that this kind of technology is desperately needed, or are the robots merely there to remove labor costs and increase profits?

“That’s absolutely true [about labor costs]. The labor, especially post-COVID, in my experience the labor is far and away the most expensive component of running a restaurant. As far as the burns and falls, it’s [not as much as] labor-pool. I think if burns and falls were that prevalent, if that was the number one reason, or even in the top two or three reasons for creating AI in the kitchen, we’d probably be talking about kitchen safety a lot more than we are right now.”

As a side note, about a week after this interview, a news report came out showing that Burger King was going live with beta-testing of a completely AI drive-thru at a few locations in Auckland, New Zealand. So yes, it seems that the big boys of burgers are keeping an eye on this technology—with the other eye running the numbers of how much their profits will increase with decreased labor costs.

But this is just fast food; you know, vending machine stuff. Is it possible that if successful, AI has the capability of reaching the same level as Beckon?

“I think fast-casual is possible. I think that kind of depends on our culture and what our culture wants. I think there’s a big part of the dining crowd who go out and they enjoy the dining out and the buzz and the energy a restaurant provides, and the human interaction. Even with its faults, I think that still provides this restaurant experience that we all know and love and that we constantly return to.”

In fact, it’s because of that human element both Holmes and I believe a ceiling could be placed on how successful an AI-fueled restaurant can be.

Said Holmes, “AI can’t understand art. Art is subjective, and the way it is that we as humans are drawn to art, and what makes [something] art, that is an incomprehensible facet to our lives as beings. And I think food is a similar thing, where food is an art. An AI can reproduce a certain style of cuisine, perhaps on a more fundamental level of just like ‘good versus bad,’ but I don’t know that AI is going be able to produce a visionary, three-starred Michelin meal that [the human touch] requires.”

He continued, “Do I think that an AI can put a steak on the grill for five minutes on each side, rest it for five minutes, add a little scoop of mashed potatoes and some wilted spinach? Absolutely! But my question would be, ‘Why do I want to go to that restaurant?’”

These statements led me to wonder something. If all that is missing with AI can be found in the creative aspects of the human experience, is it possible that we could work together?

“Certainly! I think one of the big things that we are always striving for in kitchens is consistency. Consistency and then after that is efficiency. And humans are not oftentimes the best at those. We’re so subject to fleeting thoughts and things like that. So, I think AI can definitely lend a hand.”

After hearing this, I mentioned to Holmes that if humans and AI worked together, I feel the AI would be sent to primarily work the soufflé station since soufflés can sense fear and will collapse out of spite. “Yeah, absolutely, yeah!” he replied with a laugh.

By the end of the interview, Holmes had me convinced that there is definitely a place for AI to work alongside humans in the kitchen. Their robotic ways would ensure consistency with prep or other work that requires a precise touch, while the human spirit would add the unknown element that causes food to give us the strongest physiological responses to our past out of anything in the world.

I’m sorry, but no robot will ever be able to take me back to being five years old like eating my mom’s fried chicken will … even if they have the recipe.