When Robo restaurant opens in Sydney before Christmas it'll be seen as an early present by some and feared by others, but it will mark a day the restaurant industry has long been expecting.
Robo, as you might guess from its name, will have a robotic kitchen. Not just any robot, its version of HAL – the computer from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey – is the same robotic wok burner used in the kitchen of the temporary hospital constructed in just days earlier this year in Wuhan.
If the pandemic expedited the idea of a kitchen with limited human contact, Robo's designer, Tomas Scerbo from Manly firm Interior Life, says some wiley operators were quick to import it.
"They are three young, stylish Chinese guys who saw an opportunity and wanted to do something different," Scerbo says of Robo, which will open on the edge of Chinatown at Darling Square.
Robo's chef doesn't have a glossy CV – it comes out of the factory of the Shanghai AI Robot Group. It heats the wok, splashes it with oil, adds protein and any number of plumbed-in sauces, then neatly plates it up.
Until now, robots in Australian restaurants have mostly been limited to gimmicky roles wheeling out meals to customers. But across the globe the boundaries of robot-prepared food are being tested.
A French company, Pazzi, is already turning out pizzas made by a robotic arm in Paris. In Boston four MIT graduates are behind Spyce, a kitchen run by robotic chefs with a menu overseen by Daniel Boulud. And the Michelin-starred chef argues the quality is still there: "I discovered that the robotic kitchen could bring precision, consistency, taste and freshness".
The rise of the food robot is obviously causing some concern about the future of kitchen jobs, with the appropriately named Flippy in the US proving to be a burger flipper that doesn't need to take breaks or holidays.
Scerbo points out that Robo will still require staff to prep food. And he believes the robots' role – at this stage at least – is more focused on the volume end of the food chain.
But he's cognisant of its significance and has created a futuristic design of white mesh, floors that curve up the walls and orange strip lights. The future, it seems, is here.