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This Silicon Valley startup ‘records’ chefs’ greatest hits

CloudChef’s paneer masala. | Courtesy CloudChef

Is it possible to clone a Michelin-quality meal and deliver it directly to customers at a price point that DoorDash users would find palatable?

Silicon Valley’s CloudChef believes that the answer is yes. The food tech startup, which launched in January and is currently delivering dishes in Palo Alto, where it is headquartered, plans to expand to San Francisco in the coming months and hopes eventually to go national with the concept. 

Co-founder Nikhil Abraham likens the technology to Spotify, but for food. CloudChef’s website, which currently offers meals by respected Indian chefs and veterans of Michelin-starred restaurants, can help you summon up what you’re craving on demand. Order the dish online and have it delivered to your door or pick it up from CloudChef’s Palo Alto kitchen. 

CloudChef’s vegetable dhansak | Courtesy CloudChef

The company is mainly focused on gourmet Indian cuisine right now, but Abraham said the technology will eventually make it possible to enjoy a meal that is identical to one from your favorite restaurant in Paris—or your grandmother’s recipe for mac and cheese—all from the comfort of your home. The technology was inspired in part by Abraham and his co-founders’ desire to recreate authentic, home-cooked Indian-style dishes in the Bay Area.  

“My mom sits in India. I am sitting here in Palo Alto, and I eat her fish curry from home, and it tastes exactly how it is at home,” Abraham said.

Here’s how it works: A chef comes into CloudChef’s specially outfitted kitchen and cooks a meal. Thermal cameras and various other sensors document the cooking process in real-time, capturing variables such as temperature, weight, water loss and color change. These measurements are translated into data points for a machine-readable file, which preserves the recipe exactly to the chef’s specifications. CloudChef’s software-operated appliances use that data to recreate the dish with the help of a human kitchen operator.    

Interior of the CloudChef kitchen | Courtesy CloudChef

The process is a bit like a cross between a recording studio and song-streaming service—but for food.

First, the CloudChef kitchen “records” the recipe exactly as the chef desires and captures what Abraham calls the “golden take.” After that perfect cut has been recorded, the CloudChef kitchen provides simple step-by-step instructions to the kitchen operator, like adding ingredients to a boiling pot or putting cake mix in the oven. Working together, the operators and machines replicate the recipes with great precision. After that, packaged meals are distributed—or delivered—to hungry customers who have ordered them on the CloudChef website. And, to return to the streaming analogy, chefs get a royalty for use of their recipes—anywhere from 3% to 15% depending on the notoriety of the chef or restaurant, Abraham said.

CloudChef’s lamb tacos | Courtesy CloudChef

While some may be skeptical that a Michelin-level meal could be recreated without the hand of a highly trained culinary pro, chef Srijith Gopinathan—who just opened Copra in Japantown and previously earned San Francisco’s Campton Place two Michelin stars before bringing Michelin-recognition to his Palo Alto outpost, Ettan—believes that CloudChef’s technology is not just impressive. He sees great potential for the concept to revolutionize the food industry and has partnered with the company to offer Ettan’s chicken ghee roast and Vellore chicken curry on its platform. He thinks that CloudChef can help chefs like him work less, overcome staffing challenges and expand their eateries’ offerings to different parts of the country—and even the world.  

“It will basically help us with filling in for the shortage of chefs in this world,”  Gopinathan said. “And the second thing would be it increases the chance of scalability of different places.” 

CloudChef’s tres leches | Courtesy CloudChef

But how does the food actually taste? The Standard tried several CloudChef dishes, including Ettan’s chicken ghee roast. While some of us were skeptical about the company’s marketing claims, we were ultimately impressed with the overall quality of the meals, which were delivered in familiar plastic containers. Entrees were priced between $16 to $26 and apps cost as low as $8 or $10—the price and the taste did not disappoint.   

The company touts that in a blind taste test, its chefs couldn’t tell the difference between meals prepared by the CloudChef kitchen and their own dishes. Gopinathan said he was skeptical at first, but then converted into a believer after testing out the technology for himself.  

“It kind of surprised and shocked me,” he said, adding that the food was just as consistent in flavor as something he or one of his sous chefs would have prepared. 

“The only difference is this is not leaving me and opening its own restaurant,” he quipped.