Food has always been deeply rooted in Chinese culture. According to Taoist philosophy, the universe finds balance in the forces of yin and yang and food is no exception. Yin foods create cool energy in the body, while yang foods create warmth. Opposites, yet perfectly balanced. Harmony within the human body.
However, at Calgary’s Clay Pot Rice, local restaurateur Alex Guo isn’t just trying to find balance with his food. Amidst Calgary’s economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s also trying to balance his business’s accounts. And, with the help of robotics, he may just have found a way of doing that, sparking a conversation about the role of technology in society.
Guo was born in Guangdong province in South China. The coastal province, which fronts the north shore of the South China Sea, is known for its delectable Cantonese cuisine.
“I think all Chinese are cooks. Cooking for us is easy,” says Guo.
However, Guo didn’t initially pursue work as a restaurateur. His first passion was medicine.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor,” says Guo. “In 2010, I met Dr. [Tony] Kim, he’s the top dental technician in Calgary.”
After following Kim into the dental industry, Guo began working as a dental technician, manufacturing crowns under a microscope.
“It’s interesting, I liked that. I still like that,” he says about the work. His transition to the restaurant industry may seem drastic, but when business at his lab had dropped down by 80 per cent, Guo didn’t have many alternatives.
“We don’t have enough jobs for dentists — I needed to put food on the table,” he explains.
In 2017, Guo opened Red Tails Cajun Seafood Bar. Though it was a refreshing change of pace to bring fresh seafood to a landlocked city, the restaurant was forced to close its doors just two years later.
“I remember the day [the] upstairs caught fire. Our restaurant got [completely] water damaged,” says Guo.
With the damages, a battered economy and the high cost of seafood, the restaurant was doomed. So Guo did something even bolder than starting a seafood bar in the prairies: he bought robot waiters.
“It’s so easy right now,” says Guo on purchasing the robots. “You just go to the internet and search it and then you can buy it. That’s it.”
Because of his years of experience working at the dental lab, Guo wasn’t phased by the idea of learning to work with this new technology.
“When I bought it, a friend of mine said, ‘You’re crazy — you should just shut down, you should close the business, save money.’”
Instead, he revamped the entire concept of his restaurant, attracting attention and customers with the unexpected waitstaff at a time when human contact is a risk. Guo named his new establishment Clay Pot Rice, after the traditional Chinese dish which the restaurant specializes in.
“In Calgary, even in Alberta, most people try cooking rice the easy way, just using the rice cooker,” says Guo. “The rice is soft, so they think that clay pot rice is soft.”
When cooked right in a clay pot however, the soft white rice crisps up, giving it its signature texture.
“Most first-generation Chinese miss their hometown food. That’s why I wanted to use the traditional way of cooking in a clay pot,” says Guo.
Clay pot rice is also a popular dish found in Southern Chinese street food markets. Noting how popular ramen, a staple Japanese street food, is in the city, Guo thought, “Why can’t we bring some Chinese street food to Calgary?”
Amy Cen, the manager at Clay Pot Rice, adds, “It’s easy to just adjust to your surroundings and forget about where you’re coming from, so I think it’s nice to have little places like this to remind you of your home.”
Guo says that, although most Chinese restaurants are “not using the traditional way of cooking,” they do use traditional and familiar ingredients. At his restaurant, Guo takes an Asian fusion approach by letting his customers choose their own toppings.
With this unique combination of Asian fusion, traditional cuisine and technology, he hopes to make traditional Chinese food more accessible and to “introduce clay pot rice to younger people.”
As an added bonus, robotics can be used to help reduce staffing costs. For many businesses in China, this is common practice. However, many fear the consequences of robots and artificial intelligence replacing human jobs.
Alejandro Ramirez-Serrano, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, understands the fear but believes that this technology presents many great opportunities.
“Maybe I’m biased because I work in robotics, but I see robots as a mechanism to complement our human abilities, not to replace us.”
However, the increasing use of Chinese technology in North America and the fear of Chinese technological surveillance has been especially prevalent during the pandemic. So, coupled with COVID-19-fueled racism, Guo’s business is a risk, but he isn’t worried. The reception so far has been encouraging.
“I think that we need to stay together and fight the virus together. That’s why I’m not thinking about the people [that] blame the Chinese,” says Guo. “The customers, they come to my restaurant, they know the owner is Chinese. Our robot is also from China. We didn’t bring the virus. We brought this interesting thing.”
“Why most people are afraid of robots taking our jobs and so on [is] because we tend to misuse and abuse [technology],” says Ramirez-Serrano.
The future of this technology is also not as distant as it seems. Outside of China, there are many start-up companies researching and using robotics in the service industry. In Boston, four MIT graduates developed “robot woks” for a local restaurant called Spyce. Customers place their order on a tablet, the ingredients are gathered, dropped into the wok and the robotics take care of the rest.
In Europe there are also some organizations looking at adopting robotics that, according to Ramirez-Serrano, “are not just serving food or dispensing food [but] they’re actually cooking food based on what the user would like.”
While Ramirez-Serrano says serving is the technology in its simplest form, he expects even more use of robotics and artificial intelligence in the future.
“We’re seeing Alexa and all the home assistants that we have. In many houses we have devices that control our house temperatures, heating, ventilation — all these things [have] been embedded in our society, little by little.”
He adds, “There are many challenges in the world, hunger and natural disasters — we need help. I don’t think we have the man capacity in terms of numbers to fight all these challenges.”
“For example, the pandemic that we’re undergoing right now. We need more doctors [and] nurses. In this case, artificial intelligence will be helpful and robotics will be helpful in providing assistance to doctors to treat more patients.”
At Clay Pot Rice, the robots are much less complex. One is a greeter at the door, who plays music and dances around for customers. The other carries food orders in its two slots and delivers them to the programmed table. Guo’s main goal is for them to attract customers and boost business.
“I just want my restaurant to survive to the next year, the next year and the next year,” says Guo.
Being a local business owner is a tremendous struggle in the current economic climate, but Guo believes that with passion and a bit of luck, it’s a risk worth taking.
“Just look at me. I was a dental technician, I didn’t have experience in the restaurant business,” says Guo.
“If you have a good idea, just do it. Don’t worry about anything [else],” he continues. “If you feel it’s a good thing, you’ve got the experience now.”
Though he misses working at his lab, he says that no matter the job and field he’s in, it’s about working hard with what you’ve got.
“I think whatever you do, dental lab or restaurant, you just focus on the one thing,” says Guo. “I like working with computers and robotics, stuff like that.”
Over the last several months, countless businesses and retailers have had to close their doors. Luckily, Clay Pot Rice caught the attention of just the right people. In mid-October, a food blogger named Ian Kewks uploaded a Tik Tok showing off the robots and food at Guo’s restaurant.
The post went viral with over 200,000 views and helped attract new customers and advertise the restaurant.
“To be honest, I’m just lucky someone uploaded our robot to TikTok. “If you ask, ‘What makes success?’’ I cannot say [but] I’m proud of my rice. I’m proud of my dish.”