When David Bordow first took the job as head of culinary at Creator, the San Francisco startup where burgers are made by robots, he had some serious explaining to do, mostly to his former colleagues at Chez Panisse.
“I get that it’s a weird idea, and it definitely turns some people off,” he said about the first robot-forward hamburger joint. “But if people are open-minded enough, once I begin explaining how we’re trying to make 150 burgers in an hour and we want them to be really good as well as consistent, some begin to understand. But it takes some convincing, and even then, some people still don’t get it.”
If lines of people and mounds of publicity are any measure of success — Business Insider, TechCrunch and NPR, among others, have written about Creator — then this SoMa business (680 Folsom St.) is doing very well.
Bordow was hired about three years ago, and for the longest time he wasn’t allowed to say much about what he was doing. But now that the restaurant is open, the secret is definitely out.
Bordow, 32, lives in the city and grew up across the bridge in the East Bay, in Kensington. A favorite food memory is making matzah balls with his father for seders, and he said he still celebrates Passover with many of the same families and their children today.
Though Bordow graduated from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering, he decided not to pursue a career in the field. Instead, he followed his passion and with a friend started a food delivery service called boxedLA.
It wasn’t long, however, before he ran up against his lack of professional food experience. “I had no knife skills or cooking skills,” he said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I realized I wanted to take it more seriously.”
That was how he came to apply to the Rome Sustainable Food Project inside the American Academy of Rome, a project of Alice Waters. For some chefs who go to work there — considered a locavore’s paradise, and in Italy no less — it can feel like a vacation, away from the stresses of a restaurant kitchen. But the project also accepts a few people each year who know nearly nothing about food. Bordow was in that second category.
“It was an amazing education about both ingredients and seasonality,” he said.
While his parents were hoping that when he returned he would finally put his engineering degree to use, that was not in the cards, at least not yet. Instead Bordow began working at Chez Panisse.
When it became clear that it would be quite some time before he could move up from his position as chef garde manger (preparing cold dishes), he entered a master’s program at Stanford in design that encompassed art and engineering. It’s a degree he feels he is now putting to good use at Creator, where he also does product design.
Even while studying for a degree having nothing to do with food, Bordow found himself designing food experiences for his classmates — like building a pizza oven on campus that is still in use today. “Food is such an experiential thing that you can observe people doing,” he said. “I couldn’t get away from it.”
Shortly after he received his master’s degree, he was introduced to the team behind Creator. At the time it was in a nascent stage, and Bordow liked the idea of being part of it so early in the process. He also thought it would be a perfect way to merge his passion for food with his understanding of mechatronics, an expansive branch of engineering that includes robotics and focuses on design solutions.
His job did require him to become educated about meat production. “It’s both fascinating and horrible,” he said.
As the culinary lead, he is in charge of developing the Creator recipes. And while there are still plenty of humans on-site, the robots have multiple responsibilities: the machines prepare and slice buns, tomatoes, pickles and onions. They grate cheese, slice and butter the buns, and dispense any of the 15 types of sauces onto the top or bottom bun.
“Some sauces are fatty, some are bright and acidic; you have to be careful where you put them,” Bordow said.
The meat gets ground and then pressed by the robot’s cooking surfaces and then meets the rest of the burger in the box.
A burger made from pasture-raised meat for only $6 has definitely found its fans, and of course, the company hopes to scale up.
“Once people see the machine making the food and the restaurant and the price, they’re pretty excited,” said Bordow. “From the beginning, my marching orders to myself were that the food has to be craveable. If it isn’t, people won’t come back.”