I Tried to Hack the Robot Chef at Lego's New Restaurant
At Lego House in Billund, Denmark, you build your own meal out of Lego blocks and feed it to a robot chef. It’s equal parts family entertainment and sci-fi.
Photo courtesy of Lego House
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Denmark.
There’s an alarming scene in Back to The Future 2 where Marty McFly’s mom inserts a miniature pizza into something akin to a microwave and two seconds later pulls out a family-sized deep dish pizza. Yes, it’s a sci-fi fantasy world, but if Biff Tannen can become President, it feels naive to dismiss the movie’s prophecies.
There aren’t any magic microwaves at Lego House in Billund, Denmark, but there is a restaurant ostensibly run by robots. Lego House is the toy behemoth’s 12,000-square-meter experience center designed by the architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, and it's where you can get lost in a world of miniature figures, building activities, and games, both inside and outside the Lego block-inspired complex.
It’s all very stylish and well-executed, but the real attraction is the restaurant, Mini Chef, on the ground floor. The first spectacle to greet us is a DNA spiral of tracks winding downward from the kitchen upstairs and two Lego robots in charge of delivering the food. They’re in tuxedos, and one of them looks a bit like the lab assistant Beaker from The Muppet Show.
It reeks from miles away of being a "concept restaurant"—a term that ought to be kryptonite to any sensible person who enjoys good food—but there’s something fascinating about Mini Chef. This is like family time as imagined by Philip K. Dick.
Our waiter, Andreas, comes over to our booth and places something resembling a chunky iPad on the end of the table. He briefs us: We are to build our meal out of Lego blocks, feed them like a floppy disk into the bottom of the computer, and watch the magic unfold.
On the table are small bags with Lego blocks for each of us, and a menu that functions as a sort of robot phrase book. There are four categories to choose from when putting together your meal: Entrée, raw veggies, cooked veggies, and sides. An oblong red 4x1 indicates I want glazed pork shoulder as my entrée. A slanted blue 2x1 signifies mashed potatoes with pickled mustard seeds. After you’ve chosen a block from each of the four groups, you assemble them into a shape, which you place into something that looks like a hollowed-out 8-track cassette, and then into the computer, which decodes your selections.
“There wasn’t originally going to be a restaurant here at Lego House,” explains René Due Jessen, the food and beverage manager. “There was supposed to be a cafeteria, but then we got this idea to do something a little different. The conveyor belt and robots are inspired by our factories, obviously.”
The build-it-yourself menu appears to offer more than the depressing frozen burgers usually flung across amusement park counters. There’s grilled zucchini with elderflower vinegar, buckwheat noodles with sesame, or salt-baked celery root with brown butter. Fried chicken from Hopballe Mølle Farm sounds like a winner too, but I also want to try the baked cod with tartar sauce. I try making a shape with two red entrée blocks, but the machine rejects it instantly with a red "X". I get the same result when I try putting seven small blocks together to snag a couple extra portions. The robot chef cannot be hacked.
“The system’s very secure,” Due Jessen tells us. “It’s simply incapable of reading blocks of the same color. It’s a principle we’ve had from day one to have these four categories to ensure a healthy, balanced meal. If you’re a kid, you choose three dishes, and then you get a little gift.”
Well then. We follow suit, building with one block from each category, and the machine sets off an avalanche of animations, indicating that the order has been received. We also order drinks via the computer, which explains that “a human will stop by with your beverages.” Our waiter comes over with my beer, and I look him in the eyes an extra time to make sure his head isn’t going to suddenly unfold into mechanical blocks like Arnold Schwarzenegger at the passport check in Total Recall.
The food, on the other hand, isn’t touched by human hands from the moment it leaves the kitchen, bundled together like a Lego bento box consisting of four square modules. A video on the computer tells us our food is ready as the four Lego boxes roll down the twisting tracks from the kitchen.
The well-dressed robots present us with the meal boxes. The chicken comes in two pieces: The drumstick is breaded in rye and spelt, and fried; the breast is slow-cooked then grilled until the skin is crispy. There’s barbecue sauce made with toasted garlic on the side. In the vegetable compartment is grilled cauliflower tossed in vesterhavsost—the Danish version of Gouda—and the thin, hand-cut frites are sprinkled with lemon thyme.
“To the kids who don’t like it, we just say it’s confetti,” says Due Jessen. “Then they eat it up. You just have to not call it what it is.”
Whether it’s confetti or lemon thyme, it tastes really good. The head chef from Kadeau has been involved in the project as a consultant, and the robot kitchen is run by six professional cooks, led by Mikkel Laursen, who won Danish Chef of the Year in 2016.
“So that our guests can play and get creatively inspired, it’s important that their brains get some nourishment,” explains Due Jessen. “So we’re all about organic ingredients and serving a healthy meal based on sustainable principles.”
I steal a hunk of my son’s baked cod, which is encased in an herb crust that tastes of wild garlic. He got a chef as his mini-figure gift. The same chef character depicted on the screen with three of his colleagues, awaiting our compliments.
Like obedient little avatars serving up succulent chicken and crispy fries, and sending us in a DeLorean into the future.