The Wi-Fi Barbecue

A new, voice-enabled smart grill can cook a T-bone to perfection—when it’s cooperating. Do we really want to let the robots in the kitchen?

On a porch outside the Lynx Grills factory, about 20 minutes from downtown L.A., sits a gorgeous 42-inch stainless-steel grill that looks a lot like the grills the company has been making for two decades. There is, however, one huge difference: This one’s got a brain. Or at least a motherboard, built right into its cabinet. So explains Lynx CEO Jim Buch, who is about to show off what his new SmartGrill can do with a couple of preseasoned T-bones. On the CEO’s cue, a Lynx employee pushes the power button on the grill, which comes to life with “SmartGrill at your service,” sounding like Siri’s more serious cousin.

The SmartGrill is Lynx’s first foray into the exploding category of connected appliances, sometimes called the “Internet of Things.” The most well-known of these is probably Nest, a connected thermostat for the home that can control everything from your smoke alarms to your dryer. Lately, though, the action has been migrating to the kitchen. The SmartGrill is the first to take that kind of connected cooking outdoors.

The grill can be operated by voice command or via an app running on your phone or tablet, which means you can turn it off remotely from anywhere—not on, though, for safety reasons. The app comes preprogrammed with over 200 recipes—grilled chops, grilled veggies, even grilled salads and desserts—and that database will only grow as users plug in their own.

For today’s demo, we select
 a recipe for “T-bone steaks, 
3⁄4-inch-thick, medium-rare,”
 and the SmartGrill gets to
 work, preheating the burner 
to a toasty 700 degrees. When 
it’s ready, the SmartGrill will
 tell us (and text us) that it’s 
time to place down the meat,
 then when we should flip it
 and when to take it off. (And 
since one man’s perfectly rare
 is another man’s disgustingly 
raw, the SmartGrill also has a 
learning algorithm that ad
justs cooking to your taste.) That’s how it works when it’s behaving, anyway. Presently the machine just keeps repeating, “SmartGrill at your service,” like some sort of manic fire- breathing relative of HAL 9000. It seems we’ve hit a bit of a glitch.

While modern cooking has always been intimately tied to leaps in technology, outdoor grilling has always felt more primal, a lingering link to our past of freshly speared prey over an open flame. Which begs the question: Do we really want our barbecues to be all that smart? The goal of all of these smart cooking appliances is a noble one—to remove the stress, guesswork, and human error from making great food. And if that helps the harried working parent get a quick weekday meal on the table, or the totally clueless cook give it a go, that seems like a good thing. But as with any properly grilled chop, there’s a flip side, too. Less risk may mean less fun. When we ask NYC chef Wylie Dufresne, owner of Alder, who is about as staunch an advocate of culinary innovation as you’ll find, to weigh in on this new breed of products, he expresses that very ambivalence.

“I’m on board, to a point. I love the idea of making cooking more accessible,” says Dufresne. But he worries we’re in danger of dumbing things down too much: “Get me to the starting line, not the finish line. I want to be able to call an audible.” As he sees it, the real drawback may be more emotional. “Let’s not forget how satisfying it is to say, ‘Look how happy I made my wife or my kids with what I made!’ That’s half the reason chefs love being chefs,” says Dufresne. The more we turn our cooking over to the machines, the more we lose personal bragging rights. But maybe it’s just that one backyard boast will be replaced by another: My grill can talk—can yours?

Buch, the Lynx CEO, thinks cooks of different skill levels will use the SmartGrill differently at different times. After all, it can always be switched to manual mode. “I grill only 10 things,” Buch says, “so I’ve mastered my comfort zone. If I want to try something new, like lobster tail, that’s an expensive experiment. With SmartGrill, I’m going to get it right the first time.” Well, at least the second. After Lynx pinpoints the configuration problem, a new SmartGrill demo is set up a week later. This time, the grill performs perfectly, telling us when to place, flip, and remove the T-bones. Five minutes later, when we cut into the steaks in the Lynx kitchen, they are charred and juicy and delicious enough that you pretty much forget the chef was an algorithm. As we may someday say, “Give my compliments to the bot.”

The SmartGrill starts at $6,000;