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Similar to If everyone uses replicator, why do tailors still exist?, why is Neelix almost always cooking when we visit the officer's mess? Surely the replicator can produce any known recipe it has been programmed to? Or is Neelix cooking new recipes, to then program the replicator for?

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    I'm sure Neelix was asked about it, possibly repeatedly. I don't remember the reply, but it sure should be part of at least 1 answer.
    – Mast
    Apr 22 at 16:46
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    Same reason as Voyager firing 123 of its 38 torpedoes during the series. Or, non-canonically, because Janeway wanted an excuse for a morale officer / scapegoat to deflect complaints on the ship to a more manageable outlet.
    – Michael
    Apr 22 at 18:56
  • To use the replicator, it must know what to replicate. For example, if someone wanted a cup of tea, then the replicator should be programmed with the data about India, about China, about Ceylon. It would be programmed with the data about broad leaves dying in the sun, about silver teapots, about summer afternoons, about putting the milk before the tea so it wouldn't get scalded. It would even need to be programmed with the history of the East India Company. Also, the process could pose a significant risk for the ship if the replicator were to block the ship systems during a Vogon/Borg attack.
    – SJuan76
    Apr 22 at 23:40
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    Why do chefs exist today if the shops sells premade freezer meals?
    – Flater
    Apr 23 at 8:32
  • @SJuan76 "milk before the tea"; sacralidge! Apr 23 at 9:39

6 Answers 6

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Replicators use Dilithium, which was scarce

Every use of the replicator takes energy:

A replicator, replicator system, replication system, or molecular synthesizer was a device that used matter-energy conversion technology similar to a transporter to produce almost anything from a ship's replicator reserves. (TNG: "Lonely Among Us", "Deja Q"; DS9: "Visionary"; VOY: "Virtuoso"; ENT: "Dead Stop")
Memory Alpha

Because Voyager was low on that energy, Janeway implemented rationing:

After the USS Voyager was pulled to the Delta Quadrant in 2371, an energy crisis occurred several weeks into the journey back to the Alpha Quadrant, and Janeway ordered replicator usage to be rationed in order to conserve power for other key systems. These replicator rations became a type of currency among its crew. (VOY: "The Cloud")
Memory Alpha

Neelix was able to cook with most of the plants native to the Delta quadrant, obviating the need to use replicators and thus letting crew members eat without having to use rationed resources or spending their replicator 'currency' elsewhere.

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    I've long been skeptical about this official explanation. As you mention in your answer, transporters and replicators work in much the same way. So why is it that Voyager has enough energy to regularly beam tons of fresh, perishable food onto the ship, but not enough to simply replicate it? Are shuttles really that much more energy-efficient? Or are we to assume that Voyager negotiated delivery of fresh food with a new civilization every few weeks?
    – Psychonaut
    Apr 21 at 19:13
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    @Psychonaut Maybe shuttles running impulse engines use matter-antimatter power production, and procuring or creating antimatter was not an issue. I don't remember that point being explicitly addressed though.
    – nasch
    Apr 21 at 19:37
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    @Psychonaut: I think the idea is that the transporter net zero mass change. With the input mass and output mass being identical, the only energy consumed was what was required to convert it back and forth (which I'm guessing is presumed to be "small"). The replicator, by contrast, only uses half as much energy on the conversion process but has to directly consume energy to make the matter it's arranging in the first place. In theory it has near perfect recycling, so some of that matter later becomes energy again, but some is lost (eaten, kept as physical objects, whatever). Apr 21 at 21:54
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    The part that's "lost" to being eaten makes me think about Voyager trying to consume energy by feeding not just table scraps, but, umm, "leavings" back into the replicator for deconstruction to energy for producing new things. Still some loss (shed skin, exhaled CO₂ and H₂O, the inefficiencies of the conversion process, etc.), but you gotta conserve! If this wasn't common practice when in Federation space, it might explain Neelix's popularity; replicated stuff may be whole new atoms, but you'd know most of it was the result of a direct poop-to-energy conversion. :-) Apr 21 at 21:56
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    @Psychonaut They grew food in farms in some of Voyager's cargo bays. Presumably Voyager has water and nutrient reclamation systems so that would greatly reduce the need to beam aboard all of their produce.
    – Max
    Apr 22 at 11:54
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A couple of reasons:

  • Replicators have been stated multiple times as being inferior by most measures of quality to a real cook. It’s never clearly explained why, but the implication is that it’s similar to the difference in real life between mass-produced fast food and a hand cooked family meal made from scratch. It’s worth noting that Neelix is not the only conventional cook we see throughout the various series (off the top of my head, Joseph Sisko is the master chef of his own restaurant), and this is implied to be a key reason why people still cook.
  • It’s implied a couple of times throughout the various series that programming a replicator is at least as difficult as producing whatever the replicator is being programmed to produce by other means. This probably partially feeds into the above point, but is worth mentioning on it’s own, because it does not appear that there is some fancy molecular gastronomy simulation package in universe that could translate a traditional recipe into a replicator program to produce the same food. In effect, this means that the crew of Voyager was otherwise stuck with whatever was already programmed into the replicator at the start of the voyage, and even with a rather broad menu eating the same things all the time gets boring after a while (which in turn is bad for morale).
  • Replicators still require power to work, and Voyager had a limited power budget throughout most of it’s trip through the Delta Quadrant. Rationing of replicator usage was implemented early on, and is mentioned multiple times throughout the series. In that situation, I for one would very much welcome another option for daily sustenance, because it would mean I could spend my replicator rations on other things. This is compounded by the fact that replicator technology is not perfectly efficient (that is, it produces less matter than the amount of energy input would imply if all of that energy were converted with perfect efficiency into matter), which means that even recycling of waste matter could not eliminate the power budget issue, just mitigate it.
  • Neelix wants to help, but he’s implied to be at best mediocre at most of the technical jobs that would be needed to run a starship (even ignoring the issue of a Starfleet vessel being completely different in many respects from the ships he’s used to dealing with). He is, however, a good cook, and this is something that none of the rest of the crew seems to be interested in doing, so it’s a logical job for him to pick up, especially since he already has experience dealing with the ingredients available in the Delta Quadrant.

Edit in response to comments requesting citations for the point about replicators requiring feedstock:

On further inspection, I have now realized that my point about the requirement for feedstock for the replicators was based solely on information from non-canon (albeit properly licensed) sources, and I have thus removed this point from the original answer.

However, looking into this has made me realized that I could actually further expand on the point about the power budget (because there are multiple canonical references implying that the matter-energy conversion used in replicator technology is not 100% efficient (most prominently a comment by Spock about the titular weapon in TAS S1E14 ‘The Slaver Weapon’, which also relies on matter-energy conversion)), and I have expanded that point accordingly.

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    Hi and welcome! Great first answer! Please take the tour and view the help center for anything else. Apr 20 at 19:56
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    "Aside from the power budget, replicators don’t produce something out of nothing." Could you provide a source for this? It always seemed implied that replicators created matter from energy, and no "source" matter was required for this process. Apr 21 at 15:23
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    I think the point about Neelix wanting to help is honestly a big component. It seemed like for most of the series, people thought of Neelix's job almost as busywork, although eating hand cooked food together does occasionally add some amount of cultural element that binds the crew.
    – BlackThorn
    Apr 21 at 17:16
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Because they're growing their own food

Replicators are very energy-intensive and a major drain on Voyager's limited resources.

One of the cargo bays was converted into a hydroponics/airponics bay to grow fresh food fairly early on.

I have to assume that keeping grow-lamps on and running the hydroponics-pumps is less energy-intensive than fabricating food via teleporter.

Aside from that, they were known to have traded for fresh vegetables which they stored in the cargo holds (I have to assume either frozen or in stasis-fields to preserve them long-term)

The upshot is that when you have a vegetable in hand, you need a cook to prepare it into food, the replicator can't do that for you.

Puzzlingly, most mentions of the Airponics bay refer to them growing decorative (non-edible) flowers.
Apparently they were growing food efficiently enough there that they had room to spare for "just-for-fun" projects like gladiolas and chrysanthemums.

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  • "than fabricating food via teleporter" I think you mean "than fabricating food via replicator". Apr 21 at 8:37
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    @spikey_richie Transporters and Replicators apparently use much of the same underlying technology, just Replicators work to a lower resolution and use templates to rearrange the molecules, rather than beam the source-matter as-is. Apr 21 at 8:42
  • I wonder if replicators really are less efficient than growing food and cooking it. Replicators can produce hot food and drinks, and the heat is confined to the item itself where as in cooking much of the heat radiates away while life-support fights to keep the room temperature down. In general I'd be surprised if direct matter conversion was less efficient than growing plants.
    – user
    Apr 22 at 13:22
  • I can't imagine it being more efficient to fabricate the food from base elements than it is to take something that already exists in more or less the right form and heat it up. I get the sense that the Replicator as a luxury exists because starships have such a huge surplus of energy that they can afford the energy-budget to do it. (after all, if you can generate the power to bend space/time and operate particle-beam weaponry, what's a cup of coffee matter?) Apr 25 at 7:20
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Similar answer to your link: sometimes the replicator is still not programmed for certain recipes, but mostly it's for the simple joy of cooking. And probably some would complain that "food from the replicator doesn't taste like the real thing".

As described on Memory Alpha:

Neelix was an enthusiastic cook and ran the ship's mess hall. He was fond of experimenting and often tried to adapt crew members' recipes with the limited ingredients available in the Delta Quadrant, although they often complained about the results. Early on, Tom Paris remarked that Neelix's cooking was "always interesting" and the glutinous "Even better than coffee substitute" Neelix developed from native plants strongly motivated Janeway to seek new sources of energy for the ship so that she could use the replicator guilt-free. (VOY: "The Cloud") However, he was able to successfully cook a blood pie for B'Elanna. (VOY: "Day of Honor") He enjoyed finding new ingredients to work with, which usually took the form of produce rather than meat. (VOY: "Random Thoughts")

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    Wasn’t there something about having a hard time finding raw materials for the replicators in the delta quadrant and the food they could scrounge from planets didn’t fit into alpha quadrant recipes? Maybe I just inserted that notion on my own. Apr 20 at 10:05
  • "...often tried to adapt crew members' recipes with the limited ingredients available in the Delta Quadrant..." this might relate to that @ToddWilcox
    – Luciano
    Apr 20 at 11:20
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    @ToddWilcox: I believe it was supposed to be a power problem (which is a "raw materials" problem in the sense that you need fuel of some sort to power the ship/replicators). Replicators can make anything from anything (they're a direct energy-to-matter-and-back system AFAIK), but it's an energy-intensive process (the ratios in e=mc² mean you need a heck of a lot of energy to make appreciable amounts of matter). The cost to collect and cook food is dramatically lower than synthesizing the food's atoms from raw energy. A cook was a luxury in other Trek, but in Voyager it was necessary. Apr 20 at 19:04
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In TNG S2:E13, Riker comments that a replicator cannot mimic a good cook. Same principle might apply here.

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    Do we have evidence Neelix was a good enough cook for that to be the case here? Apr 20 at 19:55
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    No, @AncientSwordRage, but there's plenty of evidence to the contrary! Everyone is always complaining about his cooking.
    – FreeMan
    Apr 21 at 15:49
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    @AncientSwordRage If you look at the TNG episode, only Worf likes Riker's omelet. He opined the principle but was not a good example in practice.
    – doneal24
    Apr 21 at 15:52
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Voyagers case, it's lightyears between various stars and features which have access to it's most prized source... Deuterium. With only 1 out of every 6500 hydrogen atoms in abundance.protium-protium fusion does work (the sun). A ship at warp takes weeks to cover a single sector, in any situation fuel supply could be exhausted before refueling was sufficient. starShips in friendly space are refueled at ports or fuel containing starships...also the biggest aspect, anti-matter and dilithium.

Replication is an acceptable crutch, because it's alot better than the volume needs of a 150 person, multi-racial crew with different food desires, to carry foodstuffs....Growing food is more energy efficient but more time consuming. The amount of energy to replicate is very substantial, They do it not because it's energy efficient but volume efficient. Carrying enough food to sustain a crew of 150 for 1 year would consume a modest amount of space, Tack on culinary demands and diverse menu options (Chicken, pork, beef, etc) not to mention alien species, volume demands grow 10 fold.

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