Cooking with Chef Watson

My first experience as a beta-tester for IBM’s new “Chef Watson” app

By: Simon Anderson

A few days ago, my wife and I were delighted to find out that my application to be a beta tester for IBM’s Chef Watson app had been accepted. Creating unique and delicious recipes on the fly is just one of IBM’s latest tasks for Watson, which also includes detecting cancer, banking, and customer service.

Since winning a three-day contest on Jeopardy! in 2011 against its two best former contestants, IBM has been continuously updating and improving Watson and giving it an ever-expanding list of new capabilities. One of those is coming up with new recipes based on thousands of recipes in its database and a few words of input from the human doing the actual cooking (for now).

Last night, we decided to give Chef Watson a try. I was planning to write a full description of the app and the steps to create a recipe, but after reviewing the beta tester agreement I realized that that would likely get me booted from the beta–or worse–so I’ll just briefly describe what we made and what I see as the potential future for machine-made recipes. (There’s also a great explanation here.)

First of all, you can add some really crazy combinations of ingredients and it will still somehow find a way to produce edible recipes using those ingredients. That on its own is impressive! Secondly, you better have a well stocked kitchen full of high-end ingredients to make most of the recipes–or at least be willing to make a quick run to your local supermarket to stock up on a few exotic ingredients. It took us multiple tries to find a recipe that we had all the ingredients to make (almost).

What We Made

To give you an example of how “unique” the software will get when developing a recipe, Cooking with Chef Watson 1our Chef Watson-created dish included the following ingredients: chicken breast, green grapes, ginger, fresh tomato, onion, horseradish, beef broth, thyme, basmati rice, ground pepper, and butter.

The directions that are provided along with the ingredient list leave most of the decision making up to the cook. I guess a bit of ambiguity about how each ingredient should be prepared can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on who’s wearing the apron. Luckily, my wife and I (especially my wife) are decent cooks so this lack of instruction didn’t prove to be too difficult. Well, on this recipe at least, I could see it causing a few problems in more complicated dishes.

I’ll have to admit, after catching a whiff of the smell wafting off of our new creation, we started to doubt that software could actually create something edible out of these diverse ingredients. If I had to choose a single word to best describe the smell, I think I would go with “industrial”. Not a word you want to associate with your dinner typically, but we soldiered on, trusting that a meal created by millions of lines of code using a whole library’s worth of recipes as an instruction manual was at least deserving of one taste.

The Result

After making our plates and sitting at the table, we hesitated for a few moments as that smell re-entered our noses and our brains told to us to “run away!”. We’d made it this far, so we decided to be adventurous and try it anyway, regardless of the overpowering aroma.

First bite… hmm that’s interesting. Really complex. After our second bites, we looked at each other and said something like, “wow, this isn’t too bad.” After a few more moments and a few more bites, it started to have a really nice kick to it, and it kept getting better. By the end of our meal – we completely cleaned our plates – our verdict was that it was downright delicious, and had a flavor unlike anything we’d eaten before. (Oddly enough, if I had to compare it to something I would say the taste of eating my first Burger King Whopper as a kid who didn’t get to eat out much, even at fast food places. A very positive memory, but weird to have while eating this meal.) Plus, it was really healthy! A win all around. Next up for our Chef Watson – oatmeal cookies. We’ll see how daring we’re willing to get with desert.

Future Implications

Automation is eating the world, and this is just one more example. I think with a bit of user feedback and some tweaking by IBM, Chef Watson could be a powerful force in the culinary world, and in high demand and heavy use at even the world’s finest restaurants. In fact, fine dining may be were Watson excels the most; with such a repertory of fine ingredients, and more than capable hands wielding the knives and the spatulas, I’m sure Watson would create incredible dishes – dishes that would be copied the world over by lesser establishments (although now with Chef Watson, the playing field may be leveled somewhat as even the smallest hole-in-the-wall diner could have access to the same technology as a Michelin Three Star restaurant).

By sheer number though, Chef Watson will likely help the home chef the most. It is now possible to take a few items from your refrigerator and your cupboard and create something truly amazing. Something that no human would have ever thought of, whether because it would seem too outrageous or the ingredients too incompatible. Regardless, the future is going to be a lot tastier with Chef Watson around.

If you’re interested to see Chef Watson in action, check out the video below: