Photo of cognitive cooking book with food platters

Cognitive Computing in the Kitchen and Beyond

24 Nov 2015 by Shay Moser

There is an abundance of recipes — from the Internet and grandma’s cookbook, to magazines. We know it can be overwhelming, especially when there’s a lot to do this time of year, such as preparing for visitors and shopping for food. If all the recipes and work are overwhelming — relax. We have a simple solution to share in honor of Thanksgiving.

Chef Watson has done the recipe research and testing for us. Who? Not who — but what.

Meet, Chef Watson

A few months ago, IBM announced a new project with Bon Appétit: Chef Watson, the first cognitive computing cooking app. The Web app absorbs information about preferred ingredients, dish (sweet and sour, cosmopolitan), style (African, comfort, someone’s bridal shower) and feeds it into the Watson cloud service, which has been given a steady diet of 10,000 recipes from the Bon Appétit database.

By analyzing the contents of ingredients that usually appear together, Watson can figure out the chemical relationships that underlie taste, and match thousands of ingredients to produce yummy combinations that we would never consider. It then adapts this knowledge into inventive recipes. This ingenuity makes it profoundly different from other recipe apps that merely spit out what they already know, and shows why Watson is one of the most important technologies being developed.

“The Web app is great as a source of inspiration,” says Emily Jester, senior program manager for IBM Watson. “It’s meant to be a tool for discovery. But you don’t have to follow the recipes exactly.”

Since IBM and Bon Appétit introduced Chef Watson to expert and novice cooks everywhere in June 2015, it’s evolved to accommodate how users want to collaborate with it as part of their creative process. Today, people can start to discover new flavor profiles with as little as one ingredient. Based on that input, Chef Watson suggests three other ingredients that it predicts go well together. Chef Watson brings these flavor inspirations a step closer to the table by suggesting dish ideas and styles, ingredient amounts, and preparation steps that serve as a starting point for the cook to customize, try in the kitchen and share with friends via Facebook and Twitter. Users can search for ingredients, as well as exclude certain ones. Chef Watson makes it easy to save and print recipes, too.

“There’s so much information about food, chemicals, the way things react when they’re put together, time and temperature, and the psychology of what people like depending on their nationality,” Jester says, “that if you have a computer to take all the information and read and understand it, patterns we haven’t seen before are brought to our attention.”

Cognitive computing beyond cooking

Jester explains Chef Watson’s goal is to bring a complicated technology — cognitive computing — into a space that everyday people can understand. The use of Watson in the culinary arts shows how smart machines can help us explore and innovate in the kitchen. These technologies are being adopted not only by people who love to cook, but professionals in other industries ranging from education and health, to finance and retail.

In education, cognitive computing means personalized classrooms that will motivate and engage learners at all levels — from a kindergartner learning the A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s, to a physics doctoral candidate studying the finer points of electromagnetic theory.

Cognitive computing in healthcare can help doctors keep up with the flood of medical journals and clinical trials. Take first year medical professionals who are diagnosing and treating patients, for instance. They could both rely on their training and Watson to digest some of the information, resulting in better health outcomes for their patients.

When it comes to retail, Watson can assist merchants by analyzing and processing social media posts, blogs and customer reviews. Since Watson can comprehend and process human language, it can offer retailers a cost-effective and scalable way of understanding exactly what buyers are looking for in a product or service, and brand experience.

Next on the menu

In December, IBM is launching a community aspect to Chef Watson, allowing users to share about their cooking adventures and what they’re creating in the kitchen.

We couldn’t wait to cook with Chef Watson and share about our adventures in the kitchen. With Thanksgiving-themed recipes from Chef Watson and a few twists of our own, here are the three recipes we cooked up to celebrate Thanksgiving:

Fall shrimp grilled 

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Grilled Trout With Almonds and Lemon Butter displayed in frying pan

This recipe is based on Grilled Trout With Almonds and Lemon Butter from Bon Appétit. While these quantities and steps are ideas, Chef Watson really wants us to use our own creativity and judgment. For instance, the Web app suggests we use our imagination and experience to work in white wine.

Chef Watson’s ingredient ideas

  • ¼ cup pomegranate juice
  • ¾ stick butter
  • 1 ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint
  • ¼ cup seeded, chopped, sliced red chili
  • 1 ½ pound chopped, peeled, de-veined shrimp
  • ¼ cup toasted peanut

Chef Watson’s direction suggestions

  1. Combine butter, pomegranate juice, chopped mint, lemon zest and red chili in a small saucepan. Whisk over medium-low heat.
  2. Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Brush flesh side of shrimp with some of the pomegranate juice butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill shrimp, flesh side down. Using large metal spatula, turn shrimp over and grill, brushing with more pomegranate juice butter, about 2 minutes longer. Bring remaining pomegranate juice butter to a boil and drizzle over shrimp. Sprinkle shrimp with sliced, toasted peanut and serve.

Our creativity and imagination

We added one-half cup white wine. Roasting the peanuts is not included in the direction ideas. We did this in a pan sprayed with olive oil over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. And instead of grilling the shrimp on an outdoor barbecue grill, we cooked it in a grill pan on the stove for 2 minutes on each side. While we searched for shrimp cooking tips online, we think Chef Watson could add a “Choose a Cooking Technique” section.

Fall delicata vegetable dish 

Start to finish: 1 hour

Servings: 6

Cauliflower With Mustard Lemon Butter on plate

This recipe is based off of Bon Appétit’s Cauliflower With Mustard Lemon Butter recipe.

Chef Watson’s ingredient ideas

  • ¾ tablespoon chili paste
  • 1 ½ tablespoon chopped chive
  • One chopped onion
  • 3 cups cubed, seeded delicata squash
  • 1 ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • ½ stick butter
  • 2 ½ tablespoon orange juice
  • ¾ tablespoon sesame seeds

Chef Watson’s direction suggestions 

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Prepare a butter-rimmed baking sheet. Cut onions and delicata squash in half, then cut crosswise into ¼-inch thick slices. Arrange slices in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet; sprinkle with sesame seed. Roast.
  2. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in orange juice, chili paste and lemon zest.
  3. Spoon chili paste orange juice butter evenly over onions and delicata squash and roast about 10 minutes longer. Let stand at room temperature. If desired, rewarm in 350 F oven about 10 minutes.
  4. Transfer onions and delicata squash to a platter. Sprinkle with chives, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Our creativity and imagination

As mushroom lovers, we added one package of sliced portobellos. We also recommend cutting the delicata squash into one-half-inch thick slices, as it shrinks quite a bit after baking in the oven. Even better, buy it precut, and then there's no slicing necessary.

Appetizer onion polenta 

Start to finish: 2 hours

Servings: 24

Polenta Bites With Blue Cheese, Tomatoes and Pine Nuts on tray

This recipe is inspired by Polenta Bites With Blue Cheese, Tomatoes and Pine Nuts

From Bon Appétit.

Chef Watson’s ingredient ideas 

  • ½ cup grated ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup mascarpone
  • 1 ½ tablespoon toasted pine nut
  • 1 ½ tablespoon toasted peanut
  • 1 ¼ cup yellow cornmeal
  • 4 cups turkey stock
  • ½ cup chopped, sliced cilantro
  • 1 cup chopped, sliced green onion
  • 2 tomatoes

Chef Watson’s direction suggestions 

  1. Lightly butter 24 mini muffin cups (each about 1 ¾  inches in diameter with ½-inch high sides).
  2. Bring turkey stock to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; gradually whisk in yellow cornmeal. Cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in ricotta cheese. Season with salt.
  3. Spoon 1 ½  tablespoons hot polenta into each muffin cup. Using back of spoon, pack polenta firmly into cups. Using finger, make indentation in center of each polenta tart for filling. Chill about 3 hours. Cover; keep chilled.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheet with foil. Using tip of knife, lift polenta tarts from pan. Transfer tarts, indented side up, to prepared baking sheet. Place ½ of the mascarpone cube in each indentation. Sprinkle green onion and peanut and pine nuts over ricotta cheese. Top each tart with ¼ of the tomato quarters. Bake. Transfer tarts to platter; sprinkle with cilantro and serve.

Our creativity and imagination

To save time, we chilled the polenta for an hour instead of the recommended 3 hours. Also, we forgot mascarpone at the grocery store, and it was still tasty.

Making Chef Watson smarter

With a dash of data, hint of science and our imaginations, we created a lunch fit for fall, thanks to Chef Watson. We learned it’s easier than searching the Web, or through a cupboard full of cookbooks and magazines for recipes. Chef Watson can even help put an extra ingredient — or two or three — to use.

While IBM’s supercomputer is one of the smartest cooks in the kitchen, we think it could improve with nutrition information, where to find ingredients off the beaten grocery aisle path, and the ability to search for recipes by three — four or more — ingredients and cooking time. Plus, as we mentioned above, we think Chef Watson could add a “Choose a Cooking Technique” section.

In the meantime, we’re grateful we can turn to Chef Watson in the kitchen no matter the occasion, or our menu preferences and needs, cooking experience or ingredients on hand.

Collage of each of the recipes and various vegetables used in the recipes