Chef Watson: The Supercomputer that Cooks


Watson promotional images via Thornberg and Forester


A head of lettuce, a can of beans, a single potato, and a few stray onions—it looks like mighty slim pickings to you, but factor in a half a dozen pantry staples and Chef Watson can come up with 3,628,800 menu suggestions.

You might remember Watson from TV’s Jeopardy!
In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer made headlines when it trounced the game show’s most formidable human contestants in a million dollar tournament. The current Watson is smaller, faster, and smarter by a factor of 24. Its natural language processing and computational creativity benefit a wide range of industries, running financial markets, improving retail shopping experiences, and diagnosing cancers in hospital oncology centers. And now Watson is coming out with a cookbook.

It’s much more than a gimmick.
The scientists at IBM Research worked with chefs from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. They created preparations and combinations that the world has never seen, but that still steer clear of wacky. Most recipes are twists and fusions that borrow from a global kitchen of ingredients and techniques like Portuguese Lobster Rolls, Peruvian Chile-Potato Poutine, Creole Shrimp and Lamb Dumplings, Indonesian Rice Chili con Carne, and Vietnamese Pork and Apple Kebabs.

Could the talented chefs at the ICE have come up with these dishes on their own? Perhaps, given enough time for research and experimentation. But human creativity is defined by the limits of personal experience and biases, known and conventional food associations, and the brain’s finite bandwidth. By contrast, Watson is able to instantly sift through vast amounts of culinary data while simultaneously evaluating the potential of an infinite number of ingredients and combinations in a process known as cognitive computing.

Watson was fed an encyclopedic data diet of recipes, food chemistry, molecular compounds, chemoinformatic flavor profiles, hedonic psychophysical taste models, behavioral psychology, cultural preferences, and nutrition. The ICE chefs originated the creation of each recipe by prompting the system and steering it through its algorithms and analytics. They then sifted through thousands of outputs looking for dishes that were appealing, workable in a home kitchen, and contained an element of surprise through new and unique flavor combinations. And finally, the chefs did something that a computer can only simulate—they tasted their creations.

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will be released on April 14 and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon.

You can participate in the Watson project by applying to beta test the Chef Watson app that IBM is developing in conjunction with Bon Appétit.


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Cook Your Cupboard Wants to Know: What’s Languishing in Your Pantry?


Campbell's Limited Edition soups

Campbell’s Limited Edition soups


Cook Your Cupboard wants to know what’s in your pantry.
NPR has launched a food project inspired by a dilemma that every one of us has faced: What do I do with                   ?
Go ahead and fill in the blank with three of the odd, the random, and the esoteric items that lurk, semi-forgotten in the back of your cupboards.

We all have them. 
They might be edible mementoes from a long-ago road trip or bizarre condiments chosen on impulse. There’s the still-full bottle of rose water that was purchased for a specific recipe, the rice cakes from the diet you never started, the raspberry chipotle mustard you were gifted with last Christmas, and the Arborio rice and saffron bought for a dinner party you never gave.

Cook Your Cupboard is never stumped.
Poke around on high shelves and low ones, in the back of your cupboards, and the darkest reaches of your freezer. The Cook Your Cupboard blog invites you to submit three items that you’d like to salvage before they reach their expiration dates. The radio show listeners and blog readers offer suggestions, advice, and recipes, and a few lucky submissions are handled on-air by the week’s guest chef—past participants include big names like Jacques Pepin, Nigella Lawson, and Mollie Katzen.

We learn that canned vegetarian haggis is best left in the desert for coyotes, and powdered lemonade mix should only be used  to clean the insides of a dishwasher, but most pantry hodgepodge trios are put to legitimately appetizing use. Apple cider vinegar, almond milk, and dried red beans become vegetarian chili and cornbread; chick pea flour, chia seeds, and harissa are turned into Indian-inspired fritters. They’ve tackled fenugreek, bonita flakes, Georgian Tlekmani sauce, Moroccan fish balls, and canned custard. And anchovies. For some reason no one seems to know what to do with anchovies.

Submit a photo of your most regrettable purchases and let the culinary brain trust at NPR work some magic. Currently they’re looking for three items hidden in the forgotten corners of your freezer.

The pantry contents of celebrities, the secret language of grocery purchases, and more are revealed in Gigabiting’s Snooping in Other People’s Pantries.

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The Rumors of their Death have been Greatly Exaggerated

 image courtesy of EAT ME DAILY 

Cookbooks have not just survived the online onslaught, they have thrived.

The recession gave cookbook sales a boost by taking us out of restaurants and putting us back in our home kitchens. We had the manic sales of any title penned by Julie or Julia. And then there were the chart-topping holiday sales of both Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio and Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.

Reading on the internet is a skip through cyberspace. We compose our own narratives as we wend our way through Googled results. Those of us who read traditional cookbooks find it unsatisfying because we know that, like a novel, a cookbook has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The author’s voice is in our heads even when there is little prose strung between the recipes. […]

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Dinner With Oscar: the Academy Awards after-party

.pPhoto courtesy of Al Seib via LA Times


Long gowns, longer speeches, and Wolfgang Puck. It’s Oscar time!

The red carpet has been rolled out in front of the Kodak Theater, but for a few more days it will remain in its rain-protective plastic covering. The tourists stand on it as they pose in front of the giant golden Oscar statues taking cell phone snapshots. For now, the only star crossing the red carpet is celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

Wolfgang Puck is once again at the helm for the official post-show feeding of the glitterati known as the Governors Ball. Preparations are underway as his cooking staff of 300 fills the ballroom’s kitchen, peeling potatoes and popping the mini chocolate Oscar-shaped statuettes out of the molds so that they can be sprayed with edible 24k gold. […]

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Are You a Food Geek?

image courtesy of Consumer Eroski

In the world of geeky niches, Food Geeks are a little more socially-acceptable than Gamers and Gadget Nerds but not as cool as Music or Movie Geeks. At least according to Gizmodo’s Socially-Acceptable Geek Subgenre Scale Gallery. Food Geeks have a middling rank between top-of-the-heap Finance Geeks (Math Nerds turned cool… who’s getting a wedgie after calculus class now,  jocks?) and the bottom-dwelling human/animal fantasy-hybridists known as Furries.

Food Geeks should not be confused with Foodies

Foodies talk about past and future meals while eating the current one. They know the pedigree of the eggs they eat and […]

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The Joy of (Online) Cooking

Where do you look for culinary inspiration?

Online recipe collections are giving traditional cookbooks a run for the money. More and more of us are bypassing the cookbooks in our own collections and turning to cooking blogs and websites. The web has the advantage of immediacy, with an infinite number of recipes at your fingertips. And the web wins out in searchability; no back-of-the-cookbook index can rival the encyclopedic search terms of an online recipe database. […]

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Recipe Generators: random acts of cooking

You’re not Old Mother Hubbard. There’s always something to work with.                             You’ve got cans of beans and bags of pasta, salsa, olive oil, frozen peas, and bread crumbs, a forgotten can of hearts of palm, tomato sauce, salad dressing, an opened jar of pesto, and a hunk of parmesan mouldering away in the deli drawer.

An online recipe generator can take random and disparate items and turn them into dinner. Most work with a basic search algorithm, matching your ingredients with recipes in their database. But each has its own twist.


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Pomegranates are here to stay


It took a few centuries, but it looks like the pomegranate has finally gone mainstream.

There are few foods that can match the pomegranate for cultural power and mystique. Pomegranates inspired poets from Homer to Shakespeare. Egyptians buried pomegranates with their dead to ensure safe passage to the afterlife. Both Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad ascribed sacred powers to the fruit, and many scholars believe it was not an apple but a pomegranate that Eve was offered in the Garden of Eden.

It’s taken a while, but the pomegranate has definitely caught on. […]

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Gourmet, Unbound: an online celebration of a magazine’s legacy


The food world has been reeling from the shock.
On October 5, 2009 Condé Nast announced that Gourmet will cease monthly publication due to a decline in advertising sales and shifting food interests among the readership . The magazine’s November 2009 issue, distributed in mid-October, was the magazine’s last. […]

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Food52: an exercise in culinary crowdsourcing


The old community cookbook is getting a 21st century makeover.
Long a fund raising staple of Junior Leagues, churches, and historical societies, collaborative cookbooks are nothing new. But with Food52, New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser and freelance food writer and recipe-tester Merrill Stubbs have given the concept a very modern, web 2.0 twist. […]

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