Chef Watson: How IBM Is Revolutionizing Food

By Bev Garvin, Foodable Contributor

Ask any successful chef, and they’ll tell you — there’s an artistic element or an intangible asset (kind of like a sixth sense) that helps them bring out the best in food. Intuitive cooks who have “it” possess an innate skill for making ingredients shine. Understanding this is a challenge gourmet cooks and professional chefs face every day.

How ingredients are used varies greatly, too. Even when following the same recipe, it’s unlikely two people will create an identical dish. But no matter what the dish or skill level of the cook, people tend to stick to what they know, which can get some in a rut. We become bored with making the same things the same way or with eating a dish too often. But maybe the real challenge lies not in coming up with new ideas, but letting go of old ones. Maybe we don’t know everything we need to know. What would happen if we didn’t stick to what we know?

Meet IBM’s Chef Watson

Chef Watson isn’t a chef, or even a person at all. Chef Watson is a cloud-based artificial intelligence that analyzes ingredients, recipes and flavor compounds at the molecular level. It uses recipe profiles as models to craft new and innovative recommendations driven by the scientific analysis of the ingredients.

Credit: IBM Chef Watson

Credit: IBM Chef Watson

Chef Watson was developed by IBM’s team of software engineers and chefs in collaboration with the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). Chef Watson was developed to help people be more creative in their every day lives. The technology has been in beta testing for the past few years, starting with a food truck that launched at the 2014 SxSW Festival and next in a collaborative venture with Bon Appetite. However, today anyone can experiment with Chef Watson by purchasing “Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson.” Each book comes with an access code, so home cooks and chefs can go online to discover new paths in the field of culinary innovation.

Nationally acclaimed Chef James Briscione, Director of Culinary Development at ICE, was a key member of the research and development team for Chef Watson:

My initial reaction to Chef Watson was ‘I’m a chef, I don’t need help.’ But I had to admit it was a fascinating concept. For chefs, creativity is that path. You’re tied to what you know, what you’ve experienced or ingredients you’ve cooked with before. Our world of food has dramatically changed and the ingredients we have at our disposal. The fact that I can get any ingredient in the world in about 24 hours has truly changed what it means to be a chef and to be a part of this world of food. Chef Watson sees ingredients and food as data. The information helps me better understand it because I can see food from the standpoint of its flavor compound. Sometimes Watson will recommend an ingredient and we’ll say, ‘What the heck is that?’ The next thing you know, we’re off researching it and we’ll order it. A day later, we’re cooking with it and learning how to use the ingredients in new ways. What an exciting challenge for a chef to have a new way to look at ingredients and create recipes in a way we wouldn’t have considered before.
Chef James Briscione's Italian Roast Duck | Credit: Institute of Culinary Education/IBM Chef Watson

Chef James Briscione's Italian Roast Duck | Credit: Institute of Culinary Education/IBM Chef Watson

One of the biggest surprise factors for Briscione in recipe development was a Black Olive and Dried Cherry Coulis (page 87 of the book). 

“It’s great with cheese and crackers or used as a component of a roast duck dish,” says the chef. “These little bits of discovery are amazing because it expands what is possible. It’s exciting to get out of your comfort zone and unlock things you wouldn’t necessarily choose but find to be delightful.”

This Changes Everything

You can quickly see how the Chef Watson application has tremendous potential to transform recipes, but what about other uses? This powerful technology can be applied in many other beneficial ways.

One area is in the reduction of food waste. 

Florian Pinel, Senior Software Engineer at IBM Watson Group, relays the possibilities: 

Let’s say you’re a home cook. Today, you can use Chef Watson to get recipe ideas for a dish to make using ingredients you already have on hand before they perish. Similarly, a professional chef in a restaurant could use Chef Watson to better utilize food inventory. In the future, we could see smart appliances like refrigerators equipped with an RFID scanner and a garbage can with an RFID scanner and maybe a scale. You could potentially track ingredients from ordering to the pantry or fridge all the way to the garbage can. Doing this would build data about your kitchen usage patterns for each ingredient. How often do you buy milk, how much do you throw away? How much food is going to waste and how could those ingredients be better utilized? How often are you taking ingredients out and putting them back in the fridge? Would it make sense to have those ingredients closer to a different workstation or to change the quantities or frequency of ordering?

This is a big deal when you consider 1.3 billion tons or 30-40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted each year. When you think about the impact this could have on reducing waste, costs, our carbon footprint and ending hunger, it’s almost unbelievable. Chef Watson can save people money today in its current application, but it also has the potential to be expanded to have a huge impact to the bottom line of any business responsible for feeding people — restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, schools, hospitals, airlines or even prison systems. And doing this could provide substantial benefits to society as a whole. 

What Would You Do With Chef Watson?

Credit: IBM Chef Watson

Credit: IBM Chef Watson

There are so many practical applications for Chef Watson. People with food allergies or dietary restrictions can use the technology to create custom recipes that are better suited to meet their health needs. 

Some researchers have said they believe a cure to cancer could lie in the food we eat. What if Chef Watson could be used to develop proprietary recipes that prevent or even cure certain kinds of cancer? What if we had the ability to eradicate diseases largely attributed to diet, like heart disease or diabetes? Imagine doctors using this technology to create custom prescription diets for patients who are morbidly obese or for people with certain blood types, thyroid or blood pressure problems. 

Imagine the nutrition industry using Chef Watson to create biologically friendly supplements. Or the pharmaceutical industry using it to make drugs from food compounds that could be more efficiently absorbed and utilized by the human body while reducing harmful side effects.

Chef Watson is the result of purposeful innovation. The technology is an unprecedented feat that will inspire people to push the envelope of creativity. And the possibilities of where that could lead are endless.