IBM’s artificial intelligence, known mononymously as ‘Watson,’ can do a lot of things. It can school the human species at Jeopardy. It can delve deep into case law as a lawyer. It can diagnose that lump. It can also make a pretty mean curry.
Let’s back up a little. A couple of months ago, IBM announced a new project: Chef Watson. It’s a web app that takes in a little information about desired ingredients, dish, and style, and funnels it into the Watson cloud service, which they’ve been training on a steady diet of recipes and gastronomic data.
By analyzing the chemical contents of ingredients that tend to appear together, Watson can figure out the chemical relationships that underlie taste, and match thousands of ingredients to produce tasty combinations that humans would never consider. It then converts this knowledge into novel recipes that it returns to the user. This creativity makes it fundamentally different from other recipe apps that simply regurgitate what they already know, and demonstrates why Watson is one of the most important technologies being developed right now.
My Thanksgiving Meal Ala Chef Watson
Chef Watson has become famous for producing absurd but delicious combinations. The app is currently in beta, and you can apply here.
I applied to the beta a few months ago, and finally got in earlier this month. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I took the app and fed it five traditional thanksgiving ingredients (turkey, stuffing, green beans, cranberries, and sweet potatoes). I then had it generate the craziest recipes it could.
The results were bizarre, confusing, and a little bit wonderful. I then took those five recipes, and, over the course of four crazy hours of cooking, a friend and I turned this:
And, since Thanksgiving isn’t complete without loved ones / test subjects, I got five friends together to put their lives and their palettes on the line to test these dishes.
A note on the recipes: the Watson app comes with a disclaimer, which I’m going to quote here:
Remember that Chef Watson eats data, not real food. The ingredients and steps are suggestions, so be sure to use your own judgement when preparing these dishes. And, give us feedback to make the Chef smarter.
These are wise words. Chef Watson is very much a beta product. I did my best to follow recipes as closely as possible, but where that was logically or practically impossible, I was forced to use a little interpretation.
I’ve made annotations to the recipes to indicate where I deviated and why. Right now, Watson is not good enough to put blind faith in – it has a habit of forgetting which ingredient it’s using (particularly with meats and fruits) and misunderstands the basic physical properties of ingredients. In an earlier test, I was asked to to slice into wedges, peel, and de-seed a number of blueberries.
However, paired with the judgement of a human cook, the results of Watson’s deep chemical insight can be very impressive. And who knows? With a few more years to work out all the kinks, it might even turn out that the machine doesn’t need us after all.
Without further ado… the food!
Asian Stuffing Taco
- Place eggs, stuffing mix, and rice flour in 3 separate shallow medium bowls.
- Season avocado with salt.
- Working in batches, dredge in rice flour, shaking off excess.
- Coat with egg, allowing excess to drip back into bowl.
- Coat with stuffing mix, pressing to adhere.
- Pour corn oil into a large deep skillet to a depth of 1 1/2 inches and heat.
- Working in batches, fry avocado, turning occasionally, about 3 minutes per batch.
- Three minutes is probably too long to avoid burning the stuffing.
- The recipe doesn’t specify, but raw wonton wrappers are hardly ever desirable, so I elected to fry them here.
- Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
- Spread canned chickpeas on wonton wrappers and top with fried avocado, romaine lettuce, pickled eggplant, and cheese.
- The wonton wrappers are impractically small, so I made twice as many servings with half the toppings each.
- Serve with dressing alongside.
I went into this looking for novel food, and I definitely got that with the first recipe. This dish is a ‘taco’ in only a very technical sense – the use of a wonton wrapper was interesting, and the stuffing was used as a breading for sliced avocado. Most of the flavor of this dish came from its toppings: notably avocado, cream cheese, and pickled eggplant.
Breading the avocado turned out to be a little bit interesting (and required using a mortar and pestle to crush up the stuffing considerably finer.
Both the avocados and the wonton wrappers fried nicely, though, and came out looking very much like food. The taste of the dish was complex, but pleasant, though it didn’t hold together very well. If I were to do it again, I would use hummus instead of chickpeas, and bend the wonton wrappers prior to frying to allow them to hold all of the ingredients better.
Overall 3/6 guests would make this dish again.
New Orleans Chili Con Carne
- Grate enough orange peel to measure 1 1/2 teaspoons juice cranberry.
- Watson appears to have become confused here. After looking the recipe this is based on, I believe references to ‘orange’ are actually intended to say ‘cranberry.’
- Heat butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Add leeks.
- Mix in garlic and spices.
- Add lima bean, tomatoes, and half of orange juice.
- Presumably, cranberry juice.
- Simmer over medium heat stirring often, about 15 minutes.
- Mix in orange peel and remaining orange juice.
- Again, presumably cranberry peel and cranberry juice.
- Season to taste with creole mustard, salt, and pepper.
- Ladle cajun seasoning into bowls.
- Top with sour cream and parsley.
- Pass extra creole mustard alongside.
The first thing you might notice about this chili con carne is that it’s remarkably light on the ‘carne’ — the recipe is vegetarian. If there’s one thing that I learned from this experience, it’s that robots do not speak Spanish. This is also not a particularly spicy chili, not counting the creole mustard – those of you who are capsaicin junkies will probably want to supplement with cayenne.
Incidentally, you’ll want to take the sour cream and mustard seriously here: they add a lot of body to the flavor and really help make this into a viable dish. You may also note that this requires a lot of cranberry juice, which takes several hours to coax out of the raw berries via boiling. Be prepared, and start this one the day before.
You don’t realize when you first see the recipe, but five leeks is a lot of leeks.
Boiling the chili.
“Juicing” the cranberries.
This dish was extremely divisive. Only a few of my guests liked it, but both of them really liked it. I was ambivalent, though I’d like to try it again with more time to prepare the cranberry juice to make sure I got the full benefit of the flavor.
Overall, 2/6 guests would make this dish again.
Soul Food Sweet Potato Burger
- Oil grill rack.
- Prepare barbecue (medium-high heat).
- Combine ground sirloin, crushed potato chip, 4 tablespoons bay leaf, garam masala, salt, chipotle, and cayenne pepper in large bowl.
- You’re going to want to shred/blend the bay leaves very, very fine to avoid an unpleasant texture.
- Using fork, mix together.
- Form 6 patties, each about 3 1/2 inches in diameter.
- Mix together mustard, sweet potato, and remaining 1?4 of the bay leaf in small bowl.
- It’s not clear how exactly this works: I peeled and baked the sweet potato and blended the result with the mustard in a food processor.
- Set aside.
- Grill burgers about 5 minutes per side.
- Depending on heat, this may be too long; you want them seared on the outside and a little rare in the middle. Due to lack of grill and freezing outdoor temperatures, I fried the patties on a pan.
- Divide among plates.
- Spoon mustard over burgers and serve.
One of the weirdest looking recipes on here also turned out to be one of the tastiest. The sweet potato mustard was delicious, and the burger patties were very herb-tasting, which was not (until today) something that I realized that I wanted in a burger. That’s just one of the very weird life experience doors that opens once you’re willing to let a robot tell you what to eat. As you follow this recipe, there will be moments that shake your faith in the machine. They may look a little like the image below. Stay firm: it’ll all work out in the end.
Burger patties, prior to mixing.
Searing in the pan. A word of warning: there’s enough chili in these things that the smoke released when they hit the hot oil is pretty caustic. If at all possible, grill outdoors, or at least in a room with good airflow.
A cup full of sweet potato mustard (seriously, it’s pretty good).
These burgers were really, really tasty. They’re easy to make, they’ve got a great flavor, and they’re something that you would never ordinarily consider eating.
Overall, 6/6 guests would make this dish again.
Asian-Style Green Bean Shortcake
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Combine green bean, maple sugar, and sherry in a medium baking dish or ovenproof skillet.
- Scrape in seeds from white truffle powder; add bean and toss to combine.
- This is a little bit ambiguous, so let’s be clear: it’s vitally important that you cook this long enough that the green beans soften and the syrup coating them caramelizes.
- Let cool.
- Discard white truffle powder.
- This doesn’t make sense, but discarding the excess syrupy sherry-truffle-maple-sugar mix works well here.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Whisk gluten flour, baking powder, maple sugar, salt, and 1 cup all-purpose flour in a medium bowl to combine.
- This is a little ambiguous, so just use a regular shortcake recipe off the internet
- Add 1/2 of the milk; gently mix.
- Transfer dough to a lightly gluten flour surface and form into a 9×6-inch rectangle about 1-inch thick.
- Cut dough in half length-wise, then cut crosswise 3 times to form 8 rectangular biscuits.
- Arrange biscuits on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart.
- Brush tops and sides of biscuits with butter.
- Bake 18-20 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack; let cool (biscuits can be served warm or at room temperature).
- Beat remaining 1?2 of the milk in a medium bowl.
- This does not work very well, at least at my altitude: consider substituting regular whipped cream.
- Split biscuits and brush cut sides with remaining melted butter.
- Fill biscuits with roasted green bean and serve with whipped milk.
- Let cool, then cover and chill.
- Reheat slightly before serving.
- Biscuits can be made 1 day ahead.
- Let cool completely and store airtight at room temperature.
Of all the dishes depicted here, this is the one I was scared of. I don’t like greenbeans. Never have. The notion of them making an appearance in a dessert terrified me. After mixing up the syrup, we let the green beans roast for about twenty minutes. The resulting smell was, simply put, very strange.
The shortcake came out fine, and when the rest of the food was finished, we were able to combine them together with some whipped cream to good effect.
The response to this dish was… complicated. The flavor, surprisingly, wasn’t the problem: it tastes great. The issue was texture. The crispness of the green beans, juxtaposed with the soft sweetness of the shortcake, was fairly upsetting. I suspect that, had we cooked the green beans for longer and allowed them to soften (or, possibly, blended them into a puree), the texture would have been a lot more pleasant to consume.
Overall, 4/6 guests would make this dish again.
French Turkey Curry
- Place beef and curry paste in medium bowl.
- It means ‘turkey’
- Stir to coat beef thoroughly.
- Still ‘turkey’
- Cover; chill.
- Heat 1?2 of the butter in large skillet over high heat.
- Add carrots and saute.
- Using slotted spoon, transfer carrots to bowl.
- Add remaining 1?2 of the butter to skillet.
- Add curry-coated beef in single layer.
- Cook over high heat without stirring about 2 minutes.
- Add coconut milk and cook, stirring often,.
- Add carrots and heat through.
- Stir in chive.
- Squeeze strawberry wedges over mixture and serve.
- This actually matters.
The turkey curry is very good: it’s weird, it’s easy, and it tastes great. Even as someone who’s not a very big fan of of curry, this stuff is pretty tasty: it’s subtle, but surprisingly good. The only points to be careful of are making sure you get the carrots soft enough, and making sure the turkey gets thoroughly cooked. It’s also pretty mild, so if you’re expecting a spicy curry, you’ll probably want to supplement.
Overall, 6/6 guests would make this dish again.
If nothing else, I at least credit Chef Watson with providing me with a really unique dinner experience. My guests and I had a lot of fun trying these dishes, which ran the gamut from weird to wonderful.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that, at this early stage, this software really does not stand on its own. That’s not to say it’s not useful (it is!) but it has a ways to go before it’s ready for prime time.
Use Watson to get ideas, use Watson to figure out how to use ingredients. Learn from Watson. Don’t trust it implicitly. Maybe don’t spring Watson’s weirder creations onto unsuspecting guests without beta-testing them first. Above all, have a happy Thanksgiving!