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IBM's Chef Watson mixing big data with Bon Appétit foodie favorites

There's no better way to put Chef Watson to the test than actually putting on an apron, heading down to the kitchen and taste whatever big data actually has to offer.
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By Rachel King, Staff Writer on
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Machine learning has the potential to transform virtually every industry, and the culinary world is no exception. IBM is already making strides in this space with a specialized cooking app powered by its famous supercomputer, Watson.

Yet there’s no better way to put Chef Watson to the test than actually putting on an apron, and heading down to the kitchen to taste whatever big data actually has to offer.

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Bon Appétit

Chef Watson already has its own cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson. To grow its foodie community even further, the tech stalwart recently collaborated with beloved food glossy Bon Appétit, treating tech-savvy gourmands with creative access to more than 10,000 recipes from the culinary bible's pantry.

Seen here, IBM Distinguished Engineer Steve Abrams (left) and Bon Appétit Senior Food Editor Dawn Perry recently tested out the Chef Watson app at the Bon Appétit kitchen.

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Main Ingredients

Being a vegetarian, fruits and veggies were obviously going to be critical components at the heart of the dishes I planned to prepare.

To choose my heroes, I first turned to seasonality charts provided online by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), a program dedicated to sustainable food systems and the organization behind San Francisco’s luscious farmers market at the historic Ferry Building.

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Tip: Always read through the entire recipe first.

I commenced with the mindset that looking up and deciding upon recipes would only take a few minutes. (That’s about all it takes on Pinterest these days.)

Somehow I ended up spending nearly 90 minutes toggling between recipes, excluding this and that. There is actually a way to set preferences and exclusions in the setting menu from the get-go, which can speed things up for those with dietary issues and picky preferences — although even that felt like a chore.

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Strawberry...curry?

Many of the suggested form factors revolved around tacos, enchiladas, strudels, curries, risottos and seared proteins.

Surprisingly, tarts or pizzas (literally edible canvases for a smorgasbord of toppings often decided at a whim) didn’t pop up often in search results.

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Be prepared to revise.

Given time, financial and equipment constraints (not to mention the ongoing infamous drought going around in California), I was pressed to eliminate a few starter ideas, such as summer squash, which for some unknown reason kept popping up in recipes that either demanded three hours of time alone for one dish or only “sprinkled” the squash bits on top. I didn’t think the latter would have been fair in celebrating the summertime gourd.

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Know your audience.

Like any considerate host(ess) and home cook, I also had to keep my audience in mind.

Certainly, Californians (and by extension, San Franciscans) are typically very open minded when it comes to trying new ingredients or dishes, looking for the hot new trend whether it’s green juice, bone broth or cricket flour.

But I wanted to please as many members of my focus group (a.k.a. my co-workers at CNET News and Reviews) as possible, so I leaned closer to more familiar legumes and spices. (Even I will pass on the cricket flour.)

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Broccoli Rabe Cake

With the broccoli rabe, I had intended this veggie to serve as the star of the main course. But when I was prompted with a cake option, it was so unique (if not downright bizarre) that I couldn’t pass it up.

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Clam juice risotto, anyone?

One of the recipes I rejected (at least for this project) included a “bay leaf pizza,” which consisted of red wine, candied fruit, shallot, olive oil, flour, bread flour, cream cheese, orange, bay leaf, arugula, coriander seed, ground clove. (For all the kale haters, bay leaf doesn’t seem like much of a solid topping, so just be happy with what is trending right now.)

Another tarty gem was an “orange risotto,” made from cabernet sauvignon, candied fruit, scallion, avocado, olive oil, butter, yellow hungarian peppers, black rice, pear juice, cream cheese, bay leaf, basil, tarragon, clam juice, baby arugula, orange. (Caberet, oui! Clam juice, non.)

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Cake batter or pesto sauce?

Out of all the recipes I tried out from Chef Watson, this was the only one throughout the mixing and baking processes I wasn't sure would work out. Not only was it taking longer to bake than expected, but the "batter" both looked and tasted more like a pesto than cake mixture.

Turns out it really does come down to the fusion of sweet and savory flavor profiles to make this one work.

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“That looks weird.”

Of the two dozen co-workers or so who so valiantly and selflessly tried the free food forced on them on a late Friday afternoon, about a third of the participants (myself included) actually liked the broccoli rabe cake.

The most common observation was that it worked when the taste tester got a full bite of both the cake with the chocolate/vanilla/almond milk glaze with scattered pine nuts on top. (Another common comment: “That looks weird.”)

Naturally, there were a few people who didn’t care for a savory cake — and then a few members of the editorial staff (who shall remain nameless) who simply saw the cake, laughed and walked away.

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Not just any asparagus pasta salad

Moving along, the asparagus pasta salad really figured into the middle of the spectrum here between traditional and some outrageous spice infusions.

The most common question I received was about what gave the pasta that “kick” and the answer was a combination of white miso, roasted red pepper paste, curry powder and cardamom. Oh, and that was topped off with fresh, sliced jalapeño peppers.

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Summer BBQ side dish?

Obviously, people put off by spice weren’t fans. However, there were a few people who couldn’t stop eating it. That said, I would consider making it again, perhaps as a nice summer BBQ or picnic side dish. But of all the dishes, this is probably the one I’d play around with most and change up again in the future.

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Mission Fig Risotto

With my main course, I turned my whole menu around. Originally, I intended to save fruit for the finale, but based on my initial search results that plan turned up side down.

Figs are one of my absolutely favorite things to eat, either fresh or dried, in savory or sweet dishes. June is just the beginning of fig season, so I’m almost cutting it close, but I couldn’t resist. (Not to mention I had figs on the brain after seeing some fresh batches roll into Whole Foods a few weeks ago.)

Thus, Watson pointed me toward a Mission Fig-based risotto, based upon an original recipe calling for cherry tomatoes.

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Ficus carica

There are a handful of different fig varieties out there. I went with California’s own Mission Fig, especially after reading this detailed history provided by Watson: "The Mission fig (also known as Black Mission or Franciscana) is a popular variety of the edible fig (Ficus carica). It was first introduced to what is now the United States in 1768 when Franciscan missionaries planted it in San Diego. It was also planted in the subsequent missions that the Franciscans established up the California coast. "

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Mission Fig Risotto

Strangely, for being the most familiar dish of the three, the risotto didn’t get the all-around outstanding reception I expected.

While the broccoli cake was love it or hate it (and seriously, there were at least two people who LOVED IT), the risotto was regarded well on average.

But with the self-described “foodies” of the bunch, it was derided as too generic (although tasty and cooked well, whew!), prompting a few people to tell me I should have experimented further with it.

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Read All Instructions

An important asterisk is included at the end of each recipe suggestion, so don’t overlook this bit of fine print: "These quantities and steps are ideas, but Chef Watson really needs you to use your own creativity and judgement. Let us know how to make Chef smarter."

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