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IBM’s Chef Watson Tackles the Fourth of July

Deb Amlen
Yahoo Tech

For some people, baking comes easily. I am not one of those people. If we were to draw a Venn diagram of “People who have produced a recognizable baked product from their own oven on more than one occasion” and “Deb,” the circles would not even be touching.

Venn diagram

My friends know this, yet they always turn to me when we plan potluck get-togethers. They ask, “Why don’t you bring dessert?” I invariably forget my lack of baking prowess and gush, “What a great idea! I’ll just whip something up!”

It’s like “Groundhog Day,” but with more sugar and butter.

This Fourth of July I’m determined to be ready. I’m on dessert duty again (“I’ll just whip something up!”) and I wanted to come up with something that would not be an epic fail on the order of the “Nailed It” meme.

Image of Fourth of July cakes, one a disaster


As luck would have it, IBM Research has taught its famous Watson computer how to cook. It doesn’t literally do the cooking, of course; that would be even more of a disaster, as Watson lacks opposable thumbs. What they have been doing for years is teaching Watson natural language processing (which is the way we communicate) and also about flavor pairings. They have named this project “Chef Watson.”

What’s relatively new is that IBM has paired up with Bon Appétit magazine to produce an app that will create a recipe from a few human-supplied variables, like a main ingredient, the type of dish the cook would like, and how “classic” or “experimental” the cook would like the recipe to be. It’s still in beta testing, but you can be considered for the pilot program by clicking here and taking a short survey about your recipe-reading habits.

They’ve also loaded more than 9,000 recipes from the magazine’s archives into Watson so it can search them for ideas while it’s trying to decide what kind of cheese would pair best with your pickled nectarines. Watson can be very creative in the way it runs its algorithms.

Given my previous lack of success at creating edible baked items, Chef Watson sounds like a godsend. Clearly, I could turn my baking woes over to Chef Watson and let it lead me to culinary glory. What could possibly go wrong?

Scene: July 3. My kitchen.
Let’s say I log in to Chef Watson on my tablet and ask it about baking a red, white, and blue cake. I’d like to frost it with vanilla frosting and decorate the top with red, white, and blue fruit.

Cake topped with strawberries and blueberries


I’d type in my requirements and, if all goes well, out would pop a recipe:

Chef Watson: Hello! Here are the ingredients for your cake:

            2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
            4 cups all-purpose flour
            2 tablespoon baking powder
            1 teaspoon fine salt
            3 cups granulated sugar
            6 large eggs, room temperature
            2 cups whole milk
            1 teaspoon red food coloring
            1 teaspoon blue food coloring
            2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract


            1 stick unsalted butter, softened
            4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
            5 cups confectioner’s sugar
            ¼ teaspoon fine salt
            ¼ cup whole milk
            ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Me: That seems a bit complicated. Do you have any recipes that use canned frosting?

Chef Watson: Canned? What am I, Betty Crocker? I use Bon Appétit recipes. We have a reputation to maintain.

Me: OK, homemade is fine, I guess. Where’s the fruit?

Chef Watson: You want fruit on it? How about some mango? They’re in season now. I saw some the other day; they were gorgeous.

Me: Actually, I was thinking about red, white, and blue fruits. It’s for the Fourth of July.

American flag


Chef Watson: Okie-doke, we’ve got strawberries…

Me: Oh, strawberries are perfect!

Chef Watson: … and for white, my flavor palate tells me that strawberry pairs well with white foods like gin.

Me: You want me to pour gin over my cake?

Glass of gin


Chef Watson: Are you questioning my taste?

Me: No, it’s just that …

Chef Watson: You know I won “Jeopardy!” right?

Watson computer on Jeopardy!


Me: Let’s skip the white for now. How about blue?

Chef Watson: Oh, that’s easy. Eggplant.

Me: Eggplant? That’s disgusting! And eggplants are purple.

Chef Watson: What do you want? It’s considered a berry, according to my programming. And it has “egg” in it. You need eggs to make a cake.

Me: Not that kind of egg. Is there someone else there I can speak to?

Chef Watson: Are you sure I couldn’t sell you on a nice stew? I’m really good with stews…

Me: Thanks, but I think I’ll just stop off at the bakery …

Is there something weirdly popular on the Internet that you’d like explained? Write to Deb Amlen at buzzologyYT@yahoo.com and let her know. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@debamlen).