IBM and Bon Appétit's Chef Watson app cooks up some surprising dishes

Meet Chef Watson, the most versatile culinary genius around. On Tuesday, tech giant IBM and foodie magazine Bon Appétit announced the public version of Chef Watson, the new cognitive cooking app that brings the knowledge of the world-famous "Jeopardy"-beating supercomputer to the average household kitchen. The free app provides a way for everyone, from the casual dinnertime experimenter to the more experienced chef, to create dishes using the 10,000 recipes from Bon Appétit’s database that have been fed to Watson.

“When we got started on this idea about a year ago, we wanted to show how Watson can be used to show new ideas, and we thought the world of cooking was a great place to show that – to show the role food plays in our lives,” Steve Abrams, distinguished engineer and director of IBM Watson Life, told “Food plays such a crucial role in the social and cultural fabric of our society, and we wanted Watson to be a part of that.”

The Chef Watson app

The Chef Watson app (IBM)

IBM Watson’s ability to aggregate mass quantities of information has made the cognitive computing system a major player in a number of sectors, from oncological research to education. This latest collaboration makes Watson somewhat more tangible to the average person, Abrams said. Through this app, Watson seems less like it stepped out of a science fiction film and more like a useful tool that can be applied to everyday life.

Stacey C. Rivera, Bon Appétit’s digital director, first became aware of Chef Watson when she heard about IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education’s (ICE) food truck that made a splash at the 2014 South by Southwest festival in Austin. Over a five-day period, ICE and IBM treated passersby to dishes that were prepared using Watson’s database of recipes from the culinary school. Earlier this year, ICE and IBM published a cookbook, “Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education.”

For Rivera, it seemed like her publication’s resources could make for a great match with IBM’s technology. Rivera and her team reached out to IBM, and a series of articles featuring Watson recipes were released. Rivera and Abrams said they saw potential for a more comprehensive app that could give the magazine’s readers direct interaction with Watson’s capabilities. They started to develop a beta version of the app and have been refining it – with user feedback — over the past year leading up to this week’s public launch.

“We have a very structured database of recipes that could give Watson this incredible resource,” Rivera told “Over the past year, it’s been this amazing experience of refining the design language, of gathering the user’s perspective. And throughout the year, we have created some really great food. It’s all about giving creative people this creative tool that speaks to not just your method and style and the way you cook, but also why you cook. It’s about your lifestyle, the lifestyle that surrounds food.”

Chocolate black cherry bread pudding with a craft beer clementine salted caramel sauce. A Watson-inspired dish by app user Wendy Hite. Photo Credit: Wendy Hite

Chocolate black cherry bread pudding with a craft beer clementine salted caramel sauce. A Watson-inspired dish by app user Wendy Hite. Photo Credit: Wendy Hite (IBM)

How does it work? The app is fairly easy to use. Just enter a simple ingredient to start with and Watson will generate a series of suggested pairings with that item. Some of them are intuitive, while others are more outside of the box. Going through various options, Watson suggests different dishes using those combinations, presenting the user with Bon Appétit recipes that use those ingredients. The user can then modify or adjust those recipes, adding or subtracting ingredients. Essentially, Abrams said it is important to think of Chef Watson as the ultimate cooking aid. The computer is not replacing the human cook, but instead offering the best possible options for creating unique, sometimes counterintuitive, recipes. Rivera asserted that the main appeal is that it’s an app that fosters “discovery.”

“Think of the most commonly used ingredients — chicken and garlic — people use them to just get dinner on the table. What Watson does, is take that information and give you something out of the ordinary,” Abrams said. “I think everybody recognizes the accomplishments of Watson from ‘Jeopardy,’ but this helps you in your own personal life.”

“This makes it less abstract and brings it down to a concrete level. You look at Watson’s ability to help pharmaceutical researchers, to help oncologists find targeted diagnoses. In each of these cases, Watson reads and understands more and more of the published literature and can instantly recall and analyze it in terms of structure and natural language. This is an interesting way to bring those capabilities to the kitchen,” he added.

Seasonal Smoothie. A Watson-inspired dish by app user Susan Sink. Photo Credit: Susan Sink

Seasonal Smoothie. A Watson-inspired dish by app user Susan Sink. Photo Credit: Susan Sink (IBM)

Part of what is especially impressive, is Chef Watson’s understanding of food chemistry, of its ability to offer targeted cooking solutions that can meet users’ dietary restrictions. If an individual has a condition like celiac disease, Chef Watson can pull up gluten-free recipes. While superficially, the app can be used to create interesting, delicious dishes, Rivera suggested that it is most impactful as a lifestyle guide that can help people make better informed decisions about what they eat and how they cook.

“It’s not a computer telling you how to cook, but is instead a computer helping you cook. There’s a difference,” Rivera added.

Rivera and Abrams said they have worked to make the app more user-friendly over the past year, and that many of the adjustments have been made to make it more interactive and a tool that can be enhanced through social media.

Abrams said that the app emphasizes that, ultimately, food is a “social experience.”

So, what are the best dishes Abrams and Rivera have prepared through Chef Watson?

Abrams demurred and said that “the best Chef Watson dish is the one that has yet to be created.”

For Rivera, the answer was clear, and perhaps a bit surprising – coleslaw.

“Watson is really good at liquor, at making very good drinks. But, I’m going to stand by coleslaw. It’s just so unbelievable, it puts together coleslaw ingredients that you wouldn’t normally think of,” she said. “Watson can take something like coleslaw and inspire me to do something fun. You just need your brain to be shaken up a bit, and that’s what Chef Watson does.”