Taking a leap of faith and cooking with pure science!

Let’s see what happens when creativity meets artificial intelligence!

The guys at IBM took the art of cooking and replaced it with science! They created an app called Chef Watson that replaces you and me in the kitchen. Yes, robots are taking over! Wait, what, really? Well not yet, but the ingenuity of the robot approach might just tickle your creativity and taste buds.

Understanding flavor compounds

Chef Watson puts together ingredients that match from a chemistry point of view. How does that work exactly? All your ingredients are build-up of chemical compounds and connections. The idea is, the more flavor compounds two ingredients share, the better they go together.

Butter and milk share more than 50 flavor compounds, egg and milk about 20, butter and egg about 20 as well, butter and vanilla again about 20 compounds. This means butter, milk, egg and vanilla all have flavors that resemble each, which makes them work so well together No wonder we all love vanilla flavored cake! Another maybe more interesting example: Check out this video about the combination of pork and apple! Looks like I was onto something instinctively with my pork burger with apple relish.

The more compounds ingredients share, the better they complement each other – voila – a tasty combination. It pulls you out of your comfort zone and gives you combinations you would have probably never ended up with. I was so intrigued by this idea that I had to try it out!

An unlimited number of (hardly usable) recipes

The recipes Chef Watson throws at you need to be taken with a grain of salt however. While there is some pretty heavy-duty artificial intelligence behind the app, you can’t simply yet believe everything the recipe tells you to do. The recipes are generated by taking existing recipes, combining pieces of them, switching out ingredients – all done automatically. At Bon Appétit senior food editor Dawn Perry came across a recipe clearly substituted fennel for cherry tomatoes.

One recipe submitted called for trimming the “white bulbs” from cherry tomatoes before cooking. Uh, white bulbs? “Exactly!” says Perry, laughing.

The IBM team behind Chef Watson is working to prevent things like this from happening. Still, I had some similar issues, as I will soon tell you about in my little experiment underneath.

You might ask yourselves now:

How usable is this app actually for hobby and professional chefs alike?

Alexandra Kleeman from the New Yorker tried it for a week and ended up with somewhat mixed feelings. I wanted to give it a go and see for myself!

So let’s hand over our fate to science and take a leap of faith, shall we?

I saw that cauliflower was on sale at my local supermarket. That’s the starting point. I put it into the web app and Chef Watson suggested 3 other ingredients. When raisins pop up I was intrigued. In the Indian kitchen there are some curries that have cauliflower and raisins in there, so that should work. When tinkering around with the other ingredients at some point blue cheese pooped up. Yes! Now we are talking! A cheeseboard with blue cheese and grapes works pretty well together, but in combination with cauliflower? I have my doubts. Forth ingredient: Black olives. Okay, love those, now you have my full attention!


This is what Chef Watson put together for me, according to our chef 100% synergy between the 4 ingredients

I check the list of recipes generated and a recipe for a penne dish with cauliflower and pesto caught my eye. It was based on the recipe of ‘Multi-Grain Penne With Hazelnut Pesto, Green Beans, And Parmesan’. You can already somewhat guess where some of the substitutions are being made.

The original recipe from Chef Watson had only 4 steps and seemed pretty straight forward. Other ingredients being needed: Cashews, rosemary and garlic. Fair enough. Time for grocery shopping – let’s do this!

My four ingredients (cauliflower, raisins, blue cheese and black olives) all lined up

When reading the whole recipe in more detail (as you should ALWAYS do, before even touching a pot or pan) I noticed some flaws… First on the ingredient list: 1/4 cup of rosemary – that just seems ridiculously excessive, let’s reduce that to 2 sprigs. 2 cloves of raw garlic for the pesto seems too harsh, let’s make that 1 clove. On the contrary, 3/4 tablespoons of raisins seems too little, given this was one of the cornerstones of the dish. I took 4 tablespoons.

Second and foremost, the cooking instructions were somewhat off. The recipe still mentioned beans that should be boiled. Okay, just ignore it. Sauté the raw cauliflower – that will never be enough to cook it through, so I parboiled it for 2 minutes first and then fried it to brown and char it.

Chef Watson’s recipe and the source it’s based on

Crazy science tastes … a bit bland

First things first, I love the pesto! Turns out garlic, cashews, lemon juice, rosemary, raisins and olive oil make a great pesto! I’ll use this as finish touch for other dishes in the future! Technically, pesto needs cheese to be considered pesto. A little crumble of blue cheese would work pretty nice in here.

The dish was okay – not overwhelmingly great, just okay. The 4 ingredients indeed share a lot of similar flavors making them blend together into a rather homogeneous sauce, with nothing really jumping out. What it needs is a bit of contrast in every bite, highlighting each of the ingredients. On top of that, the 2 sprigs of rosemary used (which should originally be 1/4 of a cup!) were still a bit overwhelming and distracted from the other flavors.Use 1 sprig.

So all in all, I wasn’t disappointed. A few minor tweaks and Chef Watson’s recipe actually works!

The leap of faith paid off and I’ll definitely use Chef Watson more often to try out combinations off the beaten track. This whole idea of flavor compounds fascinated me so much that I couldn’t help myself and had to buy a book on flavor compounds on Amazon (The Flavor Bible).

The final verdict: Chef Watson can’t think for you, but he can surely ignite your creativity! I’ll make it my mission to understand flavor compounds just as well as Chef Watson, but then add some loving human and culinary touch to it!

If you are interested in my tweaked and improved version of Chef Watson’s recipe, check it out underneath!


This is how Chef Watson’s recipe turned out on my plate

Pasta with charred cauliflower, blue cheese and rosemary-raisin pesto

(This serves 4 people, that are willing to put their lives into the hands of an over-powered calculator)

  • 1/2 head of cauliflower
  • 500g of pasta, like penne or rigatoni
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 5 tablespoons raisins
  • 80g roasted cashews
  • 1 sprig of rosemary
  • 7 tablespoons olive oil
  • 40g blue cheese, like Roquefort, Blue Stilton or Gorgonzola
  • A handful of chopped black olives
Trust the artificial intelligence and get cooking

Cut half a cauliflower into florets. Bring a big pot of water with 1 tablespoon of salt to the boil. Cook the cauliflower florets for 3 minutes on a low heat. Don’t discard the water, but scoop out the cauliflower with a slotted spoon and place it a colander.

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to the packing instructions. (usually about 10 minutes). When draining the pasta reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.

Put a skillet on high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sauté the parboiled cauliflower for 5 minutes until well browned and lightly charred.

Meanwhile make the pesto. Chop the garlic and place it in a kitchen processor. Add the lemon juice, 4 tablespoons of raisins, 70g of cashews, the leaves of 1 sprig of rosemary, 5 tablespoons of olive oil (about 70ml), 1/2 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Blitz until you have a smooth pesto. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Toss the pasta with the cauliflower, the pesto, the pasta cooking liquid, 30g of the crumbled blue cheese and the chopped black olives, until well combined.

Spoon onto plates and garnish with the rest of the raisins, cashews (crushed) and the last crumbled blue cheese!

*Just to clarify: I’m not affiliated with IBM, Bon Appétit or the New Yorker. I just like the idea of Chef Watson and came across the rest by accident.

Want to join the inner circle?

Recent Posts

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *