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Wendy Hite, cognitive cooking pioneer

Wendy Hite, cognitive cooking pioneer

By Steve Hamm
Chief Storyteller, IBM

Wendy Hite is a bit of a food snob. She grew up in South West Louisiana, where food and family are all mixed up in the great gumbo of life, and, for the longest time, she couldn’t imagine how she could improve on traditional Cajun-style cooking.

Until she met Chef Watson, that is.

She used the cognitive cooking discovery program to develop a crawfish deviled egg dish that was mighty tasty–familiar, in some ways, but also new to her. “This has been fun,” she says. “It gets you to try new things and to be more creative than you normally would be.”

Wendy is one of the home cooks who participated in the Chef Watson with Bon Appétit beta program. She joined a community of thousands who enjoy experimenting with the Watson app and sharing their adventures in the kitchen with other like-minded people.

The Chef Watson club is about to get bigger. IBM and Bon Appétit have opened up the Web application and Facebook
 to anybody who wants to participate. At the same time, they’re unveiling new features and navigation aimed at making it easier for people to interact with Watson to create new dishes and to expand their flavor palates. Here’s a link to Bon Appétit’s story about it.

From Wendy's kitchen: Cajun Smoked Sausage and Blue Crab Gumbo

Wendy’s Cajun Smoked Sausage and Blue Crab Gumbo

Chef Watson, which was invented by scientists at IBM Research, has helped shape the public perception of the potential for cognitive computing. The Chef Watson food truck was a huge hit at the South by Southwest culture festival in Austin last year, and fans have been snapping up the cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson. But the Web application,  which pairs Watson’s knowledge of food chemistry and taste preferences with Bon Appétit’s 10,000 recipes and culinary expertise, for the first time enables cooks everywhere to try their hand with Watson.

Most of IBM’s cognitive computing solutions are aimed at transforming industries and professions–everything from the healthcare and oncology to financial services and wealth management. Chef Watson demonstrates how smart machines can help people explore the world around them and discover new possibilities and new ways of getting things done whether it’s finding promising treatment pathways to fight diseases or helping law firms build  courtroom strategies by discovering connections between their cases and earlier precedents. It also signals that there will be a wide variety of uses for cognitive technologies designed to help individuals live better and have more fun.

For IBM’s team, the Bon Appétit partnership has provided a sandbox where they can try out new features and get valuable feedback from thousands of regular folks–a rare opportunity for people who normally design software for large enterprises. “We learned a lot,” says Florian Pinel, one of the inventors of Chef Watson who in addition to being a computer scientist has a diploma from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “We learned more about how people wanted to interact and the things they wanted to do.”

What’s new in Chef Watson? In the previous experience, users were invited to choose one or two main ingredients, a dish type and a style of cooking. In return, Chef Watson suggested dishes based on more than 10,000 recipes in Bon Appétit’s database combined with its deep knowledge of food chemistry and human taste preferences. In the new experience, users can start by combining a couple of ingredients and, in an “Inspiration Station” on the screen, see suggestions for other ingredients and cooking styles. The new version is more flexible and interactive. Cooks and Chef Watson embark on journeys of discovery together.

Another of Wendy's creations: Way Down south Wild Shrimp and Grits

Wendy’s Way Down South Wild Shrimp and Grits

“We’re trying to figure out how we can best create an environment for collaboration,” says Jacquelyn Martino, a user experience researcher in IBM Watson Group who is a Chef Watson power user in her spare time. A couple of weeks ago, she and Watson created a dish that combines salmon, turnips, radishes, Romano cheese, pumpkin seeds and cinnamon. She liked it so much she Tweeted to it.

IBM’s team also tinkered with Chef Watson to encourage people to be more adventurous. They found that most people started by choosing tried-and-true pairings such as chicken and garlic or beef and potatoes. So they allotted additional spaces for up to four key ingredients, which, they hope, will entice people to go a little crazy. Now the classic beef and potatoes might be combined with Chef Watson’s suggestions–perhaps pistachios and prunes.

By talking to users and observing their behavior online, the team saw that many cooks wanted to use Chef Watson to help them with common food challenges like developing or adapting recipes to comply with special dietary needs, health preferences and economic factors. So they made it easier to eliminate gluten and sweeteners; to use fruits and vegetables that are available from local producers; and to assemble dishes that make use of ingredients that are already in the refrigerator or panty–cutting down on waste.

Wendy Hite, who lives in Texas hill country with her husband and three children, has a strong aversion to wasting food. Even before she got her hands on the updated Web application, she used Chef Watson to help her family consume the foodstuffs that most often go to waste in her home–bread and yogurt. One result: she and Chef Watson came up with a bread pudding recipe that included black cherry yogurt. “Normally, I hate yogurt, but this was really good,” she says.

Susan Sink and students

Susan Sink and students

For Susan Sink, of Raleigh, N.C., Chef Watson helps her respond to her calling–which is helping people to eat healthier and more sustainably. As a volunteer for non-profit organizations, she teaches classes in healthy cooking using locally grown food from farmers’markets.

Winter Greens Slaw

Susan’s Winter Greens Slaw

The new Chef Watson experience, she says, helps her swap out ingredients that are undesirable for some reason or unavailable from local producers. “One thing I like to do is to take a basic recipe and move it through the four seasons,” she says. For coleslaw, for instance, she might use baby collard greens in the winter, bok choy and turnip greens in the spring, and chard with savoy and purple cabbage in the early summer and fall. She might also rotate through different varieties of carrots, turnips, radishes and kohlrabi to add more color and flavor as they become available. Chef Watson helps her spot new substitutes and uncommon additions, enriching the flavor of common recipes.

Chef Watson can also help people solve that ever-so-common backyard gardener dilemma: figuring out what to do with an overabundance of one vegetable or another. For Wendy Hite last summer, the challenge was dispensing with a bumper crop of ultra-hot habanero peppers. In the Hite household, a few habaneros go a long way. But her husband’s co-workers have proved to be enthusiastic consumers of the dishes she creates with Chef Watson. She made mango-habanero hot sauce. “It passed the co-worker test,” she says.

Now, with Chef Watson available to everybody, you can expect summer gardeners everywhere to find amazing things to do with their excess veggies. Maybe there will be another cookbook in the works.


To learn more about the new era of computing read Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing.


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Can you just enter the ingredients to Watson and can Watson provide you a recipe which is say Indian, Mexican or Japanese?
Will it be able to figure out how to provide you a diabetic friendly food? Can Watson do a Sugar free or low carb or no salt recipe as per people’s reqts?
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