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Can a Supercomputer Cook Better Than a Chef?

Photo © Chris Chen

Writer Michael Endelman reports on recipe-generating technology that straddles the line between computer science and human innovation.

There are nearly 50 years of combined cooking expertise in the test kitchen on the 12th floor of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City. At one end of a table is Michael Laiskonis, who spent eight years as the pastry chef at Le Bernardin before becoming the school’s creative director in 2012; next to him is James Briscione, who worked in the private dining room of Daniel Boulud’s eponymous flagship and is now ICE’s director of culinary development.

Neither of them is running this kitchen today. Instead, they’re taking orders from a two-year-old named Watson: a supercomputer invented by IBM and uploaded with a catalog of culinary expertise.

You probably know Watson from his 2011 appearance on Jeopardy!, where he trounced former winners Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter after three days of lopsided play. Watson has since retired from trivia and moved on to the culinary arts. As his handler, engineer Florian Pinel, explains, the Watson cooking project was designed to help answer the question, “Can computers help chefs be more creative?”

To teach Watson how to cook, IBM programmed him with 35,000 recipes and information from the VCF database, a catalog of all the volatile compounds in food. From the recipes, Watson identifies ingredients common among the world’s cuisines; from the database, Watson learns to match ingredients that share the same volatile compounds (presumed to taste good together). These combinations are often surprising—strawberries with mushrooms, asparagus with vanilla.

After a user chooses a type of cuisine (say, French or Moldovan) and a kind of dish (poutine or pie), Watson goes through quintillions of options before spitting out a list of around a dozen ingredients rated in three categories: how well the flavors complement each other, how novel the ingredient pairings are and how pleasant the dish will smell and taste. This isn’t cooking—it takes a chef to turn a string of grains, fats, meats, spices, fruits and vegetables into something that looks like a restaurant dish—but is it creative? IBM’s Pinel thinks so: “By mixing the recipes with the food chemistry database, Watson can overcome cultural assumptions and lead us to new places.”

Laiskonis and Briscione, who have partnered with IBM, think Watson is already shaping the way they cook. “He’s getting me to think beyond the pairings that I know will work and into more unusual areas,” says Laiskonis. Among their favorite Watson inspirations so far: an Austrian burrito with chocolate, ground beef, apricot, cinnamon and edamame; and a Czech pork belly moussaka with peas, celery root, dill, cottage cheese and parsley root. Unbelievably, both dishes got raves. Watson’s work was also a hit earlier this year at Austin’s South by Southwest media-and-music festival, where a Watson-themed food truck offered samples of white-wine-and-butternut-squash barbecue sauce.

For my session with Watson, I start selecting cuisines and ingredients as if I were filling in Mad Libs or creating a terrible-sounding fusion-concept restaurant: Thai, Jewish, chicken, apple and the famously hard-to-pair-with-other-foods asparagus. Watson spins through the possibilities before presenting this head-scratching combination: all of the above, plus curry paste, vanilla, potato, banana, coconut, cilantro, basil and pickles. Laiskonis and Briscione both sigh, like the parents of a demanding teenager.

With a few clicks, the chefs zero in on the scientific reasoning that drew Watson to the unusual pairings of vanilla and curry paste, and chicken and banana. “I like to start by looking at the outliers,” says Briscione. “That helps me understand how Watson works.” The pair retreat to their stations, where they begin problem solving: how to temper the sweetness of banana; how to incorporate vanilla into a savory dish; how to make the grassy, standoffish asparagus play nice with everything else.

This is a lot like restaurant cooking: Chefs create a dish within a set of ingredient-driven parameters, dictated by, say, a plum hitting peak ripeness, or the need to add another starter to the menu, or, as chef Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Lantern says, “50 pounds of pig hearts in the walk-in that I need to sell.” The idea of chef-as-artist and plate-as-blank-canvas is a myth. “When chefs say they can do anything, they end up with nothing,” says Christopher Kostow of Meadowood in Napa Valley. “Limitations lead to better dishes.”

For chefs, combining flavors in new ways is the essential part of the recipe-making process—an otherwise ordered, analytic, iterative progression that can take months or years. “That’s the creative part of making a menu,” says Reusing. “It’s free-associative. I’ll have some incredible strawberries and think to myself, What would be good? Something spicy but floral—oh, pink peppercorns. I almost go into a dream state. I just know it’s going to work. I don’t even need to taste it.”

When a pairing is really striking—not just for novelty’s sake—the taste memory lingers. “I remember this dish that Philippe Conticini made at Petrossian in Paris,” says Laiskonis. “It was John Dory with coffee and hazelnuts, and it was so unexpected—nuts, coffee and fish—that I never forgot it.”

With his vast database of flavor compounds and measurements of p-vinylphenols and tridecanoates, could Watson, too, come up with a flavor combination that creates unforgettable delight? A dish that diners will remember as vividly as David Chang’s fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette or Eric Ripert’s tuna carpaccio with foie gras?

Today’s dish, sadly, isn’t computing. After wrestling with their Thai-Jewish chicken dishes for 90 minutes or so, Laiskonis and Briscione present their latest Watson creations. Briscione’s is a skewer of alternating curry-rubbed grilled chicken with pickle-and-cilantro-infused grilled banana, compressed green apple and mini potato latkes (more like Tater Tots, really), all of it resting on a fragrant vanilla-and-black-pepper-spiced coconut broth. Laiskonis seems deflated by his dish before it’s even done: a curry-rubbed sous vide chicken breast coated in coconut, then wrapped in crispy, thinly sliced potato, served over charred banana with green apple pickles. Neither recipe is the best thing I’ve ever eaten, but neither is the worst.

One sticking point: Without that crackling balance of sour-sweet-spicy-savory flavors, neither recipe tastes like Thai food. But maybe Watson, unburdened with expectations, is working within a framework far beyond human taste buds. Maybe my concept of what a Thai dish should taste like is limiting. In that sense, Watson is the main creative force in the room: By insisting that our curry have apples and vanilla—but no lime juice or fish sauce—he pushed the ICE chefs to rethink their assumptions. Briscione, for instance, worked vanilla into his broth: “To be honest,” he says, “I liked being forced to try and make vanilla work with savory flavors and curry spices. I will do that again.”

Laiskonis and Briscione’s dishes may not have been successful, but given time, there’s reason to believe that Watson’s as yet unknown ingredient combinations could inspire a memorable plate. But he will never do it on his own: Watson’s creative promise depends upon cooperation. He is a searcher and a synthesizer, trolling vast amounts of data and using inputs and algorithms to create a proto-recipe. Only when the technology meets the sharp, problem-solving mind of a chef is the result something that resembles creativity.

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