IBM Watson Is My New Sous Chef
You’ve surely heard of the IBM Watson human-designed machine intelligence which competed against two human champions and won the game show “Jeopardy!”. If you went to [The Festival In Texas That Shall Not Be Named] this year you very likely ate from a number of food trucks during your visit… but did you see or hear about the food truck that Watson made recipes for?
The IBM Watson team executed on a brilliant plan to showcase the creative capabilities of the Watson system with what they are calling “cognitive cooking”. People used social media to suggest ingredients and dishes, and Watson produced a number of original recipes combining food and flavors in very novel ways. The team partnered with the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City, who would bring the recipes to life in the kitchen and then later on the food truck. I very much regret not attending the festival this year, but I’m hoping the food truck will appear in our lovely metropolis soon!
In the meantime, I was fortunate enough to receive an extremely limited edition bottle of a BBQ sauce dreamed up by Watson. A most excellent friend made this possible, so I returned the favor by cooking us a dinner that would do the world’s first computer generated sauce justice.
My Menu, And The Cooking Process Documented
As soon as the sauce came to Brooklyn, we set about unboxing it and examining what we had.
If you click on the images above, you’ll see the larger versions of the photos and can read the text for yourself. Though not shown here, the outside of the box depicts a number of wild creatures presenting a variety of foodstuffs which are presumably in the sauce. A tiger coddles the primary ingredient, a butternut squash, and the color of the sauce clearly reflects that this is the case. A quick taste revealed a strange mélange of unexpected flavors, but confirmed that a lean white meat would be the right type of protein to use it on.
That morning we headed out to the McCarren Park greenmarket to discover what local and seasonal delicacies might be available. We saw that heirloom tomatoes were available for a great price and looked particularly luscious, and bunches of white carrots were also available at a super cheap price. I decided then that the menu would consist of the following:
- Grilled pork chops with Bengali Butternut BBQ sauce
- Butter poached white carrots
- Heirloom tomato salad with rice wine vinegar & olive oil dressing
- Strawberry apple fruit garnish with Mike’s Hot Honey
We proceeded next to the artisanal butcher shop known as The Meat Hook, where I asked our butcher to cut four pork chops to a suitable thickness for grilling (just about an inch thick). When dinner time drew near, I took the chops out of the fridge and seasoned them with salt & pepper and left them out covered to allow them to warm up to room temperature prior to grilling on my cast iron stove top grill. I set about starting the prep for the side dishes, and contemplated how I would apply the BBQ sauce.
My first thought was that I should try to make a glaze from the BBQ sauce and coat the pork chops to try to create a caramelized layer on them while grilling.
This didn’t seem to work too well, perhaps because I didn’t use enough of the BBQ sauce in the first place, or maybe because there wasn’t a lot of sugar present in the sauce itself; but the fact of the matter was that my friend asked me to use the sauce sparingly, so that others would be able to sample it later (which is why I thought of watering it down and brushing it on, as a way of stretching it out a little further).
Regardless of that initial misstep, as you can see, the results were quite beautiful overall. I executed each of the sides very well – the tender and buttery white carrots, the hearty and delicious heirloom tomato salad, and the honey laden fruit (tossed in a little lemon juice) with its spicy sweetness all made the plate sing a chorus of rich flavors. A generous drizzle of the BBQ sauce adorned the grilled chops.
So What’s The Verdict??
Generally the sauce is tasty, but it’s quite difficult to describe. The butternut squash flavor is the most prevalent, but there are other complexities in the sauce that you really don’t expect. There are a lot of “Eastern” ingredients later in the list (as you can see in the label image above), but none of them in particular stands out, not even the heat of the chili peppers really. It’s not sweet or savory, it’s not umami, and it’s not acidic or bitter or sour. It just… is? And it works with pork somehow?
It’s an impressive success given that the IBM Watson system generated it completely on its own – though I’d be curious to know how many crazy combinations of flavors came out of the system before they selected this one, and how many varieties the ICE cooks tried to make that didn’t taste just right. I wonder if this sauce has a numeric batch designation, like Formula 409?
What the pork chops and BBQ sauce really called for as a side was a citrus offering – maybe a roasted fennel and orange salad or something with pineapple or cherries. The sweetness of the apple and strawberry were nice, but I’m certain that citrus on the plate would have really hit it out of the park.
The BBQ sauce really does seem to be a condiment, something to dress a white meat or fish with post-grilling. It doesn’t work well as a glaze as the flavors are too subtle, and it definitely needs to be limited to chicken, turkey, pork, or fish – no red meat like lamb or beef or other umami laden entrée would work. The sauce is absolutely a unique combination of flavors, and definitely doesn’t seem like something a human chef would intentionally concoct or even serendipitously stumble upon while randomly combining ingredients. But while the sauce does have a pleasing taste, it definitely can’t stand on its own and requires a complementary flavor (but this is true of so many types of dish, so I’m clearly not knocking it!). If this BBQ sauce ever became commercially available, I certainly would recommend to people that they buy some – it’s another success for Watson!
On a final note, I’ve got something I’d like to say to Watson…
Watson, if you’re reading this, I have a proposal for you: Let’s build a smarter planet!! For the last three years, my partners and I have organized the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in New York City. NASA charges us and the volunteers we bring to the event to create open source solutions that will improve life for all on Earth and in space. Watson, we could really use your help next year solving problems for our planet! Check out this short video below for more details, and then get in touch with me!