IBM Chef Watson: A Metaphor for Discovery

IBM Chef Watson: A Metaphor for Discovery Unlocking New Discoveries with Cognitive Computing

The launch of IBM Watson more than four years ago ushered in a new era of computing, cognitive systems capable of understanding vast amounts of data to uncover insights, with the purpose of augmenting people’s own expertise and decision making.  Today, Watson serves as the ultimate assistant to professionals in industries including retail, healthcare and financial services.  

In the past several years, IBM has expanded Watson’s capabilities, going from retrieving answers to all kinds of questions, to helping people in nearly any industry or profession discover new knowledge.

To test Watson’s ability to uncover new ideas, IBM researchers turned to the culinary arts to see if Watson could create entirely new and surprising recipes and ingredient combinations.  After reading thousands of recipes and learning about food pairing theories and the hundreds of thousands of complex relationships between flavor compounds, Chef Watson has helped shape the public perception of the potential for cognitive computing.

What began with a partnership with professional chefs at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) to develop and test the underlying system, led to a successful debut of Chef Watson at SXSW in March 2014, followed by a collaboration with Bon Appetit to build a Chef Watson web application for home cooks, as well as the launch of the Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson cookbook with ICE. Today, Chef Watson is being used by professional chefs and home cooks to help discover unexpected flavor combinations they might never have thought to put together before, as well as discovering solutions to help with everyday mealtime challenges in creative ways.

The project more broadly illustrates how Watson is a metaphor for helping people in any industry make new discoveries.  For example, the Baylor College of Medicine is already using these ideas to drive new breakthrough insights in developing new, effective treatments for diseases. In addition, Sanofi is exploring how Watson can speed up the discovery of alternate applications for existing drugs. 

These new discoveries are made possible by Watson’s ability to understand and extract key information by reading millions of pages of literature, and then visualize relationships between drugs and other potential diseases, much like the way Watson can visualize the relationship between ingredients and their underlying chemistry.

How Chef Watson Works

At its core, Chef Watson is a system that has learned a lot about food and cooking from thousands of recipes it has read, helping it understand how ingredients are used in different dishes, what ingredients are commonly paired together and various styles of cooking. It then combined this with knowledge of flavor compounds, food pairing theories and human taste preferences, rearranging and redesigning the data to generate unique combinations of ingredient pairings.

As humans, we are gifted with intuition but have trouble thinking about large numbers of possibilities. Chef Watson has the ability to understand far more information than a human can, and retain it and recall it instantly – inspiring us to come up with new creative insights.  This project demonstrates the potential for human and machine collaboration, and with Chef Watson at their side, IBM’s partners and users provide input and feedback on the system’s ingredient choices, infuse the cooking with their own interpretations, and together deliver creative recipes, and flavorful dishes that neither one could do on their own.

A brief timeline of key Chef Watson milestones: 

·        March 2014: IBM brought the world’s first food truck powered by Watson to SXSW in Austin. At the festival, IBM and ICE introduced cognitive cooking to the world with demonstrations of the technology while serving a variety of novel recipes developed by ICE experts and inspired by unconventional ingredient pairings generated by Watson.

·        June 2014: Following the success of the food truck, IBM and Bon Appétit announced the release of the first-ever cognitive cooking beta app called “Chef Watson with Bon Appétit”. The app, which helps home cooks discover new and flavorful recipes, also served to help Watson increase its culinary knowledge by leveraging Bon Appétit’s 10,000 recipes. The application combines these insights with Watson’s understanding of food chemistry, hedonic psychophysics (the psychology of what people find pleasant), and regional and ethnic cooking styles, to help avid home cooks use Watson as an assistant in the kitchen to find inspiration for their next meal.

·        April 2015: As a result of IBM’s three-year collaboration with ICE to pair the recipe expertise of world-class chefs with Watson’s power, both companies released the first-ever cognitive computing cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson, on April 14. The scope of the cookbook is not simply to inspire people with recipes that will impress dinner guests with unusual ingredient combinations, but to reflect the chronological journey of Chef Watson as a metaphor for how cognitive computing systems can help people discover new innovations and ideas.

·       June 2015: Chef Watson with Bon Appétit” moves out of beta and for the first time enables cooks everywhere to try their hand with Watson. Over the last year, thousands of home cooks have been using Watson to push both the boundaries of what they make at meal times, as well as discover creative ways of tackling very common food challenges related to diet, allergies, seasonal constraints, food waste and even how to jazz up how they cook with staple ingredients. During the last year, IBM and Bon Appétit have continued to expand Watson's knowledge of ingredients, collaborated together on the app's design, and incorporated valuable feedback from the app's early adopters on how to interact with a discovery system such as Watson.


Websites and Resources

Bon Appetit on Chef Watson

IBM Chef Watson with Bon Appetit App

IBM Watson Press Kit

IBM and Cognitive Cooking

Chef Watson Videos

Chef Watson - A Metaphor for Discovery

Chef Watson and the Institute of Culinary Education

Computational Creativity

Florian Pinel TED Talk on Cognitive Computing and the Future of Food

Chef Watson on Flickr

IBM Watson Cognitive Cooking

Chef Watson with Bon Appetit

Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson Cookbook

Chef Watson on IBM A Smarter Planet Blog

Opening the Doors to Chef Watson's Kitchen

Food for Thought: IBM Watson Whips up some Creativity

Q&A with Chef Michael Laiskonis Inside the Cognitive Kitchen

IBM Allies with Bon Appétit to Show Watson’s Creative Side

Watson Hits Bon Appétit’s Sweet Spot: Cool and Useful

Chef Watson Brings New Recipes to Life

Recipes for Success: The Watson Cookbook

In the Kitchen with Chef Watson

News releases
Date Title
23 Jun 2015 IBM and Bon Appétit Serve Up Chef Watson for All
30 Jun 2014 IBM Watson and Bon Appétit Team on New App That Transforms How We Cook


  • IBM and Bon Appétit Serve Up Chef Watson for All IBM and Bon Appétit Serve Up Chef Watson for All

    Date added: 23 Jun 2015

    Following their collaboration a year ago to develop a cognitive computing cooking app and test it with home cooks as part of a beta program, IBM and Bon Appetit have opened up the web app to anyone interested in expanding his or her imagination in the kitchen. The app is built with knowledge gained from training Watson to understand the 10,000 recipes from the Bon Appétit database, what it has learned about food chemistry and human taste preferences, and it also integrates the valuable input shared by users who participated in the beta. Over the last year IBM and Bon Appétit have also evolved the app’s design based on how users wanted to collaborate with Chef Watson as part of their creative process. Today, people can start to discover new flavor profiles with as little as one ingredient. Based on that input, Chef Watson suggests three other ingredients that it predicts go well together. Chef Watson brings these flavor inspirations a step closer to the table by suggesting dish ideas, ingredient amounts, and preparation steps that serve as a starting point for the cook to customize, try in the kitchen, and share with friends. (Credit: IBM)

  • IBM and Bon Appétit Magazine Debut New Cooking App Powered by IBM's Watson IBM and Bon Appétit Magazine Debut New Cooking App Powered by IBM's Watson

    Date added: 30 Jun 2014

    At the Bon Appétit ( Kitchen in New York City, IBM Distinguished Engineer Steve Abrams (left) and Bon Appétit Senior Food Editor Dawn Perry interact with Chef Watson with Bon Appétit, a new culinary app for home cooks on Monday, June 30, 2014. The new app, powered by the cognitive computing technology behind IBM's Watson system which prevailed on Jeopardy! and Bon Appétit’s 9,000 recipes and culinary knowledge, allows home cooks to  create entirely new recipes based on novel combinations of flavors and textures that have never been conceived. IBM is applying the same cognitive technology behind Chef Watson to reinvent how discoveries are made in other fields, including healthcare, financial services and retail. (Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM)

Contact(s) for the Press kit

Fiona Doherty

IBM Media Relations, Watson 1 (914) 945 2319