IBM's Watson Is Now Inventing Recipes in Bon Appetit Project

Cooking App 'Chef Watson for Bon Appetit' Rolls Out in Beta Monday

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Ken Jennings battles IBM's Watson on 'Jeopardy' in 2011.
Ken Jennings battles IBM's Watson on 'Jeopardy' in 2011.

IBM has found a new partner for its supercomputer called Watson: Bon Appetit magazine.

Together the companies are introducing the beta version of a web-based cooking app on Monday that taps Watson, which beat two human contestants on "Jeopardy" in 2011, to create a new recipe every time someone uses it.

"We get into ruts cooking the same thing over and over again," said Adam Rapoport, editor in chief of Bon Appetit, which is published by Conde Nast. "This helps free up our minds. It's someone to collaborate with as a home cook."

The app, called Chef Watson with Bon Appetit, will be limited to invited users at the start, though Mr. Rapoport said it will "hopefully go live to the general public at some point down the road."

No money is changing hands as a result of the partnership, the companies said.

Here's how the app works: Users enter ingredients they want to either include or avoid, indicate a style of cooking such as Asian or grilling, and choose a type of dish, such as a casserole, sandwich or soup. Then the app pores over Bon Appetit's 9,000 recipes, as well as Watson's knowledge of food chemistry, the psychology of people's likes and dislikes (a concept known as "hedonic psychophysics") and regional and ethnic cooking. It kicks out 100 new recipe suggestions ordered by their accessibility, with the 100th recipe being the most bizarre combination of ingredients.

Chef Watson with Bon Appetit.
Chef Watson with Bon Appetit.

Chef Watson with Bon Appetit differs from a site like, which gives users recipes from its database, because it produces original recipe ideas -- though the app could produce the same recipe twice if the user entered the same search criteria again. The app's potential output will also grow as Bon Appetit feeds it more recipes.

Editors at Bon Appetit shaped a handful of Chef Watson's suggestions into Fourth of July recipes, which the staff tested and are slated to be published on Pamela Drucker Mann, Bon Appetit's publisher, said there are no immediate plans to sell advertising in the app.

Bon Appetit, which Ad Age named Magazine of the Year in 2013, is struggling this year to duplicate the 22% increase in print ad pages it posted last year. Through July, Bon Appetit's ad pages have declined 12% compared with the equivalent period last year, according to the Media Industry Newsletter.

Its paid and verified circulation of 1.5 million during the last six months of 2013 is up slightly from the same period in 2012, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

The partnership between IBM and Bon Appetit took root after the magazine's online editor, Matt Gross, reached out to IBM. The company had piqued his interest when Watson teamed up with the Institute of Culinary Education for a food truck at this year's South By Southwest Festival.

"The idea for the app was to build a system that would inspire people to find new ingredients and flavor combinations," said Steve Abrams, director of IBM Watson Group. "Once we made the decision to turn it into something we would deliver to home chefs, Bon Appetit was the best partner imaginable."

Chef Watson with Bon Appetit doesn't signal a shift into IBM apps aimed at general consumers. Instead, it's meant to drum up potential business by demonstrating real-world applications of Watson, "cognitive systems" that are a key area of growth for the company.

"When we talk about cognitive systems, they can be rather abstract concepts," Mr. Abrams said. "But when I can hand someone a dish they've never seen before, it might make it easier to see what's happening with Watson."

In January, IBM said it was investing $1 billion to create a business unit that finds and sells business applications for Watson. Financial institutions, health insurers and hospitals are using Watson, according to Mr. Abrams. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, for instance, are using Watson to recommend cancer treatments. Some in the food industry have spoken with IBM about tapping Watson to create new products, he added.

IBM has recorded eight straight quarters of declining year-over-year revenue. In the first quarter of 2014, it reported $22.5 billion in revenue, a 4% decline from the quarter a year earlier. Earnings fell 21% to nearly $2.4 billion.

Chef Watson with Bon Appetit could become a regular tool among professional and amateur chefs alike, according to Mr. Abrams. "Chefs are thrilled by the way it forces them to use new muscles and think differently about the way they use recipes," he said.

That doesn't mean losing the human element, Mr. Rapoport said. "These are creative suggestions, but it's up to the cook to cook it," he said.

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