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Super Computer at Helm of Food Truck

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 10, 2014

Photo credit: Alex Van Buren

It’s not every day you get to eat bread pudding made by a computer.

One of the most buzzed-about food options at SXSW—where it’s tough to make noise that can be heard above the constant hum of excitement—is the food truck run by Watson, “Jeopardy!” champion and inventor of the Austrian Chocolate Beef Burrito. 

One of Watson’s newest projects is called “cognitive cooking,” which is sort of a variation on “Her" (if Scarlett Johansson was a disembodied chef, not a disembodied romantic interest). Using an iPad, you give Watson a starting ingredient, such as saffron. The computer then prompts you to pick a cuisine in which saffron is sometimes found, whether it’s common, like Indian cuisine, or less common, such as Azerbaijani cuisine. Finally, the iPad suggests a few dishes, such as a cake, that might include the ingredient and the cuisine. It suggests general directions on how to make a cake, and then suggests additional ingredients, such as cherries and plums. (Engadget did a great job investigating how this might work.)

But the additional ingredients the computer suggests are a little outré, since it goes a step further, analyzing all the ingredients in the world on a molecular level to realize that hey, mushrooms and strawberries are not that different, so why not put them together? The result are dishes like Vietnamese Granny Smith Apple Kebab, ”Ceviche Fish and Chips,” and bacon bread pudding with cumin (which we sampled today). 

Since computers can’t yet cook, humans help bring this technology to life, and they’re no slouches in the cooking department: ”Chopped” champion James Briscione and Michael Laiskonis, former Le Bernardin pastry wizard, are affiliated with the Institute for Culinary Education.

Laiskonis told us his favorite dish to date was yesterday’s beef burrito with chocolate, which also included edamame and vanilla bean. (It makes sense that chocolate could work with savory ingredients.) But today marked his first time ever incorporating cumin into a dessert (this from a James Beard Award winner!) We thought the dish, which included a few cubes of savory bread, a pudding-like base, and figs, was good, not great, and we barely tasted the cumin… but it was also our first meal of the day after a daunting bar crawl the prior evening, so our taste buds may not have been set to top-quality tasting capability. Here’s what it looked like:

Photo credit: Alex Van Buren

SXSW attendees have been encouraged to vote on starter dishes, such as “pudding” or “burrito,” on Twitter. The online community has heartily responded. Laiskonis laughed that there’s a “huge Québécois contingent here, apparently,” as they went off the grid and demanded poutine, which was not on offer, imitating IBM’s own graphics campaign: 

The chefs plan to serve some wacky Watson chili in the morning, and switch to poutine by lunch time. As we love poutine, we’ll be in line right alongside the Canadians.