(Photo via Facebook)
If you haven’t yet finished holiday shopping, here’s a bonus suggestion for your tech-inspired gift list: chocolates made using a recipe that is generated by a computerized chef.
Nunu Chocolates, which has shops in Boerum Hill and Park Slope, enlisted IBM’s Watson to create recipes for several of its latest confections. Among the artificial intelligence platform’s many applications, it turns out, is coming up with novel combinations of ingredients. For Nunu, Chef Watson (yes, that’s its actual name) came up with three varieties: a brown ale, espresso, yogurt and lime zest truffle (ambitious!); a strawberry and cranberry truffle and a lemon and Earl Grey caramel.
Watson earned its chef’s hat by analyzing some 100,000 recipes sourced from Bon Appétit as well as the chemical profiles of hundreds of ingredients. The Chef Watson platform, which was designed for home cooks, is now open to the public to use. In addition, IBM has also worked with food companies, including Nunu Chocolates, to develop custom recipes. The rationale behind Chef Watson, as detailed in this blog post from IBM, is that it can suggest ingredients that many cooks wouldn’t think of combining, thereby offering an easy way to spice up one’s culinary repertoire.
That’s reflected in at least one of Nunu’s chocolates: brown ale and yogurt? Yet surprisingly, when I had the chance to sample Nunu’s chocolates at the Future Today conference held in Manhattan earlier this month, that variety ended up being my favorite.
Upon hearing that the chocolatier behind the creation was based in Brooklyn, I felt compelled to contact the shop to learn more about how these AI confections came to be. Here’s what Dan McKenney, who operates Nunu Chocolates alongside husband-and-wife duo Justine Pringle and Andy Laird, had to say via email.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
First of all, how did Nunu Chocolates get started?
We opened our first store in 2006 over on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. But even before that, Justine had been making chocolate for years with her husband, Andy. They were looking for something unique to sell at Andy’s merch table when he would play local gigs (it’s been a while!), people loved them, and it just sort of snowballed from there.
What makes your chocolates distinct?
I think what makes our truffles and caramels so distinct is how refined and balanced the flavors are. We try our best to let the dark chocolate shine and are careful to keep the chocolates from being unnecessarily sweet.
How did the idea to use IBM Watson for your recipes come about?
We were approached by IBM with their Chef Watson app. They had done projects in the past with food trucks, BBQ sauces, etc.
What was involved in the recipe-generating process? Were the results radically different from the recipe combinations your team might have come up with on its own?
Watson was able to generate recipes using a few baseline parameters to start (whether to use milk, dark or white chocolate; specifying that these recipes were for truffles and caramels), and then we and IBM collaborated from there. We’d add an ingredient like espresso or lemon zest, and Watson would fill in the rest of the recipe. We had somewhere around 15 different recipes in the course of an afternoon. At that point, we took the recipes to the kitchen and tried out what interested and excited us most. It really took us out of our comfort zone — one of the recipes called for yogurt, which isn’t unheard of in a truffle recipe, but is also an ingredient we probably wouldn’t have thought up on our own. Additionally, Watson wanted us to combine the yogurt with brown ale and lime in dark chocolate, a combination we wouldn’t have thought would work.
Were there any challenges in the process?
The biggest challenge we had was adapting the recipes to our style of chocolate making. Some recipes called for more spice than we’d like, or steps were listed in an order that wasn’t efficient for us and our kitchen. Different chocolate origins have different flavor profiles as well, having a big impact on the final result. But really, they’re the same problems I might have with an old recipe my mom might have written down on an index card. Watson provided a baseline recipe, and we adapted it to our needs!
What do you think of the final results? Would you recommend Chef Watson to others?
We’ve been super happy and excited about the results! It’s an incredible addition to our tool belt for when we want some inspiration. It’s easy to get caught in a rut and cook what you know. Having a tool to help jog your culinary memory and enhance creativity is wonderful.