Creating chefs from recipes

November 6, 2009

I had a particular identification with Dave’s “The chef & the recipe book user” blog. I don’t think it should be read as a criticism of those who use recipe books, even in analogy or metaphor. We all start somewhere with our activities, cooking included. I remember well when I was the recipe book user deluxe. I come from a family of recipe creators. My Mum and my Auntie were cooks who invented family favourites and even won competitions. But not for me. I had my recipes and they were to be followed to the letter; otherwise no one could imagine what mess would result. Why would a recipe creator have insisted on the ingredients, quantities and method of preparation if they didn’t realise that this was how it was suppose to be done. And for me, the real test was when you went shopping. It’s not about the recipe user as such but responding to obtaining ingredients. Arriving at our local TESCOs (and ours is a small town one) one would collect 25 or the 26 ingredients required, to discover that the last one, the 26th (and it always seemed to be the last one) was not in stock. Disaster! The whole dinner party is ruined! All ingredients collected to be returned to the shelves! Now practical help was always at hand from Julia, my wife. “Just use x instead of the recipes y”. But that was not good enough. The recipe says x and so x it must be. Thus the dish with this ingredient is out the door as is everything else planned for the dinner party because they were all planned to go together (better still if the dinner was planned from one of those dinner planning recipe books where everything is laid out for the night’s dinner. Surely it’s all or nothing with these).

Now I am sure that this is quite common for those who start cooking. I know that there are others who just start by experimenting and that is how they learn. I know some do very well with this approach, but I know others who have spent a life-time of feeding their cats and dogs, or compost bin with the failures (implying that just because you are smart by not using a recipe book, doesn’t make you a chef).

It was curry cooking that got me out of the fear of cooking invention. Try finding all the ingredients in Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire. We are a town of 2,500 people and its 20 miles to the nearest big town. And my love of curry also gave me a deeper insight into flavour and ingredient. Experimentation and a deeper knowledge of food and ingredient is for me an ongoing love that has transferred to all my cooking, not just curries. The “chief & the recipe book user” has deep insights.

This brings me to the main point of my blog; a theme I would like to explore at times over the remaining week.

I have just returned from the eChallenges conference in Istanbul ( This year I was chairing sessions on “Intelligent Content and Semantics” a subject I think that represents the remnants of Knowledge Management. This is a great conference bringing together ICT research results from EC funded projects and includes areas outside the EU including Africa, Korea, Japan and Russia. This year, as with all years, a number of projects presented in my sessions could learn from the “chief & the recipe book user”. If we consider how long it takes someone to become an expert on any subject or task, the nature of their learning process and the types of experiences encountered in gaining expertise one would wonder at the repeated attempts to abstract everything real about learning, knowledge and expertise for the aim of automating knowledge storage and acquisition – making it available at the click of a mouse. When one is confronted with papers to review that talk about “placing an ontology over the social web” or of extracting domain knowledge from management, modelling it in a graphical modelling language so that systems designers can build intelligent applications that will know the complexity of the business (and I expect make all humans redundant) begs belief. But this is exactly what we get time after time.

It seems to me to be obvious that there is much more to knowledge than what can be abstracted from concrete situations, embodied experience, cultural and societal contexts and community engagement. Given that we have computers and we use them in growingly sophisticated ways, one challenge is to wonder exactly what it is that gets done when one does abstract in this way; when one stores information and models enabling retrieval and sophisticated processing (such as that available in computational linguistics and natural language processing). Our information technology creates recipes but we want our user communities to be chefs. I think that there is considerable food for thought in this, and I hope to follow with some of my own reflections regarding this issue. Maybe the Cognitive Edge community can respond with their ideas, which would provide an interesting discussion.

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