I consider myself a pretty great home cook. I like to dream up my meals, building flavors without relying on a recipe, like the lamb chops with a mustard-red wine-thyme pan sauce I recently threw together without instructions after finding the meat on sale.
So when I learned earlier this year about BuzzFeed’s new AI-powered kitchen companion, Botatouille, I was intrigued. I know it’s a controversial tool, as Botatouille’s announcement came amid widespread media layoffs – including at BuzzFeed, where the company’s CEO announced that the platform would be using AI to “enhance” its content. But the name made me chuckle, and its promise of not just offering recipes but being a companion in the kitchen was an interesting prospect.
I was curious to see if an AI chatbot would be any good at suggesting meals to make out of what I have in my fridge, or could offer recipes in tune with my cravings. To find out, I decided to let Botatouille (no relation to Disney’s rat chef) take over for a day, deciding what I should have for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Could AI replace – or even mimic – the very human experience of cooking and sharing recipes?
Breakfast: a puzzling parfait
I lobbed Botatouille an easy prompt based on what I had in my kitchen: yogurt, strawberries and granola. Botatouille, housed in BuzzFeed’s app Tasty, unsurprisingly recommended that I make a parfait. When I asked if I could add some maple syrup, Botatouille said “of course!” and offered me three new recipes.
I went for the “parfait: Canadian style” since it was first on the list. The recipe called for a trifle glass, but the closest thing I had was a mason jar.
This recipe, though simple, led to the first of several side-eyes I directed at the chatbot.
It called for dark chocolate, but I didn’t have any. When I told Botatouille, I expected it to say, “No problem! This dish is great without it.” Instead, it suggested three new recipes that required dark chocolate to make. Puzzled, I made my parfait anyway, which was tasty but hard to eat out of the small jar.
Lunch: capitalism in the form of salad dressing
For lunch, I wanted something that wouldn’t require a stove since it was a hot southern California day. I expected Botatouille to remember who I was and give me a “welcome back” message. But no, it was the same generic greeting I got at the beginning of the day. Side-eye number two.
The offerings were underwhelming. Botatouille suggested frozen fruit pops, fruity soft serve and gazpacho. Not only did the recipes feel random, they were not filling enough for lunch.
So I asked again what I should make, adding that I was going grocery shopping, hoping this would give Botatouille room to be more inventive. This time it offered me a trio of salad recipes.
I felt like we were finally getting somewhere, but then I noticed the product placement: most of the ingredients were packaged, pre-chopped or mixed produce from the brand Simple Truth. There was also a tab to order all of the ingredients from Walmart. There, while dreaming of what this salad – alongside some leftover Wingstop – might taste like, I was confronted with the realities of capitalism in the form of salad dressing and pre-chopped cilantro.
At the grocery store, I noticed there weren’t any scallions, so I asked Botatouille what I could use as a substitute. This interaction earned the bot its third side-eye.
Botatouille recommended using fried shallots and offered three more recipes. Two of them were versions of a scallion pancake – even though I had just told it the store didn’t have any scallions.
So I asked again and it finally told me I could use chives or leeks instead. Googling would have been much quicker.
Back at home, after about 20 minutes of chopping, grating and mixing, I completed my salad. It was a colorful, crispy dish – but ultimately underwhelming.
Botatouille: pet or threat?
Throughout the day I’d been thinking about where to place Botatouille as a tool. It doesn’t generate its recipes like DishGen, AI that spits out original recipes based on prompts. And it’s not a conversational companion like the ones created with Replika.
My interactions with Botatouille felt impersonal and generic. Maybe it was the branded ingredients, or the fact that it struggled to keep a conversation going, but I felt a distance that I never had when I found recipes on blogs or social media.
I took these thoughts to Alex Hill, a recipe developer and cooking instructor known as @justaddhotsauce to her nearly 63,000 Instagram followers. She stays away from viral recipes and buzzy trends, like #girldinner – which, from my understanding, can range from crudités to a handful of Goldfish and half a pamplemousse La Croix. Instead, she bases recipes on what would resonate with her audience of mostly Black women ages 25 to 40, personal cravings and seasons, both temporal and emotional.
After I explained my lackluster encounters with Botatouille, I asked if the threat of AI that artists and writers are now experiencing would also affect recipe creators, chefs and food bloggers.
“I want to say no,” Hill told me.
While she sees how AI can be used to make things easier for busy, working parents, she said these programs couldn’t duplicate the cultural and personal history that informs what people cook. For Hill, this means the recipes she makes are connected to what her mother has cooked or meals she’s shared with loved ones while mourning a breakup or celebrating a new job.
“I try to be as authentic as I can, putting my personality and spin on it,” Hill said. “If things start to get impersonal, it’s going to take away the community of food.”
Dinner: the bot tries to relate
Finally, it was time for dinner.
I asked Botatouille what I should make based on my vibes. It had been a long work week and I wanted something quick. It offered three recipes including something called “elevated Hamburger Helper”. Not quite my taste, but at least Botatouille was trying to relate to me. “I totally get it – after a long week, you deserve a delicious and wholesome dinner that doesn’t require a lot of effort!” it said.
I asked for something more exciting, with fewer processed ingredients, and it suggested spicy honey garlic shrimp. Botatouille finally seemed to be remembering our conversations.
I followed the recipe exactly until I accidentally poured all of the marinade on the shrimp, instead of setting half aside for later. Panicked, I asked Botatouille what to do.
I expected something like “No worries, it’ll still be delicious,” and was dismayed when Botatouille recommended three dishes to start over with – including the very one I was making. Side-eye number four.
I served the shrimp alongside jasmine rice and some of the salad I made for lunch. It was like the rest of my Botatouille-informed meals: just fine, but nothing special.
I don’t think recipe creators like Hill have to worry about AI taking their gigs, even with the advent of tools like CloudChef, AI that promises to create dishes identical to those made by renowned chefs. A dish that tastes like home, soothes the soul, or is just what you need after a hard day can only come from the human mind.
As I ate, hoping the marinade that burned in my pan would wash away after a night of soaking (it did not), I decided that on a scale of one to 10, I would have to give Botatouille a resounding four side-eyes.