moto perpetuo–how Chef Homaro Cantu is transforming the way we eat

Homaro Cantu is going to change the way you eat, what you eat, and how you eat it.  He is quickly becoming the most important figure in the food industry worldwide, period.

Homaro Who? What?

Ok, so maybe he’s not yet a household name.  But what Julia Child did for American cooking in the last half of the 20th Century,  Homaro Cantu is doing for the first half of the 21st.  If it is not obvious yet, I am deeply in awe, and potentially in Platonic man-crush love with, Chef Homaro Cantu.  But my words above are not idle flattery; I truly believe it.  Any doubts were dispelled by the April 13th episode of “Future Food” on Planet Green. If you missed it, set your DVR tonight (all four initial episodes are airing again) and watch in awe.

Some background:  My baptism into complete food obsession came during a dinner at wd-50 in NYC back in late 2004.  Chef Wylie Dufresne, New York’s main practitioner of molecular gastronomy, not only served amazing food—his meal made me rethink food, what went with what, how it was prepared, and how it was presented and consumed.  From this dinner I began to do research on the good ol’ interwebs, and discovered the work of Chef Grant Achatz in Chicago.  At the time, Chef Achatz had left Trio and was set to open Alinea a few months hence.  I vowed that if I could score a table in the opening month (May of 2005), I would fly to Chicago and spend the bulk of my vacation budget to experience his cuisine.

Somewhere along the way Homaro Cantu popped up on my molecular gastronomy searches, and almost as an afterthought I booked a table at his moto (also in Chicago) the evening prior to my Alinea reservation.  After all, if you are going to fly to another city to eat dinner, you may as well break the bank I reasoned.

Credit card bill be damned, I can’t tell you how important those two meals were to me.  I still recall, in vivid detail, dishes I had at both Alinea and moto.  While Grant Achatz’ Alinea offered an utterly unique, matchlessly refined experience—his 25-course virtuoso tasting remains the single best meal I’ve eaten in my life—in many ways the dishes I had at moto were far more radical, and more significant.


The Chef as (mad?) Scientist


Here are a few of the highlights of my first moto meal:

  • A one-bite ‘ceasar salad’ featuring ‘dippin’ dot’ sized balls of frozen, liquefied romaine lettuce.
  • A hot beverage with the exact taste of a Krispy-Kreme glazed donut.
  • A soup garnished with smoking, liquid nitrogen-frozen croutons.
  • Sweetbreads in the style of chicken McNuggets, speared on plastic DNA ampules containing various sauces, which the diner squeezed into the mouth.
  • A miniature, edible paper rendering of MC Escher’s fish-morphing-to-birds “Sky and Water I,” imbued with the flavors of duck and salmon.
  • A fish cooked table-side in a lightweight, flexible polymer ‘oven’ no bigger than a square tissue box, which retained heat at a very high temperature but was not itself hot to the touch.  A device invented and patented by Chef Cantu.
  • A carbonated orange.
  • Popcorn-flavored “Fed-Ex” packing peanuts.

Mind you, this is what I remember from one meal–that I had 5 years ago. Chef Cantu is, to put it mildly, not a man interested in serving you a perfect medium-rare filet mignon with a side of grilled asparagus.

What this first meal revealed was a mind not merely interested in exceptional and original cuisine; this was a chef who sought to reinvent dining from the ground up.  Was every dish a home run?  Frankly no—on my second visit, a few years later, I recall one odd course based on Guinness, cheese, and root beer that featured a mat of plasticine brown/yellow ooze that had the exact look and consistency of fake joke vomit.  It didn’t taste bad, but it was and remains a total question mark for me as a dish.  But here’s why I remember it: this was a dish that showed a chef and kitchen unafraid to push themselves, to risk failure, to not play it safe.

When I have the rare opportunity to enjoy a meal whose bill reaches the three-digit mark, I value this spirit of daring and innovation more than any other (spending my own $200 to eat a steak and Caesar, no matter how aged or fetishized, seems an obscene waste of my limited dining resources).  The reason I return to moto is because I know that I will experience something that I will have never experienced before, and that my knowledge and understanding of food will be expanded.

A few themes emerged in my dining adventures at moto.  First, a certain obsession with “TV Dinner” Americana—the aforementioned McNugget reference, and others to mac and cheese, pizza, donuts, popcorn, and nachos to name a few.  Second: a penchant for transformation, and eye- and taste-fooling imitation.  A plate of ‘nachos’ that was actually dessert; beef with the flavors of pizza; a donut in the form of a beverage.

At first I thought this was mere whimsy, and while that can become gimmicky in lesser hands, the conceptual play at moto rarely resulted in less than stellar dishes.  The “Miracle Food” episode of “Future Food,” however, reveals a deeper and far more serious context for Chef Cantu’s quirky themes and interests.  It explained a lot.

“Future Food” and ‘Miracle Food’

As noted here, and here, I was totally stoked about Planet Green’s “Future Food”…but I was also concerned about its hippie-green angle, and if this would end up becoming a gimmick.  Was the show’s focus on thrift, re-use, and reinvention of product really germane to Chef Cantu and his moto team?  In the “Miracle Food” episode of “Future Food” that question is answered with a resounding yes.  Here’s why.

The show reveals that Chef Cantu spent part of his childhood homeless, and likely much of it very poor.  So that’s partly where the fast food references come from.  And a child that grows up poor is bound to be forced to make do with foods that are repetitious or unpalatable—the endless beans and rice or maybe just rice—when he gets food.  What does a kid do when faced with both hunger and food he doesn’t want to eat?  He pretends its something else, or he tries to mask the flavor with catsup or A-1 or who knows what.  So Chef Cantu’s idea of transforming food isn’t mere whimsy at all; it’s rooted in his humble beginnings.  This also explains why many of his ideas, while presented in a gourmet context at moto, are designed to translate to meet broader needs—the polymer oven mentioned above was, I recall, once eyed by the military for improving MRE’s.

Perhaps the most profound impact Chef Cantu may have is in his exploration of “miracle fruit,” an African berry that acts as a taste-bud doppelganger, making bitter/sour receptors perceive sweet/savory instead.  When Chef Cantu discusses his own childhood near-hunger, as he twirls a dead leaf idly, and asks why we can’t eat the plentiful-but-unpalatable plant life around us—this was one of the most moving and inspiring TV moments I’ve ever seen.  Of course Chef Cantu proceeds to answer his own question, with a series of dishes prepared by his team that are based on foods that we normally don’t eat but that are edible.  You’ll have to watch the episode to see the amazing results for yourself.

Some chefs are invisible, they want the food to shine.  A perfect meatball, or osso bucco, or steak can send you to heaven, but you may not recall or even know who prepared it.  Mario Batali, though his food is distinctive and certainly bears his stamp, is more this kind of chef.  He didn’t invent the meatball, he just perfected it; he’s more interpreter than innovator.

Other chefs tell stories through their food; I call them narrative chefs.  Their food is personal and idiosyncratic.  Probably one of the things I love about chefs who have completely drunk the molecular gastronomy Kool-Aid is that their food, because it so inventive, is by nature personal.  I’ve never said more than a few sentences to Wylie Dufresne, Sam Mason, David Chang, Grant Achatz or even Homaro Cantu, but I feel like I know them from eating their dishes—some are witty, some are austere, some are playful, some indescribably strange.  But each is a window into a mind—and into a soul.

I am grateful for “Future Food” for showcasing Homaro Cantu’s innovative cuisine, and for telling his story.  He’s the most important, and perhaps only, chef/artist/scientist/inventor out there.  And if you will soon be munching carbonated grapes or drinking your Krispy Kreme–or eating a delicious soup made from grass cuttings–you’ll have him to thank.

Future Food airs at various time slots on the Planet Green cable network.  Check local listings for airings in your area.

Michael Manley is a professional musician, food nut, writer and technological retard who lives and works in Las Vegas.  He posts on Twitter as TLV_Michael.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I remember Chef Cantu on Iron Chef America! I loved his innovations!! My son was extremely interested in the “space age” food he saw. He’s a budding foodie who loves learning about chefs!

  2. Hi Jill, thanks for your comment! It’s amazing how the new culture of celebrity chefs and the TV Food Network have gotten so many young kids excited about food. I remember that episode well–Chef Cantu even managed to please judge Jeffrey Steingarten, the grumpiest critic alive!

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