PRINT IT ! …..SERVE IT !… EAT IT !
PRINT IT ! …..SERVE IT !… EAT IT !
2005-02-19 at 10:47:00 am #10387Print it, serve it, eat it
Chef Cantu blazes a space-age
Chicago — Homaro Cantu’s maki look a lot like the sushi
rolls served at other upscale restaurants: pristine, coin-size disks stuffed
with lumps of fresh crab and rice and wrapped in shiny nori. They also taste
like sushi, deliciously fishy and seaweedy.
But the sushi made by Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at Moto in
Chicago, often contains no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer
rather than a cutting board.
He prints images of maki on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and
cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. He then
flavors the back of the paper, which is ordinarily used for transferring images
onto birthday cakes, with powdered soy and seaweed seasonings.
At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a
meal at Moto, which might include 10 or more tasting courses. Even the menu is
edible. Diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Cantu’s version of
Sometimes he seasons the menus to taste like the main courses. Recently, he
used dehydrated squash and sour cream powders to match a soup entree. He also
prepares edible photographs flavored to fit a theme: An image of a cow, for
example, might taste like filet mignon.
“We can create any sort of flavor on a printed image that we set our minds
to,” Cantu said. The connections need not stop with things ordinarily thought of
as food. “What does M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ painting taste like? That’s where
we go next.”
Food critics have cheered, comparing Cantu to Salvador Dali and Willy Wonka
for his peculiarly playful style of cooking. More precisely, he is a chef in the
Buck Rogers tradition, blazing a trail to a space-age culinary frontier.
Cantu wants to use technology to change the way people perceive and eat food,
so he uses Moto as his laboratory. “Gastronomy has to catch up to the evolution
in technology,” he said. “We’re helping that process happen.”
Tucked among warehouses and lofts in the Chicago meatpacking district, Moto
attracts a trendy crowd. Some guests leave scratching their heads. Others walk
away spellbound by Cantu’s vision of the future of food.
William Mericle, 41, described a recent meal at Moto as “dinner theater on
your plate.” He did not care for all 20 small dishes he sampled, but he said he
liked most of them. He found Cantu’s imagination appealing. “He’s mad-
scientist-meets-gourmet-chef,” he said. “Like Christopher Lloyd from ‘Back to
the Future,’ if he were more interested in food than time travel.”
Cantu believes that restaurant-goers, particularly diners who are willing to
spend $240 per person for a meal (the cost of a 20-course tasting menu with wine
at Moto) are often disappointed by conventional dining experiences.
“They’re sick and tired of steak and eggs,” he said. “They’re tired of just
going to a restaurant, having food placed on the table, having it cleared, and
there’s no more mental input into it other than the basic needs of a caveman,
just eat and nourish.”
At Moto, he said, “there’s so much more we can do.”
Cantu is experimenting with liquid nitrogen, helium and superconductors to
make foods levitate. And while many chefs speak of buying new ovens or
refrigerators, he wants to invest in a three-dimensional printer to make
physical prototypes of his inventions, which he now painstakingly builds by
The 3-D printer could function as a cooking device, creating silicone molds
for pill-size dishes flavored, say, like watermelon, bacon and eggs or even beef
Bourguignon, he said. He could also make edible molds out of cornstarch.
He plans to buy a class IV laser to create dishes that are “impossible
through conventional means.” (A class IV laser, the highest grade under the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s classification system, projects
high-powered beams and is typically used for surgery or welding.)
Cantu said he might use the laser to burn a hole through a piece of sashimi
tuna, cooking the fish thoroughly inside but leaving its exterior raw. He would
also use the laser to create inside-out bread with the crust baked inside the
loaf and the doughy part on the outer surface. “We’ll be the first restaurant on
planet Earth to use a class IV laser to cook food,” he said.
He is testing a handheld ion-particle gun to levitate food. So far he has
zapped only salt and sugar, but envisions making whole meals float before
The son of a fabricating engineer, Cantu got his start as a science geek.
“From a very young age, I liked to take apart things,” said Cantu, who grew up
in the Pacific Northwest. “All of my Christmas gifts would wind up in a million
pieces. I actually recall taking apart my dad’s lawn mower three times to
understand how combustion engines work.”
When he was 12, he took a job as a cook and busboy, mainly to earn money for
remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters that he then took apart. But the
restaurant business rubbed off on Cantu, and after high school he attended
culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore.
A series of jobs followed, nearly 50 in all. He worked as a stagiaire, or
intern, in some of the top kitchens around the country, eventually talking his
way into a job at Charlie Trotter’s, a well-known restaurant in Chicago. He
became a sous chef there before opening Moto last year.
Cantu has applied for patents on more than 30 inventions, including a cooking
box that steams fish. The tiny opaque box, about 3 inches square, is made of
super-insulating polymer. Cantu heats the box to 350 degrees in an oven and
places a raw piece of Pacific sea bass inside it. A server then delivers it to
diners, who can watch the fish cook.
Assisting Cantu with what he calls his Star Wars stuff is Deep-Labs, a small
Chicago product-development and design consultancy. Cantu meets weekly with the
crew of aerospace and mechanical engineers, programmers and product designers at
Deep-Labs for brainstorming sessions.
“I tell them I want to make food float. I want to make it disappear. I want
to make it reappear. I want to make the utensils edible. I want to make the
plates, the table, the chairs edible,” Cantu said, “I ask them what I need to do
Ryan Alexander, an industrial graphic designer at DeepLabs, said he and his
colleagues at the company, which has designed more-conventional products for
Motorola and Home Depot, are enthusiastic about Cantu: “We don’t say no,” he
Using engineering, graphics and animation software, designers at DeepLabs
have begun to turn Cantu’s dreams into realties.
They have created mock-ups of his all-in-one utensil, a combination fork,
knife and spoon, as well as utensils with pressurized handles that release
The latest prototype is a utensil with a disposable, self-heating silicone
handle that can be filled with liquefied or pureed foods. A carbon-
dioxide-based charge heats the food (soup, for example), and the diner squeezes
the handle to release it onto a spoon. Cantu envisions many applications for
such a utensil, from military meals to cookouts.
Cantu said his experiments and inventions could one day revolutionize how,
where and what we eat. “This will tap into something,” he said.
“Maybe a mission to Mars, I don’t know. Maybe we’re going to find a way to
grow something in a temperature that liquid nitrogen operates at. Then we could
grow food on Pluto. There are possibilities to this that we can’t fathom yet.
And to not do it is far more consequential than just to stick with our steak and