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 user 2005-02-19 at 10:47:00 am Views: 77
  • #10387
    Print 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
    alphabet soup.

    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
    awestruck diners.

    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
    aromatic vapors.

    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
    eggs today.”