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Aug 06, 2009

Chef Homaro Cantu serves up delicious meals unlike any you’ve ever had. Next on his menu: a better way to feed the planet.

By Donna Sapolin

Homaro Cantu, the chef behind Chicago’s Moto restaurant, opens the valve on a large tank of liquid nitrogen, sending clouds of vapor billowing across the kitchen vestibule.

In keeping with his view that fine dining should provide an operatic experience, the effect of this irreverent cooking fluid is theatrical.

“When you come here, you get an entire show,” he says. “You don’t get to choose between act one and act three. You eat either a ten- or a 20-course meal, and each ‘act’ is so explosive, you’ll remember it for at least a decade.”

But Cantu’s use of unlikely equipment goes far beyond creating a memorable meal. A self-professed tinkerer (dozens of remote-control cars running on algae and electricity lurk in his basement), Cantu grounds his experiments in the concept that traditional cooking products and processes can be implemented differently and better.

His gastronomical creations are positioned to overturn prevailing expectations of high-end restaurants, changing how this country grows, prepares and eats its food. The use of liquid nitrogen is a case in point: “Why take hours to freeze something in a gigantic freezer if it can be done in mere seconds?” he asks.

The nitrogen tank is one of several disruptive technologies Cantu and the Moto staff employ to concoct their whimsical, unconventional cuisine. Another of his potentially revolutionary inventions is a covered polymer dish so efficient at retaining heat that a seconds-long blast in the microwave will enable the course to cook itself at the diner’s table. The device could eventually make large, energy-wasting ovens obsolete.

Other creations include a handmade laser machine that can re-flavor wine by sending vanilla bean fumes into a wine glass, and a homemade rack that looks like a cross between a plant stand and an aquarium designed to grow algae at the back of the restaurant’s kitchen. “Algae is an important biofuel, and we need to look into that here,” Cantu explains.

Many more innovations are being developed through his separate product development company, Cantu Designs. To date, the company has filed over 15 food- and non-food-related patents, which Cantu intends to license to other companies.

Cantu’s inventions are part of his overarching plan to create a model for restaurants that is grounded in the concepts of “green living, sustainability and social responsibility,” he says. “A triple bottom line business.”

The ambitious scope of the chef’s plans is based in his belief that our growing environmental challenges are necessitating the rapid transformation of the food industry, and that the best place to introduce such a broad-scale overhaul is outside the realm of big corporations.

“We can’t possibly sustain our present way of cooking,” he says. “Restaurants have to be redefined, and I’m not going to depend on someone else to figure out the answers. Here at Moto, we’re always thinking ahead—to the next menu, to the next year, to the next 25 years.”

High on his agenda is developing multifunctional devices that, he says, can wipe out the “unnecessary crap” cramming houseware aisles in stores everywhere.

One such product combines various utensils and gadgets into a single tool that can fit in a drawer. “We all know we’re short on resources, materials and energy,” he says. “So we’re simply going to have to figure out how to work with less.”


The Wizard of Chicago


A thin green drape separates Moto’s minimalist dining room from its bustling work zone. Cantu is the man behind the curtain—flipping switches, firing cooking lasers and coordinating his 35-member kitchen staff.

In his role as conductor, he orchestrates the creation of a cuisine in which nothing is quite as it seems—starting with the menu, which is entirely edible.

One of Cantu’s key concepts is “transmogrification,” the term he uses for the process by which his staff metamorphoses American comfort foods into other forms. It’s a million-dollar moniker for a culinary sleight-of-hand that allows spaghetti and meatballs to taste like a cheeseburger and a latte to look like a hard ball.

But this isn’t just a novelty act. Cantu demands that all Moto concoctions be not only delicious and whimsical, but thought provoking as well. His cuisine is an expression of what is both in his heart and on his mind, even if the results are a little controversial.

In one instance, he concocted a seafood course that split open to reveal a black pool of oil and edibles resembling plastic packaging. “This dish took direct aim at the oil industry,” he says. “We called it ‘Oil Spill.’”

At weekly brainstorming sessions, the staff draws on events, memories of foods recently consumed and even movies to provide a frame of reference for their inventions.

It goes without saying that all of the members of Moto’s staff possess a keen understanding of taste and food chemistry, both of which they need to be able to manipulate successfully. But according to pastry chef Ben Roche, the most important requirement is “nuttiness.” All the workers, he says, are people who get bored easily and therefore thrive on change rather than being thrown by it.

After a childhood spent in a poor household in Oregon where food stamps and government cheese were the norm, it’s not surprising that Cantu chose to work in a kitchen environment and use his prodigious talents to riff on food basics.

“My first jobs in middle school were in restaurants. They felt like heaven to me,” he recalls. “Not only could I get a free meal, but I could spend time in the company of really fun, creative people.”

After graduating from high school and culinary school, Cantu took a stab at running his own restaurant in Southern California, but the operation was quickly shuttered.

Realizing he still had a lot to learn, he worked his way across the country, always holding two restaurant jobs at a time—one to cover his bills and another, unpaid, in a renowned high-end establishment, to learn the ropes.

“By the time I came to Chicago and started working for Charlie Trotter’s, I’d worked in 50 different restaurants and gained a lot of knowledge,” he says. “In 2004, I partnered with Joe DeVito, the proprietor of Moto. I thought I’d first turn a profit and then start making my ideas and inventions a reality.”

But making a profit meant the immediate enactment of some of his more atypical management tactics, like insisting every member of his staff rotate through each restaurant position. “I want to turn out fully developed entrepreneurs who excel at every aspect of this business,” he explains.

To extend sustainability beyond the use of organic ingredients and low-energy cooking methods, Cantu set up a paperless operation using software he devised.

“Our servers speak their orders to a camera in the back that a computerized voice then fires to the kitchen,” he says. “Staffers there can look at a big screen and see where each table is at any given time.”

Apparently, the only constant at Moto is that Cantu will continue to shake things up—and have a lot of fun doing it. “Some people call my kitchen a lab,” he says, smiling. “To me, it’s ‘Romper Room.’”

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