Weird Science

Homaro Cantu's odd brand of humor, technology, shock value, and flavor has turned the fine-dining experience on its head. Now this 29-year-old reformed pyromaniac is trying to redefine the nature of food--and, oh yeah, end world hunger.

It may be freezing outside on this wintry March morning, but deep in the bowels of one of the most elegant--and possibly strangest--restaurants in Chicago, it's getting hot fast. It's the weekly chef's brainstorming meeting at Homaro Cantu Jr.'s Moto restaurant, and Cantu and his passel of wacky young chefs are coming up with fresh ways to tweak the restaurant's wildly innovative menu at a rate that would make a corporate creativity consultant lose his lunch--or, perhaps, clamor to eat another one.

Even before the session begins, there are a few clues that this is not your average fine-dining establishment. Start with the Class IV laser, normally used for surgery, on prominent display in the dining room. At Moto, it's an important cooking tool. Then there's the huge tank of industrial-use liquid nitrogen in the backyard, used to freeze things that are normally hot and to mold foods into wholly unnatural shapes. Finally, there's the huge photo of Salvador Dalí, mounted prominently above the stairs leading into the basement kitchen. Printed on the photo is a quote: "The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad."

That is not immediately obvious as the meeting gets started. Ben Roche, Moto's 23-year-old pastry chef and resident science geek, describes a current project: "I'm trying to make a scoop of ice cream that you cook at a low temperature so it shatters into a powder when you eat it."

Cantu, a tall 29-year-old whose black hair, pale skin, and devilish smile gives him a faint resemblance to Eddie Munster, nods encouragingly. "What else?"

Darryl Nemeth, a Moto line cook, pipes up, "One idea I had was making ketchup fryable, in a form that was cuttable, with waffle-fry sauce."

"Like a cross-cut dealy? You get ketchup and fries all in one? That's cool," says Cantu, his face lighting up. "That's a great idea. I think you could do it with tapioca. The only issue is whether the tomato sugar would burn."

The meeting turns to what the chefs ate on their days off, a regular source of new ideas. One chef fesses up to eating Hot Pockets, those soggy, microwavable excuses for stromboli that are more suggestive of a date with bad reality television than a gourmet restaurant whose 18-course grand tasting menu goes for $160 a head (wine not included).

But not for Cantu. He is so excited, he can barely sit still. Finally, a flavor and a concept for the "lava lamp" drink he has been yearning for, with solid pieces that slowly turn into liquid. Says Cantu: "Okay, so it comes in a glass and there are little pockets inside that are actually hot, and the whole thing is hot, then gets cold as you drink it. That's a no-brainer."

"Are you sure that wouldn't creep people out?" the Hot Pocket eater ventures.

"Any idea's a great idea as long as it tastes great," Cantu says.

There are people who play it safe and people who just can't. Cantu is the latter, a rosemary-wielding rebel who loves to challenge a diner's assumptions about how food should look, taste, and feel. "He's an inventor who accidentally ended up as a chef and is returning to being an inventor," says Wylie Dufresne, chef-owner of WD-50, a New York restaurant known for a similarly technomodern approach. "But his food is good and tasty."

It is this quirky lust for the unexpected--the desire to push the culinary envelope by combining flavors, textures, and temperatures in previously unimagined ways--and his general irreverence for the accepted parameters of food and fine dining that have suddenly propelled Cantu into the role of the restaurant world's enfant terrible. In just two years, this young chef has drawn attention from The New York Times and Gourmet, had the Who's Who of modern gastronomy in to sniff (and taste) around, and scored an invite to cook a dinner for Nobel Prize winners. He has made many more-traditional chefs nervous--and been called everything from a faddish flavor of the month to a creative genius.

But while Cantu is most certainly a chef, he is also someone whose approach to innovation has relevance far beyond the kitchen. He is the classic mad scientist, a Stephen Hawking acolyte with a basement filled with gadgets, robots, and gazillions of inventions aching for just a little bit more time and attention. Unburdened by pesky details such as practicality or resources, he's the type of guy who reaches for the nightstand at 4 a.m. with yet another nutty thought (his wife, Katie, bought him a tape recorder to mutter into). And despite the accolades, in his mind he is just getting started. "This isn't just gimmicky s--t," he says. "There is a point to this."

Cantu wants to use his self-taught rocket science and culinary training to change how the world thinks about food. "He's an inventor who accidentally ended up as a chef," says a colleague.

The point, for Cantu, is simple yet starkly, almost insanely, ambitious: He wants to use his strange brew of self-taught rocket science and professional culinary training to change the way the world thinks about food--which has barely evolved, he says, while everything else has advanced at warp speed. "What is cooking? 'Cooking' is a loose term. It's understanding energy or the lack thereof," he says. "People are afraid because their mentality as a whole has been held back with food and pushed forward with everything else around them." Cantu hopes to commercialize some of his inventions, with the ultimate aim of improving the lot of man. "My main goal here is not to wind up on aisle seven at Safeway. I don't want to be the guy doing the bottled hot sauce. We're changing the way humans perceive food."

And although some people think Cantu is talking a big game to get more people to his restaurant, there is a clear method to his madness. While Cantu refers to Moto, a slick minimalist spot in Chicago's meatpacking district, as his "test kitchen," he is also expanding beyond it--not with a chain of Motos in Vegas and beyond, the traditional route for a name-brand chef, but rather with a new business, Cantu Designs. He hopes to license such patent-pending inventions as his "food replicator," a tricked-out printer named in homage to Star Trek that creates "edible surfaces" such as paper flavored like cheesecake or a mojito; new utensils, which he hopes will change the way people eat; and his polymer cooking box, which allows food to continue cooking even after it is removed from a heat source.

If it's not so easy to find the link between edible paper and world salvation, a few hours with Cantu will at least get you thinking differently about the possibilities. He's a strange and paradoxical combination of idealist and cynic, a guy who in one breath talks about working with the U.S. government to help revolutionize the MRE (meals ready to eat) system and in the other proclaims he'll never be able to work for "the man." But working with contradictions is exactly what Cantu's all about. Others' obstacles are his possibilities.

To change the world for the better--not to mention run a restaurant that is quickly becoming a temple for science-based gastronomy--is a hell of an ambitious goal for a self-proclaimed screwup. Cantu was a troubled kid from the Pacific Northwest, with a mother who drifted in and out of homelessness. He narrowly avoided a trip to juvie for setting a huge fire in a field next to an apartment complex when he was 12. In school, he routinely slept through class. In fact, he had only one discernible passion: taking things apart. There was the lawn mower, the remote-controlled cars, the transistor radio. Although he took a job at a fried-chicken joint when he was 12 (he said he was 16), Cantu saw food more as sustenance than the source of a career until the owner decided to bring in a tandoori oven and Cantu realized that there was more to chicken than McNuggets.

As high school ended, Cantu found himself with no place to live. Fortunately, he connected with a couple named Bill and Jan Miller, who sometimes took in troubled teens. They offered him a couch in their living room on the condition that he go to culinary school. He did--and found his calling. "He came home with a Charlie Trotter [the famous Chicago chef] cookbook one day and said, 'One of these days, I'm gonna have a book just like this,' " remembers Jan. "You know what, he probably was the most ambitious, determined young man we have ever met." Says Cantu: "If it hadn't been for them, I'd probably still be struggling as a line cook somewhere."

Cantu determined that the only way to learn how to be the best was to work with the best. He decided to take the traditional "stage," the free internship most would-be cooks do for a few weeks or months, and turn it into a way of life. He spent about two years traveling up and down the West Coast, knocking on the back doors of some 50 bistros, organic cafés, and fusion restaurants that he thought could teach him something and offering his services for free. Through this hands-on form of benchmarking, Cantu began to develop his own style and became more determined than ever to open his own place.

In February 1999, when Cantu was 22, he decided that Trotter, whom he idolized for his beautiful presentation and use of the best ingredients, would be his next stop. Arriving in Chicago armed with nothing but a stereo and a backpack, he went straight to Trotter's and scored a meeting for the next day. Trotter told him it was rude to show up without an appointment. Cantu was unfazed. "Sometimes I just want to do things," Cantu responded, "and right now I want to work at this restaurant, and that's the only thing I want to do." Trotter hired him, and Cantu spent the next four years climbing the ranks to sous chef. "It was a tough kitchen," he says. "Some people call it hell. I call it a character-building experience."

All the while, Cantu spent his days off tinkering with his own creations, imagining startlingly original ways of presenting and reconstituting food. What his ideas had in common was the combination of the fresh and the familiar--the deconstruction of a comfortable, memory-evoking food and its resurrection in a totally different presentation.

"This guy comes in with these little glasses, he looks like an accountant, and he starts talking about levitating food," says the restaurateur behind Moto. "I said, 'Wow, that's a lot to take in.' "

In late 2003, Cantu heard about an opening for a chef at a new restaurant called Moto. The backer was a young restaurateur named Joseph De Vito, whose earlier food forays consisted of a burger joint and a classic red-sauce Italian spot. De Vito wanted something different, perhaps Asian fusion. Cantu wanted something really different. "This guy comes in with these little glasses, he looks like an accountant," laughs De Vito, "and started talking about levitating food. I walked away saying, 'Wow, that's a lot to take in.' "

Cantu then asked to cook for De Vito and his wife. The seven-course meal was unlike anything De Vito had ever tasted. It included a spring roll with a shot glass holding a ravioli--whose spring-roll-flavored liquid center just "exploded in your mouth"--and a piece of fish cooked at the table in Cantu's polymer box. "Maybe this could work," De Vito remembers thinking. "I always wanted a chef who was going to run with the ball. I think the key to success in this business is to find the right people and let them be creative."

Creative, yes, but what Cantu called creative other people called bonkers. There was the edible menu, a soy-based concoction with vegetable ink spread out to resemble a soft piece of parchment; synthetic champagne injected into your glass with a giant black medical syringe; and flapjacks sizzling on a "griddle" frozen to -273 degrees. When Moto--which in Japanese has many meanings including "idea," "taste," and "desire"--opened in January 2004 offering only a tasting menu with little explanation, people were confounded. "They would ask for sushi, and you'd hit them with this degustation menu," says De Vito, "and then they'd get up and walk out."

Those with the guts to stay were in for a bizarre-yet-tasty combination of food and science, of high and low culture, of the comfortable and the absurd. Case in point: Surf & Turf, which combined a Hawaiian sea bass and duck cooked sous vide (in a vacuum), with mushrooms, a foamy puree of foie gras, and apple butter. Accompanying the dish was a sketch inspired by M.C. Escher, the mind-bending surrealist, depicting a sea that morphs into a sky. "And please eat the drawing," a server would say. "It's flavored on the top like a bird and on the bottom like a sea."

Eventually, Moto was discovered by foodies, who came to admire Cantu's strange combination of childlike playfulness, all-American flavor, and haute cuisine. There is, for example, the Donut Soup, an elegant espresso cup containing a few ounces of liquid that tastes exactly like the inside of a Krispy Kreme doughnut, chemical aftertaste and all. Or the sweetbreads and cheese grits, served on a spoon over white-corn-and-goat-cheese grits. Next to the spoon is goat-cheese "snow," which has been zapped with liquid nitrogen. Diners were asked to abandon their preconceptions about food and just put themselves in Cantu's calloused hands. His only promise was that the food would actually taste good. "Wow, this is so much better than Chuck E. Cheese's," joked one recent guest. The restaurant began to turn a profit, helped along by Moto's cheap rent and high prices.

It's a big night at Moto, because Ferran Adrià is coming to pay his respects. Adrià is the famous Spanish chef behind El Bulli, the restaurant outside Barcelona that in the 1980s became the first to successfully mine the vein between science and food, between perception and reality, in what is often dubbed "molecular gastronomy." Cantu, irreverent as ever, pretends it's not a big deal, flippantly answering "Pizza Hut" on the kitchen phone before realizing that it is Adrià's friend and equally esteemed colleague, José Andrés, confirming the reservation. But he clearly wants to impress. "We've gotta blow this guy away!" a note reads on the schedule downstairs.

Adrià, who was intrigued by a presentation Cantu gave in January at Madrid Fusión, a chef's conference, says he isn't going to drink wine until the end of the meal. "I want to concentrate," he says. And concentrate he does, his brow furrowed as he tastes bison with the aid of Cantu's aromatic utensils--forks and spoons with corkscrew handles that hold sprigs of thyme and rosemary--and watches him use his laser to burn a hole in a vanilla bean, whose fumes are used to enhance the flavor of the beef dish he is serving. Neither Adrià nor Andrés will comment directly on the meal, but they both clean their plates. "One of the things left in cooking today is to find out what is the limit--what is cooking, what is not cooking," says Adrià. "It is clear that Homaro is a chef with that capacity."

Testing those limits, in fact, is what gets Cantu's juices flowing. But with more attention and accolades, he has faced the challenge of continuing to innovate, a classic business problem faced by any idea-driven company, from Apple to General Electric. Today, Moto's menu still changes frequently, sometimes every week. Often, it's a result of suggestions from his staff, almost all of whom both wait on tables and work in the kitchen, an unusual arrangement Cantu prefers because it lets them both interact directly with the customer and earn a share of tips.

But the innovation process at Moto and at Cantu Designs, although self-created, is one that closely tracks the approach of such design groups as Ideo. Every week, Moto's maniacs brainstorm new ideas, create prototypes, test, and then tweak them until they hit the (often literal) sweet spot. Failure is expected and welcomed, though it can be dangerous, such as the time the kitchen staff played with tobacco-infused custard and came down with acute tobacco poisoning. (The dish never made it to the menu.) "You have to be fearless," says Roche, Cantu's chief experimenter. "A lot of times it doesn't work, sometimes you create something completely different, and sometimes it works. There are no boundaries at all."

The same approach applies at DeepLabs, the funky, secretive Chicago product-design firm that works with Cantu and Linda Kawano, Cantu's vice president of new business development, to create utensils. The group's goal is to change the way we think about how we consume food by improving on a system that has barely evolved in hundreds of years. Who's to say that a fork, knife, or spoon, not to mention a chopstick, is the ideal implement? "[Cantu] is very different from a chef in that he's [operating] more from a technology and futurist standpoint," says Bart Brejcha, DeepLabs' founder.

In addition to Cantu's corkscrew fork and spoon, DeepLabs has a prototype for the Serrator, a combination fork-spoon-knife that was inspired by the spork (that sad plastic thing you get at KFC) but actually works. There's also a utensil that could deliver an entire dish from within its handle with the push of a button. It could be used in space or even as a baby-food delivery system. "We want to prove to companies like Target that this is not just a trend, but taking human dining to the next level," says David Mazovick, a DeepLabs consultant.

Cantu is obsessed with patenting his ideas in a world in which the battle for intellectual property can make or break a business. With the help of his patent attorney, Charles Valauskas, a partner at Baniak Pine & Gannon, he has 12 patents pending, including the polymer box, the utensils, and the edible paper, with many others on deck. He makes his staff and virtually anyone who visits the kitchen sign nondisclosure agreements, and he favors sentences, usually uttered with a wink, like "I'd love to tell you, but it's top secret."

"He just disgorges inventions," Valauskas says. "A typical session lasts about three hours, and after that I'm exhausted and he's ready to go, with two pads of paper filled."

Lllleeetttt the battle begin!"

We're on the set of Iron Chef America, the campy Food Network cult hit, and Cantu is about to pull out the big guns in his battle with "Iron Chef Japanese" Masaharu Morimoto. Dressed in green to promote Cantu Designs, he calmly prepares a cocktail flavored with horchata, a rice-based beverage, pours it into three glasses for himself and his two sous chefs, and then, with the aid of the digital camera rigged up to his foil-covered "food replicator," takes a picture of the group clinking glasses. Next, he takes the drink and pours it into the machine. Soon, the replicator spits out the horchata-flavored picture, which is served to the perplexed judges along with a dessert of Mexican chocolate pudding with beets and caramelized popcorn. Jeffrey Steingarten, a cantankerous Iron Chef judge and noted food writer, professes himself charmed and delighted. "Some of us love eating paper," he says with only a touch of irony. "Because that makes the dish." The show will air in July.

While that's certainly an attention-getting novelty on a show like Iron Chef--"We've never seen anything so wildly original," says the show's host--it's Cantu's "edible surfaces" that may offer the best opportunity for achieving his global ambitions. He believes that they could be used to feed people on long space missions, for military MREs, or even as a way to get long-lasting food to people in refugee camps. "My goal with this is to deliver food to the masses that are starving," he says. "We give them something that's healthy, that has an indefinite shelf life, and that is supercheap to produce. A guy like Paul Allen could take this thing and wipe out world hunger if he wanted to."

Already, Cantu is part of a group working with the Institute for Advanced Concepts, the futurist arm of NASA, to help rethink notions of food in space. Paolo Gaudiano, CTO of Icosystem Corp., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based applied research company that has received a seed grant to explore the concept, says Cantu helped his company understand the various ways to manipulate food. "We showed NASA the edible paper, and they thought that was an extremely exciting idea," says Gaudiano. Icosystem is now applying for a Phase Two grant to study the idea further.

A bit closer to home, it's not hard to see how the paper could be used as a marketing or advertising tool by anyone hoping to sell food. "We think there's a real big commercial opportunity here," says Michael Preston, the chairman of Fuse Marketing Group, a Canadian company that works with such clients as Kellogg's and Lindt and is exploring a partnership with Cantu Designs. "We were quite mesmerized by this. Imagine if a dispenser gave you a sample [to taste]?" Fuse is currently preparing pitches to several clients and hopes to have feedback soon. Already, Cantu says he is consulting for several Fortune 500 companies, although he won't name names.

Cantu's creations have attracted the attention of top executives at places like Burger King. A team from the fast-food chain left Moto "floored" by his edible paper and carbonated fruit.

Cantu's creations have also attracted the attention of top executives at places such as Burger King Brands. Denny Marie Post, SVP and chief concept officer, sent a team to dine at Moto. They came back "floored," not only by the edible paper but also by Cantu's carbonated fruit, which had been stored in a pressurized chamber filled with carbon dioxide. When you bite into an orange or pineapple, you instantly feel a bubbly fizz on your tongue. "There's tremendous potential in this offering," says Post. "Wendy's offered fruit and failed. This, to me, is just a brilliant way to differentiate fruit."

Post was also intrigued by edible paper, but added an important reality check to some of Cantu's goals. "It's a neat idea," she says. "But our customer base isn't wildly experimental. Kids are much freer to use things, so maybe there's a way to use it in a kid's meal. But it depends entirely on how consistently it could be commercialized, and that is really his challenge."

Cantu admits that the cost of full-scale production is the $64,000 question, but he and Preston believe it's certainly attainable, if not now, then soon. "I've been losing money on my inventions for 5 years and will go another 20 if I have to," he says. "That's how much I believe in them." Yet he is hardly the first one to think about the applications for edible paper. Listerine breath strips use a flavored film, many pharmaceutical companies are working on delivery systems for medicines that don't involve swallowing pills, and a company called First Flavor claims to have patented the use of a similar film for the specific purpose of taste sampling. "[Cantu's] technology is a wonderful way of getting people's attention," says Jay Minkoff, First Flavor's president and CEO. "But there are hundreds of patents out there."

Although Cantu says he can deliver nutrients on the paper, he can't yet create the feeling of fullness. But that is hardly a deterrent to someone who thinks as he does. "This is where we get into nanotechnology," he says, warming up again. "Just look at those little dinosaur sponges in your bathtub. We're not that far away. If you have time-release pills, you could have time-release expanding cheesecakes." Paper cheesecakes that then expand to fill your stomach? Sure… but before you can explore the concept further, Cantu's attention-deficit disorder kicks in and he's off on another tangent, an application for edible paper that will help avoid identity theft. "Okay, check this out. A whole stack of edible ATM cards. You slide it into the ATM slot, authenticate it (with a thumbprint and unique bar code)… and the flavor is your PIN." When you're finished, you simply eat the card. Far-fetched? Well, yes. But when it comes from the strange yet wonderful mind of Homaro Cantu, you can't help but think: Why not?

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

E-mail the editor at loop@fastcompany.com.

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