A Mad Scientist on the Future of Food: Moto Restaurant’s Homaro Cantu

Crab PipettesSeven years ago, long before NPR and Fast Company and the New York Times chronicled Homaro Cantu’s shocking reworkings of the dining experience at Moto Restaurant, in Chicago, he and his team began developing a project with what he calls game-changing technology in food delivery.

“First we have action, then we have reaction,” Cantu remarked in a recent conversation, the innovative chef appropriating centuries of metaphysical thought.

“Finally, we have a revolution followed by a new era in our society of capitalism,” he added, referring to his vision of the future of food, which, according to him, will follow triple bottom line thinking. “Welcome.”

Cantu, however, has been very tight-lipped about exactly what that project is. But as the chef that’s known for constructing elaborate sushi rolls purely on edible paper using organic, food-based inks or experimenting with liquid nitrogen and superconducters to make food levitate, it’s easy to let one’s mind wander in imagining what it could be.

When the NY Times first wrote about Cantu in 2005, he was likened to the Salvador Dali and Willy Wonka of the culinary world, a mad-scientist in the kitchen. “He’s like Christopher Lloyd from ‘Back to the Future,’ if he were more interested in food than time travel,” said one Moto restaurant diner during the time of the article’s publishing. Dishes that have appeared on his various-course tasting menus include a crab bouillabaisse in pipettes (pictured above), “buffalo”-style hot wing paper, and sea bass served in a polymer fish cooker.

Cantu putting the finishing touches on a dish

Molecular Gastronomy Versus Slow Food
Molecular gastronomy is the study of the physical and chemical processes that occur during the cooking process, and most modern applications of it have been to radically alter traditional paradigms of traditional food delivery. One of the most notable examples of people doing this is Ferrán Adría, considered the best chef in the world by many, who among other things made food foams famous at his iconic restaurant, el Bulli, in Spain.

In recent years, Cantu has made molecular gastronomy popular here in the US. Most people, however, do not immediately equate molecular gastronomy with sustainability. Most of us, when pressed, talk about sustainability in terms of the slow food movement. A celebration of fresh ingredients direct from the local farm, free of pesticides and toxins—and for that matter, elaborate scientific processes as well.

Cantu would disagree.

Moto has always espoused the local, organic, and sustainable ethos whenever possible. It’s just that most of Moto’s attention has been focused on the more shocking and wacky aspects of the restaurant’s offerings. “Wacky and cool is great,” said Cantu, “but there are a broad range of applications beyond that.”

Cantu also suggested that slow food and molecular gastronomy are not mutually exclusive. “Slow food doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative,” Cantu added. “It’s about thinking like a farmer, and creating food like a gourmand.”

To understand Cantu and Moto’s dedication to sustainability, take his menus for example. All are printed on an edible polymer with organic, food-based inks. “If you can eat [the menu], it’s environmentally friendly going beyond way being biodegradable.”

Another interesting notion is Cantu’s idea for pizza delivery. In a video (below) produced earlier this year, Cantu and his business partner print pizza on edible paper. They then hand out samples to passers-by in Chicago, the pizza on the video looking surprising like slices of a regular, thin slice pie. As the duo receive favorable responses, they also beg the question how much gas and carbon would be saved by eliminating the delivery man, if you could just print the pie yourself at home.

Edible Disruptive Technology Platform
Cantu says that creativity and innovation is seriously lacking in the restaurant industry. Granted you have shows like Top Chef, where troves of culinary professionals do more with one sunchoke in five minutes than we could ever do in our lives. But that’s not the type of creativity and innovation Cantu is referring to.

At its core, food delivery (not as in pizza delivery, but how food in general gets to you) hasn’t changed in a long time. And as chain restaurants have reached near global ubiquity in the last half century, food delivery is a large, institutionalized system, where the end-consumer is very far removed from the farm or factory that produced the raw materials he or she ultimately ingests.

Getting back to his hush-hush project, Cantu wants to create a “truly sustainable business—making a profit, taking care of people, and being eco-conscious.” To him, that’s what being innovative means. It’s what he affectionately calls an Edible Disruptive Technology Platform, or EDTP for short.

According to Cantu, the EDTP will be the most “green-conscious” business to exist. It will replicate all the benefits of local food and “de-centralize” what the idea of franchise means. Again, for now, we are left only to imagine what that actually could be. We’ll have to wait until February, 2010 to ultimately find out. “We’re going to be making a lot of companies obsolete, which is kind of what we need,” Cantu said, prophetically. “We’re going to change the way you think about what you eat.”

Ashwin is an Associate Editor of Triple Pundit. He recently returned to the Bay Area after living in Argentina, where he wholeheartedly missed the Pacific Ocean. He is a freelance editor and media and marketing consultant.After a brief stint working in the wine world, when not staring blankly at a computer screen, you'll find him working on Anand Confections or at 826 Valencia, where he has been a long-time volunteer.

Leave a Reply