Creative Generalist Q&A: Homaro Cantu
Chef Homaro Cantu is blazing the way into the new era of Postmodern cuisine. One of America’s most daring chefs, and an Iron Chef victor, Cantu pushes the limits of known taste, texture and technique in a stunning futuristic fashion at his restaurant, Moto, in Chicago’s Fulton Market. There, the menus are edible, the soup comes in a syringe, some courses may have been prepared with dry ice and centrifuges, the fish cooks inside a polymer case on your table, and your fruit and sorbet dessert may look like nachos with cheese.
Cantu grew up in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. He then worked his way up the ranks in nearly 50 kitchens on the West Coast before moving to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s, where he spent four years working his way up to Sous Chef before leaving to open Moto in January 2004.
A scientist at heart, Cantu is driven by insatiable curiosity and endless possibilities. Described as a “techno chef” or a “real life Willy Wonka”, he brushes off these labels and merely calls himself a cook. But it’s clear that this talented 31-year-old chef and inventor thinks beyond the kitchen and is aiming to shatter the rules surrounding the table by introducing, through his top-secret design lab, new food technologies and cooking methods.
Are you comfortable wearing the “celebrity chef” label?
I guess. I don’t consider myself a celebrity chef. I consider myself somebody who likes to cook.
At what point in your career did you begin experimenting with non-traditional methods of cooking?
Well, cooking by its definition is a transfer of heat or a transfer of energy and I began experimenting with combustible engines and radio-control cars when I was 10, taking them apart. I’ve kind of always questioned how food receives energy and what food really is in relation to the entire food chain, and questioning where it really comes from and is it really sustainable and all that good stuff.
Relative to conventional cooking methods, how much energy is required to transmogrify your meals? Is it an energy intense process?
Well, it depends. Sometimes more energy means more efficient energy or more useful energy. If you’re talking about space travel it actually takes less energy because you’re printing foods in an environment where you can’t actually heat food. Whereas if you wanted to heat food in space you would have to have a completely compartmentalized room just for heating food and there really isn’t that much room up in space.
Here on Earth it takes more energy because you have to create the core ingredients in order to print food but once you have those ingredients you can create a product that is more shelf-stable than pretty much anything else that’s on the market. And it can contain a caloric value that exceeds that of anything we can eat here.
So what is so special about transmogrification?
It’s the basic premise of thinking outside of the box. The world really needs to think outside the box because the clock is ticking on raw materials and energy usage. When you say the word “transmogrification” to somebody they kind of look at you cross-eyed but it’s really taking one thing and putting it into another form [that] still bears some familiarity to the original product. I think we’re going to need designers that think about food and design in ways that we’ve never thought about before.
At Idea Festival you touched briefly on the importance of local ingredients and of decentralizing food. Can you elaborate on that and talk a bit about why you believe these are important.
Well, between the 1930s and the 1940s about 40% of the population in the U.S. was farmers. Right now only 2% are farmers. So we really rely on a very small group of individuals to get our food from. The backyard gardener hobbyist really can’t sustain his own life if something were to happen to the food supply and so you would have massive starvation if anything were to happen there. So eating local just makes sense from a fuel consumption perspective.
But even more important than that, I think we really need to hit the genetically modified organic area because all crops, no matter where you’re growing them, rely on a few basic elements for survival to maintain a proper DNA and RNA structure. One of those, phosphates or phosphoric rock, is actually being depleted at a rate where it is going to be extinct in 60 to 80 years. And so unless we really get our shit together and create some genetically-modified food products we’re going to walk into an abyss of soil that just doesn’t replace its own nutrients because we’ve introduced this sort of unnaturalness to planet Earth. What existed before us wasn’t neat straight rows of cabbage. It was permaculture in the rainforests where certain things in the wild exist in a very complex ecosystem – and we’ve chosen to go against that. We’ve exploded our population beyond what the natural world can support. So, from a food standpoint, I like to think of it as dense energy consumption. How do we continue the lifestyle that we have and still not harm the environment and answer that future food shortage problem because there will be… there are food shortage problems today, we just don’t worry about them here in the United States because we’re big and mighty.
Do you think we can continue the same lifestyle?
Not on this path, no way. It just won’t work. Statistically we’ve extracted over 400 trillion tons of raw material and we’re a little over the halfway point of raw material extraction – meaning iron, aluminum, [etc.]. If you lump it all together, we’ve hit the peak and now we’re starting to see prices go crazy and fuel prices going nuts. If you look at just phosphorus producers, the stocks of those companies have quadrupled in the past three years and that’s because we hit peak phosphorus in 1986 and we’re just now realizing the ramifications of this.
I think that the process is totally reversible. I believe that human engineering can find an answer to truly sustainable food products. We could probably find a way to grow corn and everything else without phosphorus, with just water. Water’s fairly abundant but even that is being displaced into locations where it doesn’t belong.
It’s all very heavy and overwhelming to consider, isn’t it?
For me, I look at it as an opportunity. You know, we could look in the face of danger 100 times in the last 100 years – from Nazis to comets that may hit the Earth – and we could’ve laid down and played dead. But I believe that the human spirit is one that will continue to evolve and that we’ll find alternative energies. We might endure some casualties and tribulations along the way but, I mean, the technology is out there. There are guys out there that have fuckin’ water powered cars. It’s just that there are large companies that are into energy suppression and want to sell product. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I do believe that the technology is out there. I’m no nuclear physicist but I understand how hydro-electric power works and how I can create a hydrolysis apparatus in my kitchen and blow up hydrogen. I mean, we’ve actually ignited liquids on fire that have never been thought of as fuels. If you go on YouTube and you look up “free energy” there’s like a million examples of what technologies are out there. In fact, if you google “ignite coke” some guy took an audio-video receiver and lit Coca-Cola on fire with it. This thing takes nine volts of power and it generates 1100 degrees of energy off it. Yeah, there are things going on out there in the energy world that are going to be game-changers and I’m really excited to see it.
But if you take all the problems all at once it can be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I just stick to food! If we can fix the food problem, then I’m a happy man. … You won’t hear many chefs supporting genetically-modified food but I just think it’s crazy not to.
Has that been a lightning rod issue for you, to stand up for it?
Yeah! You know, when chefs talk about local and organic they really don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Cause even if you get it locally you’re transporting it in this fossil fuel vehicle. I mean, that’s great, you’re going local, but organic, what does that really mean? So we create all this cabbage in these neat straight rows but we still need phosphates from some company in Calgary, Canada to keep growing the food. There’s nothing sustainable about that. We’re just kind of kidding ourselves. I think basic facts need to be thrown out there – like peak phosphorus – and people need to start supporting these biotech companies that are coming up with all sorts of healthy options instead of relying on the good old unsustainable elements that are going to really cause us problems.
So when you say “We’re changing the way humans perceive food,” is that what you mean?
That’s just one of the many things that I’m talking about. We’ve already screwed up nature by overpopulating the world and now we are nature and so if we want to continue to exist we’re going to have to change things.
On the cooking side of things, how much of what you do is exact science and how much of it is artistic improv? Where’s the balance for you?
Everything has to start out with artistic improv. If you want to imagine holding your oven in your hand, you just have to imagine it first. Einstein once said that knowledge without imagination is useless, and I do believe that. I think that you have to think in radical, non-scientific terms and you just have to imagine something that’s impossible and then begin to investigate the link that could possibly exist between what you’re familiar with and what could be possible. And so, when we think of printed food or shelf-stable food over generations the technology is out there. It’s off-the-shelf. We just have to put the tools together to make it. If you want to put your oven in the palm of your hand and be able to carry it around all day, those materials are out there. They’ve been out there for 80 years.
How scientifically rigorous is your in-kitchen improv?
Well, there’s two kitchens: there’s one here at the restaurant and then there’s one in the basement at home. The one in my basement at home is where I do all the experiments that I try and file patents for (if I feel I can commercialize it in some aspect). But here at the restaurant it’s a very creative, high energy environment. At this level of restauranteering it’s usually a very negative environment where the head chef screams all day. I’ve got a lot of systems in place here where this place can sort of run on autopilot indefinitely. That ranges from software systems to different food delivery techniques that just don’t exist in the restaurant world. That’s why this place requires a four-page NDA for anyone to get in here.
And then when I’m at home working on my more secretive stuff – you know, it could be a project for some other company or it could just be me fooling around. That’s really the two parts that make up what I do and what Cantu Design does.
What’s been the most surprising or most interesting response you’ve witnessed to any of your culinary creations?
Well, I can tell you about this… I can’t tell you exact details but I was giving a presentation to a manufacturing company. The company had created a product that had generated over a billion dollars and they put almost a million dollars of legal crap into it just to make the product. It was very expensive. It was very complex. And then I introduced this [new] product to them that consisted of literally 13 elements and it cooks food perfectly and they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe the price of it. It was dirt cheap. And so a room full of engineers where their only job is to come up with cooking implements, to see something like this that’s so dumb and so simple, that’s really what gives me satisfaction. You know, aside from the obvious sense of a guest being really excited with their course or with eating their menu, I kind of get more of a kick out of the engineering aspect of what I do.
Do you have a favourite dish?
That’s a tough one. Yeah, right now we have this barbeque dish that looks like you’re eating charcoals but it’s BBQ pork with white bread. It’s a very classic North Carolinian dish.
What sort of reaction and reception does postmodern cuisine in general, or what you do in particular, garner from “traditional” chefs?
There’s a lot of chefs that don’t like it, but I think they’re coming around. I think they’re seeing that a) most of them that don’t like it have never been here, and b) that when you do eat this food it’s sort of got a homemade feel to it. You’re eating real food and not everything is digitally enhanced. And so it’s sort of a misconception on the part of most chefs where they’re like “oh, I think we need traditional roots, we need Italian food, we need Japanese food.” Well, you know, we serve that stuff here too. It just looks a little different. I think the food community is starting to emulate these things a lot, especially on the large scale. A lot of food companies are getting their hands in it and creating “extreme” snack products and things that entertain people more.
At Moto you and your partner Joseph [De Vito] have instituted a rotational program for employees (to work at everything from kitchen prep to front waiter). What is the purpose and value of doing this?
The restaurant business is full of failures. Eight out of ten in the first year fail. And so here I like people to rotate often from the front to the back of the house because that creates leaders. The restaurant business is full of too many followers, I believe. When somebody has an idea of what everybody else is doing in the restaurant then it inclines them to work more as a team player. It creates a very tightly-knit team. And these people by the time they’re done working here will be able to work any position at a restaurant. More than that, they could probably be plucked from the restaurant environment and just be a leader in any other environment because they’re willing to do the job.
Are there any examples where you’ve seen this really shine?
Yeah, there was a guy that took over a restaurant here called Butter. He actually just left to take a sabbatical in Spain but he was a chef there for a while. There are guys in Arizona that came from this restaurant. Keep in mind we’re only four years old here, so we’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve got one of my sous-chefs who will be leaving next year to start up his own place in Indiana. We support that. That’s what we want. We don’t want people to just come in here and then go on to another job and be a line cook. We really want to take a team and really think outside of the box and create new food stuffs with it.
It was very challenging. Lot of hours. I’d say what I learned at that restaurant was really the attention to detail. What is a fine dining restaurant? A fine dining restaurant just pays closer attention to detail than other restaurants.
Besides the obvious kitchen-as-laboratory aspect, how does cross-disciplinary interaction with engineers, scientists, and product developers influence your approach?
It gives me a better scope of much larger challenges that face chefs. I think that a lot of food products out there are driven by people who are profit-based, and I’m not so profit-based. I wouldn’t launch a product just to make the money. I would launch a product if it could, say, save energy or save raw materials or be a cheaper product or if it was cool in some way.
I think that chefs have the ability to change the game. They work every day in environments that are highly creative. It’s just what sort of information do they deliver to their staff and get them thinking on this wavelength. The information is all out there. It’s called Google. It’s like having a free university right in front of you. You’ve just got to go out there and start asking the right questions and it’s very easy to motivate a team. Start letting them be creative and doing what they want to do and eventually they’ll do what you want them to do. Who wants to make the same salad every day?! Have fun. You never know where these sorts of experiments will lead.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations, people, books or websites that you find especially inspiring?
I always like to look for science websites – like people that just sell stuff. I like to look for new technologies on the MIT homepage, looking for new materials that are out there to work with. There’s actually a website, Transstudio.com, a guy named Blaine Brownell. He’s one of the world’s top materials experts, so if you dream up a material he probably know the guy who’s making it.
What sorts of inventions have you developed through Cantu Designs?
I do work with other companies that I can’t really talk about – new product development for retail, aerospace, edible products… I’m a very busy guy.
Any new products you can talk about?
You can look for a new product line coming out in the first or second quarter of next year. That will definitely be the most revolutionary product line a chef has ever made. I’m pretty psyched about it.
Um, let’s just say that it’s going to be really cool. It’s not just going to be a set of fucking pans.