Chicago chef's cooking techniques inspired by science.
by Kate Heyhoe
As a poster-child for culinary techno-pop, Homaro Cantu (who defeated Food Network's Iron Chef Morimoto) generates opinions as varied and extreme as his cooking techniques, which feature lasers, flash-freezing, centrifuges, ion particle guns, liquid nitrogen, oxymoronic foams, effervescent proteins, and wafting smoke or herb-aroma as olfactory stimulants. In Cantu's world "Cooking is anything you plug in a wall," adding that "cooking is a transfer of heat, or energy."
In April, I joined my colleagues in Chicago at The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) annual conference. Chicago has become a cosmic universe for youthful "mad science chefs," with Moto's Homero Cantu and his even younger sidekick, pastry chef Ben Roche, firing away at warp speed (another chef, Grant Aschatz, delivers his brand of special effects at Alinea, but did not speak at the conference). Besides the Moto team, Charlie Trotter demonstrated his favorite high-tech machines (C-Vap, Paco-Jet, and Turbo-Chef, among others), and Hervé This spoke brilliantly but incomprehensively (excessive distortion due to dense French accent; see my review of his more understandable book, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor.)
Cantu's boyish eyes twinkle like excited ions when he outlines patented products rolling out from Cantu Designs next year (adding that some profits will go to charity). But he remains mysterious on details. Will it be edible credit cards in magazines, new concepts of multi-functional utensils, or who-knows-what else to arrive first? Inventions don't have to be wild and crazy to be useful and appreciated, he notes. The now popular Japanese ingredient of panko breadcrumbs, as he points out, are merely batter bits sprayed on a hot plate.
Cantu, Roche, and their WIRED-generation chefs spritz their speech with words like Linux, NASA, Hendrix, acid, and Zappa. They stunned me with a ten-course meal, opening with an edible menu printed on a cheese cracker; segueing through such plated elements as goat cheese snow, popcorn puree, and a crisp meringue-like savory beet cake; and terminating with a hilarious experience: a pink candy-shelled bonbon, filled with a liquid center of cotton candy that explodes in the mouth on impact. Other diners were not always as impressed, and to be honest, not every element worked well on both the taste and texture levels (fried rice noodles were mushy and oily tasting), but more often than not, the dishes sent me and my companion into orbit. Judging from the conference buzz, I found impressions to be decidedly positive, or a mix of love, hate, amusement, awe, disappointment, brilliance, joy, and inspiration. But mixed-reactions aside, a meal at Moto is undeniably memorable.
If Cantu was merely a performance "artiste" with lofty ideas bent solely on shattering expectations, he'd probably be starving. But the man can cook, and his most successful creative ingenuity often drizzles off the plate and onto the ledger. He runs Moto with hi-tech efficiency. After the first 14 diners served in a night, the restaurant breaks even. The kitchen isn't much bigger than a galley, and a female computer gently calls out the orders over a PA system, freeing the cooks to listen rather than look, never having to leave their energy-efficient stations. Waiters and chefs communicate via earpieces and microphones throughout the night, ensuring every dish arrives on cue. Cantu also rotates the staff between kitchen and front of the house. Consequently, at some point, every cook-turned-waiter gets tips (an 18 percent gratuity is automatically included in the bill); and when the kitchen is understaffed, waiters don aprons and return to their chef-driven personalities. For owners, patrons, and staff, the situation is win, win, win.
For a deeper peek into Cantu's head, check out this C-NET article:
For Chicago chef, it's prepare, print, serve.
The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) honors cookbooks and authors at their annual conference, including presentation of the Julia Child Cookbook Award. Here are the winners of the 2007 IACP Cookbook Awards.
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