Food or fantasy? Only the chef knows.
Edible menus? Liquid salad? Chef Homaro Cantu has turned a Chicago restaurant into a playground for food lovers.
At Chicago's Moto restaurant, dinner begins with the menu – literally. On one recent evening, it was a delicious "panini" with tomato and Parmesan. Diners must resist its aroma long enough to scan the menu before taking a bite.Skip to next paragraph
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Not that reading it matters much. Dish names such as "Italian food," "beef mac and cheese," and "banana split" tell so little about the courses about to appear that the menu is little more than a tease.
In this restaurant, liquid nitrogen and lasers are as important in the kitchen as stoves and ovens; goat cheese might be served as "snow," and the salad course could take liquid form.
For diners, the only guarantee is that each dish is a surprise.
"I teach my employees to think like mad children," says chef Homaro Cantu, whose enthusiasm for testing the limits of the forms food can take – levitating? vanishing? on paper? – seems limitless. "The ultimate goal is to get people to remember every course for the next 10 years.... I can appreciate the value of traditional food, but in my professional life, I like to play."
There's little in the way of tradition inside the restaurant he's run for a few years now, where entering the kitchen as a journalist requires both protective goggles and a signed nondisclosure agreement.
Many of the ingredients – scallops, lamb, even pancakes, cotton candy, and peanut butter and jelly – may be familiar, but their forms are decidedly not.
In one dish, acorn squash emerges in two incarnations: one a spongy frozen custardlike dish in which the air is sucked out before it is frozen with liquid nitrogen and topped with powdered maple, the other a warm soup with bits of bacon. ("Don't eat the rubber mat!" the server warns about the square under the soup bowl.)
Pancakes make their entrance in a syringe, before being squirted tableside onto a smoking griddle. Liquid nitrogen then quickly freezes each side of the pancake before servers deposit the quarter-size product – a sort of pancake ice cream – onto a spoon filled with maple syrup.
Not surprisingly, some skeptics question whether Chef Cantu is more gimmick than gourmet, and he's also frequently linked to other futuristic restaurateurs, such as Ferran Adria in Barcelona, Spain or Wylie Dufresne of New York's WD-50 restaurant.
Cantu dislikes the comparisons, noting that "we're all more different from each other than from any other restaurant, but we get lumped together." The innovative concepts he's trying, which he sometimes refers to as "transmogrified food," goes a long way beyond mere gimmick, he says. For starters, every dish needs to taste delicious. Beyond that, he wants to startle diners out of their traditional ways of thinking about a dish, and make each meal both fun and memorable.
Cantu is also optimistic that such innovation can ultimately make lasting contributions. He's working with NASA to rethink food in space, and says his patented polymer "oven" – which he uses to cook diners' fish at their table and which needs to be heated for only eight minutes in a traditional oven before becoming capable of cooking food for up to eight hours – could be an energy-saving cooking device. A collaboration with the Fizzy Fruit company is starting to put his carbonated fruit – not beverage – creations in elementary schools, offering a snack that's both fun and healthy.
Primarily, Cantu doesn't want to leave any possible way of delivering food unexplored.
"If we're going to understand cooking, we have to understand the opposite ends of cooking, from lasers to liquid nitrogen and everything in between," he says. "I like to think of it as being one of the X-Men: You can have superpowers at your fingertips."