Behold, The Future Is Here: An Interview With Chef Homaro Cantu

Photo by Hannah Lin

Chef Homaro Cantu explores the intersection of food and technology. 

By George Markoulakis

AS A CHUBBY 10-YEAR-OLD, I vividly remember staring at a piece of chocolate cake and asking my mom, "Why can't this be healthy? I don't ever want to eat broccoli." Fast forward ten years and I'm sitting at the bar of iNG with the man who holds the solution to my childhood woes. Cue Chef Homaro Cantu.

Cantu, 37, holds a mission to bring the culinary world up to speed with 21st century technology and science. As the executive chef and founder of moto and iNG restaurants, both located in the West Loop, Chef Cantu has taken molecular gastronomy and experiential dining to the next level. Both moto and iNG are well known for the inventiveness of their tasting menus built upon molecular gastronomy techniques. While his restaurants' prices tend to target the special occasion patron, Chef Cantu is also passionate about transforming the way Americans eat every day. In fact when asked to explain the science that made his food so famous he answered that he doesn't "believe in 'molecular gastronomy' anymore."

SPOON: Can you explain molecular gastronomy?
CANTU: I believe in food replication. Molecular gastronomy is just the science of food. Anybody that says water boils at 100 degrees, well now he understands the science of food, so he can understand molecular gastronomy. But food replication is a whole new subject. That is the art of taking all the bad food that humans have been eating, and transforming that into something that is ecologically good, and good for your body.

SPOON: What got you into food replication?
CANTU: I'm an opportunist. Every job that I've had that dug me out of poverty was an opportunity to move up the ladder. Now I'm at a point where I don't want to own 10,000 restaurants that just cook food. Now I want to make food that everyone can afford, all the while food that is healthy and delicious...What I want to do is give small operators the ability to open up something that is inexpensive in low-income communities that will compete with the junk food joints and ultimately make them obsolete.

Years ago, when a friend of Cantu was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer, she complained to him about missing out on the taste of food. Chemo can confuse the taste buds and cause foods to taste like metal and rubber. She gave him a blank check and told him to find a solution. After months of research, the Chicago chef stumbled upon a patent from the 1990s involving what we know as the Miracle Berry. The berry is completely natural and safe, and the science behind it, simple. One of the properties in the berry, 'miraculin, confuses taste buds to make neutral, savory or even sour flavors taste sweet.

According to Cantu, the berry has the potential to wipe out processed sugars from food products, and desserts served at iNG already incorporate the berry and are void of sugar. Chef Cantu led me through a demo with his patented Miracle Berry tablets. After letting the tablet dissolve on my tongue, I took a bite of a lemon, and it tasted like cotton candy. The lime tasted like orange sherbet. It was quite the experience that made me a believer in the berry.

The next step in Cantu's mission comes in the form of a new coffee shop that welcomes guests with individual "coffee beans" at the door created from coffee and miracle berries. The goal? To make traditionally unhealthy items like doughnuts and smoothies into genuinely guilt-free options that still taste sweet and delicious.

SPOON: Tell us a little more about your new concept planned for next year.
CANTU: The whole idea here is "Berr-ista: Our Beans are Magic." Let's say you're ordering the smallest smoothie from a place like Jamba Juice. That smoothie has around 200 calories from sugar. Ours will have zero with just fresh fruit and lemon juice or lime juice. When people go and get a smoothie, they think it's healthy for them until you read the fine print. So here you can pick your smoothie, pick your herb and it's blended on site. We will also offer sodas. They will taste like your classic soft drinks such as cola or root beer, and they will actually be good for you. We also see our jelly donut having a fraction of the amount of sugar as a competitor's donut. At the end of the day, we're trying to give you an experience that's unique and answers bigger questions, but also tastes better than the competitor's. That's the most important part, it has to taste good.

SPOON: Where did this passion to create healthy alternatives come from?
CANTU: We grew up very poor. We were actually homeless and wandered from shelter to shelter for about three years. When you go to a homeless shelter, they usually give you the leftover food scraps. I grew up on junk food. As I got older, I started working in these really high end restaurants like Charlie Trotter's. One of the biggest differences in living in the former and latter economic status is diet. If we can create economically accessible foods that are as healthy and nutritious as tasty, well then we got a win. That's been my fascination with food over the last eight years.

Beyond his current coffee shop endeavors, Cantu also has a couple cookbooks under his belt that will bring his molecular gastronomic ideas into the average cook's home.

SPOON: You've just inked a deal to write the moto Cookbook. Can you describe it?
CANTU: This will be the world's first cookbook where you actually get a free television series online to accompany the book...The publishing world has really been challenged with technology. Everybody's going away from print, and they're going to digital. Books are going to have less and less value in the future because people want to watch videos...I am personally creating every audio track, and I edit every video for the cookbook, which has been really challenging.

SPOON: The moto Cookbook recreates moto dishes, which are extremely challenging in their nature. Will I be able to execute some of these in my small apartment kitchen?
CANTU: There are certain things we are going to change so readers and viewers can do it at home. By now people are familiar with sous-vide, and even to me, I don't want to do that at home. I don't want a $1,000 piece of equipment in my home kitchen, but we will show you how to do it with a Ziploc bag. Basically, you'll see the moto version, then (for some dishes) you'll see the analog version that allows you to try these at home. Here's an example: carbonated fruit. I think carbonated fruit is completely fun. In the future this is going to be a groundbreaking product. At home, you may not have a fermentation vessel, so you take a balloon, put some grapes in it, blow up the balloon, and exhale CO2. Tie it off, and put it in your fridge. 24 hours later you've got carbonated grapes. Kids go nuts for that shit. There will be a lot of techniques in the book that simplify similar processes.

SPOON: How was the reception to 'The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook'?
CANTU: It depends on who you ask. I was at a conference, and the Chief Scientific Officer from Pepsi called it "a party trick." And that's okay. They don't have the technology to put the berry in liquid yet. If they did, which is what we're working on, then it definitely wouldn't be a party trick. The important thing to keep in mind here is that the reason the Miracle Berry hasn't gone commercial is because nobody has bothered to write recipes for it yet.

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