According to Wikipedia, Homaro Cantu is “an inventor, entrepreneur, chef, and molecular gastronomer”. He is the owner of MOTO (#44 on Forbe’s “The 100 Best US Restaurants), iNG, and a brewery in the making. He has a TV show titled Future Food on Discover and a research and development company called Cantu Designs. He consults for Top Fortune 500 companies, and he even beat Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef.
But what you didn’t know is that he’s also a former arsonist. “I was an arsonist when I was 12; I had a screwed up beginning. I had to lie to get a job in a fast food restaurant, so it was kind of like controlled arson. And I just fell in love with it.” It was in the kitchen environment where Cantu found his calling for innovation.
I arrive at iNG in a foul and flustered mood—I’m pissed as hell because I forgot my GPS and parking was a bitch. But as I’m greeted by Cantu, I notice a glass cup and some citrus at the bar area, and I anticipate something great. I try a meth-like lump of pink-speckled Synsepalum dulcificum, also known as the miracle berry. Native to West Africa, the berry has been eaten for centuries without adverse side effects. Due to a unique glycoprotein called miraculin, the berry essentially tricks the tongue into thinking sour foods taste intensely sweet. In other words: lemons taste like lemonade, limes taste like oranges, and non-fat sour-cream tastes like cheesecake. And sure enough, my lemon tasted like a yellow Starburst.
In the 1970s, the Miralin Company (backed by well-established organizations like Barclays and Prudential) planned on bringing miraculin to market as a sugar substitute, only to find their plans foiled when proponents of artificial sweeteners convinced the FDA to classify the berry as a food additive. Forced to endure 5-10 years of additional testing, Miralin went bankrupt and demand for aspartame skyrocketed.
Despite its enormous potential, miraculin still suffers from various shortcomings. First, the protein is non heat-stable, meaning it cannot be used for cooking. Second, the plant is a high-maintenance bitch: it takes 4 years to grow, only 1 out of 4 plants actually produce berries, and the berries must be freeze-dried within twelve hours of picking to ensure a sustained shelf-life.
But this hasn’t stopped Cantu from growing the plant. We walk over to his other restaurant MOTO, passing by elegant tables and lounges before entering the infamous kitchen-n-lab complex.
“MOTO is one of the most advanced kitchens in the world,” he tells me, pointing at a flatscreen hanging from the ceiling. “I actually invented a software program that runs the restaurant. During service, it calculates everything to the second. If we do 50 people a night, it’ll know we used 50 oranges and send an email to the purveyor, letting him know we need more.”
Cantu also shows me his indoor farm—a $12,000 investment that saves his restaurant $2,000 a week. Chefs compost food products, which produce the dirt, gases, and water necessary for growing plants. What does this mean? Zero packaging, zero refrigeration, and even local farmers (who provide the plants and seeds) profit.
We proceed on through the Laboratory. There’s a centrifuge. Freeze dryer. And a viscometer used during a project for Beyond Eggs, a company who specializes in completely vegan, vegetable-based eggs. (Former chef de Cuisine of MOTO and Top Chef competitor, Chris Jones, become Director of Culinary Research for Beyond Eggs, and they currently have a $5 million venture backing.) “This would eliminate eggs from everything. Vegan eggs—and you can’t tell they’re vegan— gets rid of salmonella, H1N1, the whole chicken farming practices. All that goes away, and you’re actually supporting a more organic practice of farming: farming vegetables.”
As I tour MOTO’s underground labyrinthine, I keep wondering how Cantu manages to build these incredible inventions without formal training or education. Does he consult other scientists from an essay writing service?
He just mix ingredients together and boom—a hangover-free beer (a project in the making, by the way)? “For the most part, it’s a self-taught thing,” Cantu says, adding that he was “just inventing things” nine months prior to MOTO’s opening. Clearly, he was productive; he invented edible paper, began crafting his miracle berry cookbook, and even created an oven using aerogel technology.
The polymer oven is a stout little barrel of genius: it heats up to 500 degrees in less than a minute, remains touchable on the outside, and can hold its temperature for 4-6 hours. It’s made of completely recyclable materials and takes a mere $5 to produce. In fact, Whirpool hopes to line their microwaves with similar technology, so that sky-rise dwellers and third-world inhabitants could eventually harness the sun’s energy to heat their food in an environmentally-sustainable manner.
Is Cantu always driven by a philanthropic mentality? After all, he was homeless for three years, a time when he discovered the inequitable relationship between wealth and food. Limited resources often force poor families to make poor nutritional decisions, widening the existing social chasm within America. But a modest Cantu says his goal is to simply increase efficiency: “Anytime you improve efficiency, there’s gonna be a social cause there. Food problems are just opportunities that have been untapped. At one point, getting hot food was a problem.”
Despite Cantu’s ingeniousness, I remain partially skeptical. Vegan eggs? Eliminating sugar from the human diet? If it were that easy, shouldn’t it have been done already? As the child of two research scientists (and having slaved away in labs myself), some of his scientific notions seem rather naïve. For instance, Cantu dislikes GMOs. “There’s a direct correlation between the spike in food allergies and the spike in genetically modified fruits and vegetables. When you look at the two and when you look at the timeline, it’s basically the same thing.” True, but correlation doesn’t imply causation, and what about third variables and better diagnostics? The truth is never that simple.
For now, I believe that curing obesity, crushing the chicken farming industry, or ending third-world poverty requires more than culinary creativity. It requires hard science, a shitload of money, and public support (not public fascination). But innovators like Cantu help create that momentum—that energy needed to mold dreams into realities.
Despite the media sensationalism, Cantu is neither a mad scientist nor a rebel without a cause. He is simply the guy that took the first leap into a deep pool of swarming sharks. “We don’t do molecular gastronomy. This is advanced food science. You have a lot of people that believe in the whole farm to table thing, and they just don’t want to hear the word science and food come together, but that’s crazy. That’s like saying you shouldn’t use math; that’s just beyond insane. We have to use food and science, but we have to be responsible about it.” In fact, Cantu is refreshingly candid about his accomplishments and goals. He says that when it comes to social problems (not just food-related ones), people complain and point fingers, but the stark reality is that everyone bears some responsibility and that no one has actually attempted to find a solution. Furthermore, Cantu says it isn’t all about displacing old concepts with radical notions; he realizes the importance of working within existing systems and cultures to maximize impact.
“There [are] all these complaints that big food companies are the root of all evil—well, that’s true to a certain point…but we can’t make massive change without big companies. We just can’t. It’s just easier to work with them within their system.”
And I agree. Companies aren’t moral totems of truth. Companies are by nature profit-seeking. But if someone creates a more efficient, healthy, or sustainable product or service that cranks out cash, even McDonalds will come running.
That’s not to say Cantu is hell-bent on collaboration with big think-tanks like IDEO. He doesn’t like taking orders, and he has his own ideas. So where does Cantu see himself in the future then? Not TV, for one thing. Shows like Top Chef visit his restaurants multiple times a year, seeking fresh talent for their show. But Cantu has other things in mind: “At the end of the day, it’s about what we’re doing here first and foremost, and TV is just kind of a bonus.” In the long run, Cantu hopes to utilize restaurant profits to focus on innovation full time. In fact, I have rarely met someone so intrinsically passionate about creation, so eager about taking that often-terrifying leap into the obscure unknown.
It puts my curiosity to shame. Yet despite his remarkable achievements and creative audacity, it’s comforting to know that Cantu is quite relatable. He has a family, an annoying iPhone on constant buzz mode, and a fiery passion for junk food. His favorite food is pizza (Burt’s Place in Morton Grove, more specifically) and he dislikes eating bugs and insects. In fact, maybe it is us that are too normal, too complacent with the status quo. We could all strive to be more like Cantu—pursue seemingly-outlandish ideas, play with foreign concepts, dabble in the exciting unknown.