Too, too much of the modern world

In the category of “things I don’t understand at all,” this from today’s New York Times:

February 3, 2005

When the Sous-Chef Is an Inkjet By DAVID BERNSTEIN

CHICAGO

Sushi
HOMARO CANTU’S maki look a lot like the sushi rolls served at other
upscale restaurants: pristine, coin-size disks stuffed with lumps of
fresh crab and rice and wrapped in shiny nori. They also taste like
sushi, deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

But the sushi made by Mr. Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at
Moto in Chicago, often contains no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560
inkjet printer rather than a cutting board. He prints images of maki on
pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic,
food-based inks of his own concoction. He then flavors the back of the
paper, which is ordinarily used to put images onto birthday cakes, with
powdered soy and seaweed seasonings.

At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be
included in a meal at Moto, which might include 10 or more tasting
courses. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of
gazpacho, creating Mr. Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

Sometimes he seasons the menus to taste like the main courses.
Recently, he used dehydrated squash and sour cream powders to match a
soup entree. He also prepares edible photographs flavored to fit a
theme: an image of a cow, for example, might taste like filet mignon.

“We can create any sort of flavor on a printed image that we set our
minds to,” Mr. Cantu said. The connections need not stop with things
ordinarily thought of as food. “What does M. C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’
painting taste like? That’s where we go next.”

Food critics have cheered, comparing Mr. Cantu to Salvador Dali and
Willy Wonka for his peculiarly playful style of cooking. More precisely,
he is a chef in the Buck Rogers tradition, blazing a trail to a
space-age culinary frontier.

Mr. Cantu wants to use technology to change the way people perceive
(and eat) food, and he uses Moto as his laboratory. “Gastronomy has to
catch up to the evolution in technology,” he said. “And we’re helping
that process happen.”

Tucked among warehouses and lofts in the Chicago meatpacking
district, Moto attracts a trend-conscious crowd. Some guests leave
scratching their heads; others walk away spellbound by a glimpse of Mr.
Cantu’s vision of the future of food. William Mericle, 41, described
recent meal at Moto as “dinner theater on your plate.” He did not care
for all 20 small dishes he sampled, but he said he liked most of them.
He found Mr. Cantu’s imagination appealing. “He’s
mad-scientist-meets-gourmet-chef,” he said. “Like Christopher Lloyd from
‘Back to the Future,’ if he were more interested in food than time
travel.”

Mr. Cantu believes that restaurant-goers, particularly diners who are
willing to spend $240 per person for a meal (the cost of a 20-course
tasting menu with wine at Moto) are often disappointed by conventional
dining experiences. “They’re sick and tired of steak and eggs,” he said.
“They’re tired of just going to a restaurant, having food placed on the
table, having it cleared, and there’s no more mental input into it
other than the basic needs of a caveman, just eat and nourish.” At Moto,
he said, “there’s so much more we can do.”

Mr. Cantu is experimenting with liquid nitrogen, helium and
superconductors to make foods levitate. And while many chefs speak of
buying new ovens or refrigerators, he wants to invest in a
three-dimensional printer to make physical prototypes of his inventions,
which he now painstakingly builds by hand. The 3-D printer could
function as a cooking device, creating silicone molds for pill-sized
dishes flavored, say, like watermelon, bacon and eggs or even beef
Bourguignon, he said, and he could also make edible molds out of
cornstarch.

He also plans to buy a class IV laser to create dishes that are
“impossible through conventional means.” (A class IV laser, the highest
grade under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s
classification system, projects high-powered beams and is typically used
for surgery or welding.) Mr. Cantu said he might use the laser to burn a
hole through a piece of sashimi tuna, cooking the fish thoroughly
inside but leaving its exterior raw. He said he would also use the laser
to create “inside out” bread, where the crust is baked inside the loaf
and the doughy part is the outer surface. “We’ll be the first restaurant
on planet Earth to use a class IV laser to cook food,” he said with a
grin. He is testing a hand-held ion-particle gun, which he said is for
levitating food. So far he has zapped only salt and sugar, but envisions
one day making whole meals float before awestruck diners.

The son of a fabricating engineer, Mr. Cantu got his start as a
science geek. “From a very young age, I liked to take apart things,”
said Mr. Cantu, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. “All of my
Christmas gifts would wind up in a million pieces. I actually recall
taking apart my dad’s lawnmower three times to understand how
combustible engines work.” When he was 12, he took a job as a cook and
busboy, mainly to earn money for remote-controlled airplanes and
helicopters that he then took apart. But the restaurant business rubbed
off on Mr. Cantu, and after high school he attended culinary school at
Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore. A series of jobs followed, nearly 50 in
all, Mr. Cantu said. He worked as a stagiaire, or intern, in some of
the top kitchens around the country, eventually talking his way into a
job at Charlie Trotter’s, a well-known restaurant in Chicago. He became a
sous-chef there before opening Moto last year.

Mr. Cantu has filed applications for patents on more than 30
inventions, including a cooking box that steams fish. The tiny opaque
box, about three inches square, is made of a superinsulating polymer.
Mr. Cantu heats the box to 350 degrees in an oven and places a raw piece
of Pacific sea bass inside it. A server then delivers it to diners, who
can watch the fish cook.

Assisting Mr. Cantu with what he calls his ” ‘Star Wars’ stuff” is
DeepLabs, a small Chicago product-development and design consultancy.
Mr. Cantu meets weekly with the crew of aerospace and mechanical
engineers, programmers and product designers at DeepLabs for
brainstorming sessions. “I tell them I want to make food float, I want
to make it disappear, I want to make it reappear, I want to make the
utensils edible, I want to make the plates, the table, the chairs
edible,” Mr. Cantu said, “I ask them, what do I need to do that?”

Ryan Alexander, an industrial graphic designer at DeepLabs, said he
and his colleagues at the company, which has designed more conventional
products for Motorola and Home Depot, are enthusiastic about Mr. Cantu:
“We don’t say no,” he said. Using engineering, graphics and animation
software, DeepLabs designers have begun to turn Mr. Cantu’s dreams into
realties. They have created mockups of his all-in-one utensil, a
combination fork, knife and spoon, as well as utensils with pressurized
handles that release aromatic vapors. The latest prototype is a utensil
with a disposable, self-heating silicone handle that can be filled with
liquefied or pureed foods. A carbon-dioxide-based charge heats the food
(soup, for example), and the diner squeezes the handle to release it
onto a spoon. Mr. Cantu envisions many applications for such a utensil,
from military meals to cookouts. Mr. Cantu said his experiments and
kitchen inventions could one day revolutionize how, where and what we
eat. “This will tap into something,” he said. “Maybe a mission to Mars, I
don’t know. Maybe we’re going to find a way to grow something in a
temperature that liquid nitrogen operates at. Then we could grow food on
Pluto. There are possibilities to this that we can’t fathom yet. And to
not do it is far more consequential than just to say, hey, we’re going
to stick with our steak and eggs today.”

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One Response to Too, too much of the modern world

  1. loretta says:

    I had the same reaction when I read it. Do not invite me to this place.
    Makes me think of the wafer layers around Torrone, which always makes me
    gag!

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