2005 Chicago Rising Star Chef Homaro Cantu is the son of an engineer and a scientist at heart. He is driven by insatiable curiosity and endless possibilities. And it is fair to say that the same enthusiasm that drove Cantu to dismantle his father’s lawnmower multiple times and chomp on $5, $10 and $20 dollar bills as a young boy still consumes him. Frequently described as a “techno chef” or a “real life Willy Wonka,” he brushes off these labels and merely calls himself a cook when asked. But if you delve a little deeper, you will learn that this young, talented chef is aiming to shatter the rules surrounding the table by introducing new technologies in the kitchen. His objective: to entice 21st century diners to embrace unimaginable edible creations.
But make no mistake that Cantu has not lost sight of what brings us all to the dinner table – great tasting food. While guests may be positively shell shocked with some of the mind boggling creations at Moto, rest assured that this young chef can cook. Having grown-up in Portland, Oregon, Cantu graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. He then worked his way up the ranks in nearly 50 kitchens on the West Coast before moving to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s. Cantu spent four years there attaining the coveted title of Sous Chef before leaving to open Moto.
To dine at Moto is to gain a glimpse of the inner-workings of this culinary prodigy’s mind and the future of gastronomy. Offering tasting menus of 5, 10 and 18 courses, Cantu stretches the imagination and takes you on a dining adventure from the very first bite – which may even be your menu. He prints the evening’s offerings on edible paper using organic-based inks, all his own concoctions, which are conveniently compatible with his Canon Pixma ip3000 printer. These functional and delicious menus assume many final forms on the plate including risotto and alphabet soup.
This type of out-of-the-box thinking touches the entire dining experience – sometimes literally. One of his creations is the polymer box. A perfectly self-contained oven, the three-inch opaque box made of super insulating polymer is brought to 350 degrees in the oven before a raw piece of fish is placed inside. The box is then delivered to the table where it cooks right before the guest’s eyes.
While the experience at Moto is sure to expand one’s mind and palette, Cantu is not blazing new culinary trails for shock value alone but rather to change the way that people perceive and eat food. He views Moto as his laboratory and tests new technologies in the kitchen daily. Scientific elements such as liquid nitrogen and helium and devices such as a centrifuge and a hand-held ion particle gun make regular appearances in the Moto kitchen. And Cantu will be the first chef to zap food with a class IV laser, a cooking technique he unveiled in Spain in February 2006. With such an impressive track record, it’s hard to imagine what will be served up next at Moto. As Cantu modestly explains, “Gastronomy has to catch up to the evolution in technology and I’m just helping that process along.”
Since opening Moto, Cantu has attracted much attention with his interpretation of Postmodern Cuisine. Sure, it found its roots in Spain with Ferrán Adrià of El Bulli leading the evolution. But with the exact definition of Postmodern Cuisine still open for interpretation, it is safe to describe this by now established culinary movement as one that reacts against earlier modernist principles. It reintroduces traditional or classical elements, typically carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes. Or as Chef Cantu simply describes it as, “The human race has been eating the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years. At Moto, we strip away the rules, stretch the imagination and entice guests with never-before seen dishes. It’s about being open-minded and having a lot of fun with food.”
While multi-sensory enjoyment, including a sense of humor, is important to the Moto dining experience, whimsy is not Cantu’s top priority. Cantu is a dedicated food scientist who views his kitchen as his personal laboratory. He works closely with DeepLabs, a team of Chicago-based product developers with backgrounds in aerospace, mechanical engineering and animation. Cantu meets with DeepLabs, conveniently located around the corner from the restaurant, on a weekly basis to strategize on what he calls his “Star War’s stuff” to make his dreams a reality.