Crabgrass, Vegan Eggs and Package-less Orange Juice
Homaro Cantu’s Recipe to Change the Way We Eat
By Mike Drummond
Celebrity chef Homaro Cantu would rather tinker with lasers, ultrasound and liquid nitrogen than talk haute cuisine and name drop.
Despite the fact he and sidekick pastry chef Ben Roche had a cooking show called Future Food on the Discovery Network – what chef doesn’t have a cooking show these days? – Cantu prefers to be called an inventor.
Indeed, a conversation with Cantu is a provocative, authoritative, mind-bending trip to the outskirts of the culinary arts. A journey of experimentation where science, the surreal and celery are likely to intersect. A Willy Wonka-like excursion, where menus are edible, crabgrass tastes like basil and grapes become soda pop when placed inside balloons.
From his Chicago restaurant Moto and his innovation lab Cantu Designs, Cantu is cooking up new ways to feed the world, heal the planet, delight taste buds and create playful mischief.
We spent about an hour with the patent-holding Cordon Bleu grad, who engaged us in a free-range discussion alighting on everything from the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet to “flavor tripping.”
ID: Talk about the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. Seems we have a lot of shows – including your own – entire networks even, devoted to cooking. How has this influenced or affected our concept of food?
HC: There are so many facets to this.
What we’re doing is building a multimillion design facility [where we] create anything we want and license it out to third parties. It’s going to be the Bell Labs of food. It’s something the world has never had and we need it now.
Food is front and center. Food has so many problems involved with it. The only area of innovation where we’ve really seen in it is in genetically modified products. But one or two companies own all of that.
We need an open source system for human consumption that solves global problems.
That would not have been possible had the Food Network not existed, had the celebrity chef not come into being. But I don’t consider myself a celebrity chef. I consider myself a working inventor.
ID: A lot of people would consider you a celebrity chef.
[Let the record show in a 2006 episode of Iron Chef America, Cantu defeated Masaharu Morimoto by using a laser to caramelize edible packaging material and liquid nitrogen to create “balloons” made of beets; he appeared on the Ellen Degeneres Show in 2007 and 2008; and in 2009 he appeared on Dinner Impossible alongside actor Neil Patrick Harris.]
HC: Innovation with food comes front and center before any TV or anything else. Eighty percent of our profits go into innovation and furthering technology.
We see a problem and invent something that solves the problem. We take it to big companies. If you don’t want it General Mills, then Kellogg’s is going to take it. We’ll create more competition. Just like the iPhone did for phones, we need that for food.
ID: What’s that look like? Give us a for instance.
HC: Go to Vimeo.com and search for the user ‘I am the Walrus.’ You’ll find lots of videos we’re creating. One is for a software program that’s taken me eight years to develop. Like the iPhone’s Siri, it’s a voice-command technology, an automated restaurant management software system.
[The program is billed as the first point of sale system to become fully automated and ready for commercial use in 2012.]
Restaurants are complex businesses. They lose lots of money. You’ll be able to run an entire office entirely through voice command. Monitor profit and loss in real time. It’ll be linked to electricity meters and shit like that. And it can speak any language.
Lone, free-standing restaurants get it for free. Those with two or more locations have to pay a licensing fee. It levels the playing field – through technology. Open source can be supported through companies willing to pay for it, and lower operating costs across the board.
You can say goodbye to your keyboard and mouse.
ID: Sounds pretty space age, like Hal meets Mel’s Diner.
HC: Here’s another invention: package-less orange juice.
Sound waves are passed through an orange. It liquefies the inside and sanitizes it in the process, eliminating the need for chemicals. It’ll ill just about any bacteria – e.coli, salmonella, what have you. Inside the orange, everything is liquefied, the pulp, the seeds, everything. So what you can do is buy the orange in the store and take it home, boom, package-less orange juice.
ID: What about the feel of the thing? Does the orange feel solid or like a water balloon?
HC: Depends on the thickness of the skin. Not all oranges will work. But the point is we’ve eliminated the entire supply-side management for orange juice companies. If Tropicana doesn’t want it, we go over to Dole or Del Monte and make sure that they do.
[Obviously taking this process to scale would be a challenge. But the potential is mind-blowing. How many cardboard cartons or plastic bottles would be stripped from the orange juice equation? It strikes me early and often that Homaro is about being disruptive. Using technology to upend conventions, while delivering food that’s better for you and at lower cost. The very essence of innovation.]
ID: I was going to ask you what new things you have been experimenting with.
HC: I have a ton, my friend.
You can take a grape, pop it into a balloon and blow it up. Make sure it’s about the size of a basketball. Leave it in the fridge for a week or so. The grape will carbonate from the C02 that you exhaled. The grape becomes fizzy. We call that grape juice in a grape. Grape soda in a grape. There’s no sugar.
[Again, taking that concept to scale would pose an interesting hurdle. But it makes for a fun “Bill Nye the Science Guy” kind of thing to do. Homaro, however, is just getting started. He fancies that carbonated cuisine can help cool the planet.]
What happens when you eat solid foods that have been carbonated, your body absorbs .02% of that C02. Now let’s take it one step further. We have technologies where we’re scrubbing C02 from Earth’s atmosphere. We’re carbonating the fruit. Our bodies are absorbing it and in time we’re lowering global C02 emissions from eating fun fruit.
ID: Well, while I try to wrap my head around that, who’s inspired you most?
HC: Clarence Kelly Johnson. You heard of him?
HC: He led the team that created the SR-71 [Blackbird] jet.
[Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson died in 1990. He led Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works that built the Blackbird. It flew so high and fast, it couldn’t be intercepted or shot down. No other plane has matched its performance.]
The government told him we’ve got to create a jet that can outrun a missile and we have to do it in less than 200 days. You have to use technology that hasn’t been invented yet, from the fuel, the fuel lines to the skin on the plane . It’s gotta go Mach 5. And he did it. He broke new ground on how to run a business and further innovation. Do the best of the best and accept nothing less. He made it happen. And that’s why we’re all speaking English and not Russian today.
If we can achieve a feat like that or putting a man on the moon in a vehicle, a spaceship, that has the technology of a Swiss watch, why can’t we solve these bigger problems in food?
The world has seen so many innovations. Computers, cell phones. Why are we drinking the same f—— orange juice? It doesn’t make any sense to me. We need to shorten the food chain. Create products that are more fun to eat. I’d much rather do it rather than waiting for the other guy to do it. If the other guy does it, he may charge an arm and a leg. I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the disruption.
ID: When it comes to cooking, where does inspired innovation cross the line and become a gimmick?
HC: When we opened Moto, everyone was like gimmick, gimmick, gimmick. We waste 20,000 pounds of paper a day on menus. We made edible menus. And we replicate known food products in a healthy way – create healthy junk food.
You familiar with the miracle berry?
ID: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that …
HC: OK, let’s get into this.
In 1725 a French explorer, Chevalier de Marchais, went to West Africa. I hand-decoded his notes. He found tribes eating this strange berry and eating twigs and branches and all kinds of things that no other tribe was eating. This tribe had no famine issues. They were dominant over other neighboring tribes who weren’t eating the berries.
[Miracle berries temporarily alter your taste buds, making acidic and sour foods taste extraordinarily sweet. The taste changing effects of the attributed to a protein in the flesh of the fruit called miraculin.]
His discovery was sort of swept under the historical rug until about 1910. The berry has a glycoprotein. It attaches to your sour and bitter taste sensors. When you eat it, you can’t taste sour or bitter foods.
Why do we consider all these things around the world inedible – trees, bushes, what have you – because they taste bad. Not because of lack of nutritional value, but because of flavor.
So out of necessity, this tribe found a way to overcome famine. Now the British came in in the 1800s and wiped them out. But the idea still has value in eliminating famine.
Another interesting thing about the berry, it allows you to take sour things and make them intensely sweet. Let’s fast-forward to 1973, an entrepreneur named Robert Harvey got ahold of this berry and he created a company to commercialize this berry. Big money backed him, including Goldman Sachs. They were convinced this would replace sugar.
And kids were going nuts over it. Hippies were calling it flavor tripping. One minute you’re tasting this lemon and the next thing you’re tasting a thing that tastes like lemonade. A beautiful thing!
Then Donald Rumsfeld [the same Donald Rumsfeld of the Ford and Bush II administrations and Iraq war infamy], who ran G.D. Searle – and this is fact, not my opinion – they came up with a sugar substitute called aspartame. He helped legalize it. Gives you cancer. Puts holes in your brain. Just tons of f—— problems, but everyone went crazy over it.
Pepsi had a guy at the FDA, just long enough to give Harvey’s company a food-additive classification. The company had freeze-dried the berries and put them into tablet form so they could withstand the transit overseas. The FDA said your tablets are a food additive … but they said your berries are free to use. But they’re only good for 12 hours after harvesting.
Barclay, Goldman, all of them pulled their money out after that. He went bankrupt. Harvey recounted industrial espionage. Offices were raided. High-speed car chases. Just crazy shit. He built this company that could have changed the world.
Then something crazy happened in 1998. The FedEx company and UPS started doing same-day shipments. All these remnant suppliers from across the world started doing same-day shipping of miracle berries to the United States.
Then, I want to say in 2004, the New York Times did a story on flavor tripping and miracle berries had a resurgence. In 2005, this is how I got involved in it. A friend of mine said, ‘Hey, I have a relative who’s undergoing chemo and radiation therapy. She can only taste rubbery and metallic things. Food just tastes awful. Is there any way that you can create edible paper or something so she can taste food again?’
I tried to mimic the taste of metallic and rubber by eating tin foil and bike tires. I experimented for about four weeks in my basement. We sampled thousands of ingredients. Then we came across this berry. It was like love at first taste. This shit was amazing.
I made a little miracle berry cocktail with some other food products on paper. Boom. It worked. Over the past six-plus years over 10,000 chemo patients just by word of mouth have received this from me and we haven’t charged a dime. And it works every single time.
There’s no conflict with the chemo or pharmaceutical regimen, unless they have tongue cancer, which we haven’t run across yet.
After that, I started seeing the applications for sugar. I started digging deeper into the French explorer’s notes. One day I was in my backyard with my kids and my wife and decided to see what grass tasted like on the miracle berry. Kentucky blue grass tasted like tarragon. Crabgrass tasted like basil.
It was f—— unreal. For the week, and while we were filming Future Foods, I decided to live off stuff growing in my backyard. I actually gained half a pound.
Rather than looking at these plants as wild plants that we don’t eat, I was swapping them out for gourmet ingredients. Why can’t I make cookies out of the cellulous that comes from a rose bush? It’s totally doable.
On an industrial scale, you could dramatically lower the cost of raw foods and eliminate genetically modified products. All from plants you could go from home.
ID: So, you need to eat this berry first though, right? As sort of a palate cleanser?
HC: Yeah, you need to eat the berry to cancel out the taste of sour and bitter things. The reason you don’t eat crabgrass is because it tastes like crabgrass.
ID: It sure does.
HC: With this berry, you’d never buy basil ever again. I’ve got a cookbook coming out called the Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook. This will be the only cookbook where you can lose a pound a week eating ‘sweet’ things. Took me six years to write that book.
I also invented a new form of the berry that’s inhalable. Imagine a little straw where you just inhale. And if you want to drink some Sprite, you just mix some soda water and lemon juice and it tastes just like Sprite. Only better. It’s actually healthy for you.
The proof is in the pudding. My daughters, who are 4 and 6 years old, they’ve been eating this stuff since they were born. When they go to school, they get a [miracle berry] tablet and some citrus. They’re the only kids in the whole school who are eating dessert that’s actually good for them.
There’s not one documented case of an adverse reaction and not one documented case of your body developing a tolerance for this. It’s merely a glycoprotein that alters your taste buds and dies after about a half hour. It would be no different than using salt. Do you build up a tolerance to salty foods? No. This is no different.
We’re living in a new world of food. We’re not giving up our demand for fat and sugar. But we’re going to replace those with foods that are better for the world and better for our bodies.
ID: What’s the future of your show Future Food?
HC: It’s off the air, but we’re trying to get it picked up again. We did one episode featuring the miracle berry. We made a tasting menu from plants that were growing on the sidewalk and charged 200 bucks a head for our guests. They loved it. They thought it was delicious. And then we told them what they were eating and they couldn’t f—— believe it.
ID: I think I’d be a little upset if I paid $200 for grass harvested from the cracks of sidewalks. What’s driving you to do that kind of ballsy experimentation?
HC: In restaurants and with chefs, you have to be humble and have to have an ego. You gotta be humble because there are so many things we have to figure out. We never know enough.
But you have to have an ego because you’ve gotta be willing to run through walls to make your business work. Restaurants are tough businesses. You have to be able to take the heat and push on and make sure the restaurant is as good as it can get.
When I look at Monsanto, which basically owns every genetically altered food on the planet, I’m going to find a way around that shit so I make their products obsolete. Obsolescence is the key to innovation. It’s the key to the future. If we don’t out-innovate each other, we’re just going to stay stagnant. That’s just not going to happen on my watch.
- Born Sept. 23, 1976 in Tacoma, Wash.
- Homeless from age 6-9 with mom and sister; experience compelled him to fight world hunger
- Graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore.
- Worked for free for nearly 50 restaurants in his formative career
- Moved to Chicago in 1999; worked for renowned chef Charlie Trotter
- Opened cutting-edge restaurant Moto in Chicago in 2005
- Installed experimental food lab in Moto in 2009
- Discovery Network in 2010 airs Future Food, featuring Cantu and co-host pastry chef Ben Roche
- Through his company Cantu Designs, he has filed numerous patent applications covering dining implements, cookware, printed food; currently working on developing inventions for commercial, humanitarian and aerospace applications