Last night I watched Future Food featuring Chefs Homaru Cantu and Ben Roche of Moto restaurant in Chicago. To say it was interesting is an understatement. Before I launch into my thoughts, let me give you some background. Several years ago, during one of my eating trips to Chicago, I had the pleasure of visiting Moto restaurant and meeting Chef Cantu. At just over 6 feet tall, Omar, as he is called, is often referred to as the Edison of edibles due to the wide array of patents he holds in a variety of disciplines including food. He has a reputation for innovation and for seeing the world of food through a very unusual and creative set of lenses. My meal and experience at Moto offered positive proof of Cantu’s pension for the unusual as well as theatrical in culinary arts. That Omar has a new show out on Planet Green called Future Food makes total sense to me based on what I saw three years ago. Omar has a great knowledge of food, science, design, and theater and the show allows his wide variety of talents to truly shine through.
Cantu is a pedigreed chef who graduated from Western Culinary Institute prior to it becoming part of the Le Cordon Bleu empire. He has an inspiring rags-to-riches history, having spent time homeless early in life prior to pulling himself up by the straps of his non-skid, rubber soled, kitchen boots. Roche is a gifted alumnus of the world renowned International Baking & Pastry Institute at Johnson & Wales University. Both are mad scientists.
I enjoyed watching Future Food last night and think the show will do well. The chemistry between Cantu and Roche (no pun intended) is electric at times and the two demonstrate cooking techniques and an approach to creativity that will be of interest to most who have a passion for food or food related entertainment. Like Moto restaurant, the show
itself places a tremendous emphasis on the theatrics and shock value of creating molecular gastronomy treats like sushi made from “tuna” which is composed of compressed watermelon that has been infused with nori. Striking in appearance and similarity to tuna, the item looked identical to the real thing but its flavor was just the opposite and appeared to fall flat. When Cantu and Roche conducted a taste test of the tuna, several who tasted the item in a local Chicago supermarket appeared to think they were eating the real thing but realized quickly that the item wasn’t tuna. They were less impressed by the flavor than the look of the dish. But is the show about flavor and taste or about technique, curiosity, creativity, and theatrics? Is the restaurant business just about the food today or is it about more than that?
Either way, I like these guys both in person and on TV. They are, at times, out of their minds with odd-ball creativity and we need people in foodservice who occupy the fringe. I also think that exposing more Americans to this sort of creative approach to food and cooking, regardless of whether you
like molecular gastronomy or not, will add richness to our national food dialog. Some will disagree as there are many in the culinary world who hate the notion of molecular gastronomy. The night I dined at Moto, Mario Batali (another guy I think the world of) was there. After being served and edible menu (edible ink printed on a thin cracker and baked), one of his first comments was “what is this Frankenfood?” Mario’s preference for eating (and cooking) flavorful, traditional food could not be suppressed at the dinner table that night nor should it have been. Although I doubt Batali fully enjoyed his meal, I do know that the meal made him think. Is this part of the Cantu-Roche plan? Probably.
The boundaries between art and science have been blurring in recent years particularly in culinary arts. Much has been written about this phenomenon from the more general musings of Daniel Pink in a Whole New Mind to the more technical and complex writings of David Edwards in Artscience: Creativity in the post-Google Generation. Pink proposes a future where the right-brained creative set (chefs included) rise up against a social norm created by left brain conformists due to changing market forces. Artscience, on the other hand, describes how new realms of creativity are being born at the intersection of art and science resulting in new forms of reality. Edwards, a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard, provides a direct culinary example of the theory he proposes in Artscience with LeWhif. He used his expertise in pulmonary drug delivery to create a food that you breathe and monetized it via LeWhif. Ever consider inhaling chocolate to sate your craving? It seems odd to even think about this, but it’s compelling none the less. The same is true of Cantu’s work.
The notion of food taking on new and unusual forms is not new, contrary to popular belief. Cantu’s culinary aesthetic
and personal history mirror those of what many consider the originator of haute cuisine; Chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). As any culinary school graduate knows, Carême, after recoving from being orpahned at a young age, became the darling of 19th century elite for his bizzare creativity and elaborate pastry pièces montées. These creations, like Cantu and Roche’s watermelon tuna, were created out of one ingredient (often sugar and flour) but constructed to look like something entirely different (a bird, flower, building etc.) Carême, like Cantu, Roche and Edwards today, was also capable of interdisciplinary transfer when coming up with new ideas. He studied history and architecture and plyed his craft with a heavy influence from both. He also studied politics and positioned himself with people who provided him the widest exposure including a stint as chef for the now famous Tallyrand (Charles Maurice de Tallyrand-Périgord, 1754-1838). Cantu has positioned himself using similar tactics. This stuff isn’t new, it’s just reframed for a contemporary audience and culture.
Was Carême’s aesthetic the “frankenfood” of its day? Highly likely. One can only speculate, but I am sure the average pesant passing by Carême’s Parisian pâtisserie was shocked and confused by his flaboyant creations sitting in the shop window not to mention they were starving to deaty (let them eat cake!) Mario’s classical preferences aside, I think many of the nonprofessional viewing audience who watched Future Food last night woke up this morning with questions in their mind about what they saw. And that’s the point. The conversation about molecular gastronomy has been taken to another level with Future Food and Cantu and Roche along with the folks at the Green Channel have incited it. Will this eventually lead to home cooks chasing down a gallon of liquid nitrogen (do not try this at home) so they can cook on their own anti-griddle? Will stay-at-home moms and dads begin Cryovacing (yes that’s a verb) watermelon to see what happens? Time will tell.
Back in March of 2006 a group of us met with Bill Shaw, President and C.O.O., of Marriott International and he stated the following: “Previous experience embeds a given paradigm. Moving to a new context requires a shift in paradigm and a concentrated effort to get past old ways.” Shaw’s statement probably links with the premise of Future Food but, as a classical chef, I am not completely ready to leave my “old ways” in the kitchen. For now, however, I think we should encourage Cantu and Roche to keep the conversation going and see where it takes us! Future Food does not represent the future of food…yet!