This is not a plate of nachos: The food magic of Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche

Desert-nachos.jpg

The food transformation magic of Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche was one of my favorite presentations at TED2011

TED director Chris Anderson introduced Cantu as "a mad scientist who became a chef." Cantu opened a restaurant in Chicago called Moto.

paper-maki-roll.jpgEven though Moto is a Japanese word, and the restaurant uses a Japanese character, they do not serve Japanese food. But as you might expect, said Roche, Moto's executive pastry chef, customers frequently asked for Japanese food. "After about the 10,000th request for a Maki roll we decided to give people what they wanted." Well, kind of: they put all the flavor ingredients of a standard Maki roll onto an edible piece of paper, and served it to their customers. (Image: Reuters)

carrot-cake-ice-cream.jpgCantu and Roche described some of their other creations: they took a carrot cake and blended it, injected the liquified carrot cake into a balloon, and froze it with liquid nitrogen, which turned it into a "hollow shell of carrot cake ice cream."

cuban-cigar-sandwich.jpg They made a Cuban pork sandwich that looks like a Cuban cigar. "We take the spices that go into the pork shoulder and fashion that into ash," said Cantu." We take the sandwich and wrap it up into a collard green" and add an edible cigar band. "We put it in a $1.99 ashtray and charge you about 20 bucks for it."

They also make a desert that looks like nachos with melted cheese and hamburger (see photo at top). "The chips are candied, the ground beef is chocolate, and the cheese is made from mango sorbet that gets shredded liquid nitrogen to make it look like cheese," said Roche. "After doing all of this dematerialization and reconfiguring of these ingredients we realized it's pretty cool, because we learned that the dish actually behaves like the real thing... the cheese begins to melt and it really looks like a plate of nachos. It is not till you begin to taste it that you realize this really is a desert, and it's a real mind ripper."

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At this point Cantu and Roche told everyone in the audience to open a small cardboard box that had been placed on the armrest of each chair in the auditorium of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

Inside the box there were several different items: a piece of paper with a drawing of a tongue, 2 edible packing peanuts, a lemon slice, two little cubes of orange brownish material, and a pink tablet.

We were instructed to eat half the paper. Roche said that it was going to be "kind of reminiscent of a Greek salad." We were then instructed to eat one of the orange brownish balls, which was a kind of chocolate with spices in it. The packaging peanut was flavored to taste like hot and sour soup. We were told to lick the lemon. A lot of people in the audience grimaced when they sample these items. Roche explained that the items weren't designed to taste good. "You'll see why in a minute," he said.

"This is where everything starts getting nuts," said Cantu. He told us to remove the little pink tablet from the packaging and "suck on it like a SweeTart or a cough drop." It was sour.

The tablet, explained Roche, is made from a fruit called the miracle berry. "It contains a glycoprotein called miraculin. It masks certain taste receptors on your tongue, primarily sour taste receptors. So things that normally taste very sour begin to taste very sweet."

"The miracle berry has a very controversial and fascinating history," said Cantu. A French explorer came across it in 1725 in Africa. The explorer observed that one out of the 30 tribes he came into contact with used the miracle berry to make bad tasting food palatable, and that they were the only tribe that was not suffering from famine.

burger.jpgWhile everyone was waiting for the miracle berry tablet to take effect, Cantu went on to describe some of their other culinary hacks. They asked themselves, "Can we take what the cow eats, remove the cow, and turn it into hamburger?" They combined corn, beets, and barley (staples of a cow's diet, according to Cantu) and converted them into fake hamburger. What they came up with "basically forms like hamburger meat, and basically cooks up like hamburger meat... and tastes like hamburger meat." It also "bleeds" like real hamburger, Roche pointed out.

watermelon-ahi.jpgThey converted a watermelon into ahi tuna. They sprinkled it with some "magic pixie dust" that converts the watermelon's sweet taste into a savory taste. Then they dipped it into liquid nitrogen to "sear" it.

Finally it was time for us to re-taste the ingredients with our miracle berry treated tongues. The paper, we were told, was going to taste like cheesecake. The spicy chocolate ball was going to taste like a truffle. The hot and sour packaging material would taste like sweet and sour soup. And the lemon was going to taste like "freshly squeezed lemonade." To me, everything simply tasted a lot sweeter and a lot less sour. The lemon was absolutely delicious. If I had been given a whole lemon instead of just a slice, I would've happily eaten the whole thing.

About an hour after the conclusion of the presentation I had dinner at a nearby restaurant with some friends. We ordered a bottle of wine. When Morgan Webb, who was sitting next to me, had a sip of the wine she nearly gagged. This is the worst wine I've ever tasted, she said. "It tastes like Manischewitz."

"Maybe it's the miracle berry," I said. We all tasted the lemon slice in our water and it was very sweet. The miracle berry was taking the tartness out of the wine, ruining the flavor. I'm not a wine drinker, so it didn't bother me. By the time our appetizers arrived the effect had worn off and we were able to enjoy the meal with normal tongues.

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  1. “We put it in a $1.99 ashtray and charge you about 20 bucks for it.”

    That pretty much sums up the entirety of the molecular gastronomy (a phrase which Ferran Adrià no longer even uses) scene.

    A lot of flash, very little substance. And far too many people are trying to capitalize on it right now.

    The pioneers of this style were successful because they weren’t selling a product, they were selling an experience that was almost entirely a mystery and was completely unbelievable. Now that mystery is gone and the experience is expected. There’s nothing left. This sort of 4 hour, 26 course tasting menu style dining is on its way out, thankfully.

    Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Bourdain lately. Who knows?

    1. That might be true for some molecular gastronomy, but not at Moto. The food at Moto is as delicious as it is innovative. If you’d been watching enough Bourdain, you’d know that during his Chicago show he visited Moto and raved about it.

      I don’t care what you call it, molecular gastronomy, modernist cuisine, whatever, all I know is that of all the places I’ve been in the world, I’ve never had a more fun and enjoyable dining experience than I did at Moto.

  2. this kind of thing makes me want to jump up and down and scream for several reasons:

    moral: LITERALLY millions of people on the planet can’t get enough to eat, and here these clowns are playing with their food! as a chef, i can tell you that the production of this kind of stuff is incredibly wasteful- at least half of what could be edible food goes straight in the trash just to get to the “fun” parts of the food.

    aesthetic: what’s the point of making one food that looks like another? it photographs well, and it’s a conversation starter, but as far as what you’d want to EAT, it’s pretty silly. it’s basically highly processed gobbledygook that’s meant to bring to mind some other food or sensory experience. why can’t food just be food? take for example the “english pea balls” served at a linea: fresh english peas are blanched, pureed, then treated with a chemical that causes them to form into perfectly pea-shaped globules when blanched again. all of this to produce a highly processed baby-food like substance. all of this is essentially just a big gimmick. it’s the food equivalent of one of those “magic eye” painting.

    economic: as i said before, highly wasteful. the chef says himself that he charges $20 for something that you can get for $5 at any taqueria. this sort of thing is just a fun way to part the gullible rich with their money. who do you think is laying down money for this? it’s douchebag-chow, basically.

    social: as a long-time chef, i can attest to the fact that most of the people who are willing to lay down bucks for this stuff are people who feel the need to derive some portion of their self-worth from “fancy-ness” and “gourmet-ness.” the sorts of people who feel that it makes them somehow better/smarter/cooler than everyone else. they generally look down on the staff that’s serving them this shit, but suck up to the chef/owner as some sort of visionary genius. these people are bores, basically, who hide their lack of depth or understanding of life behind a scrim of faux-sophistication.

    i agree with livy that the veneration of chefs indicates a culture in decline.

    1. Oh, chill out. It’s novelty. Entertainment. Do you enjoy anything or are you this sanctimonious all the time?

    2. Also, go to YouTube and look at the video. There are some very useful potential applications for and implications regarding some of their ideas.

    3. So, basically, you’re a big f’in hypocrite.

      Seriously, if you’re a chef, you’re a big f’in hypocrite.

      Or are you a cook?

    4. This is absolutely silly. Do you want to punch video game producers in the face? How about handbag designers? How about writers of fiction?

      These things dont directly contribute to fixing world problems. But they are a measure of wealth that we can afford. Sure, you can advocate world rights and work towards it, but hating extravagance to such a small degree (and even calling this that is a ridiculous hyperbolisation) is going too far.

      And besides, these people wanted to innovate, and so they did. That ALONE should excuse any hate you would have had.

  3. While I agree with both commenters #1 and #2 about the general douchebaggery that can be attributed to some of this kind of cuisine, I also feel that some of this kind of exploration and experimentation can fall more into the realm of art, and therefore should not be dismissed entirely on such simple terms. Creating an experience for a diner doesn’t have to be strictly about eating for the sake of eating a meal. It can also be an experience that can challenge expectations and perhaps change the way a person thinks about food. …just a thought.

  4. “They sprinkled it with some “magic pixie dust” that converts the watermelon’s sweet taste into a savory taste. Then they dipped it into liquid nitrogen to “sear” it.”

    I always said, a kitchen is just not a kitchen unless it has magic pixie dust and liquid nitrogen.

  5. While there is a lot of theater and presentation in “Modernist” food…it is theater and experience. Just like a concert or any other event you pay big bucks for the experience.

    But on the home cooking side, it has opened up simple things and techs for the home cook for discussion and exploration. Such as adding a touch of baking soda to dried beans that have difficulty getting soft while cooking. Which is an old tech really, but still shows a more awareness of chemistry of cooking.

    My favorite is adding 1/2 tsp of unflavored gelatin in 1/2 cup of stock to an all beef meatloaf..the gel helps hold the moisture and replaces the fat normally found higher fat ground beef and the pork in traditional meatloaf. (or meatballs).

    For thanksgiving I used a gel of pineapple and iota carrageenan to make a heat stable gel for a baked ham. It didn’t melt on the hot ham, but melted in your mouth.

    No bacon on a sling, or fussy presentation. It’s just another tool in the kitchen you can use.

    Kitchens and foods have always been one of the forefronts of using innovative items to preserve, transform, and technology for cooking, from the invention of beer, cheeses, bread, preserving foods, refrigeration, Baking Powder, Ovens, ect..etc.

  6. I’ve eaten at moto. It was an amazing experience. Our tasting menu included the Cuban cigar. It was delicious. It think that’s important. It was delicious.

    Eating dinner is like entertainment. Usually I just watch tv at home. Sometimes we go out for a movie. Every once in a while we see a play. And sometimes, every few years, I like to go see a magic show. Moto is a magic show.

    I’ve also eaten miracle berry, at a friend’s place a few years ago. It doesn’t change smell, just taste. Specifically, it translates sour directly to intense sweetness. Have you ever drank orange juice just after you brushed your teeth? Still smells like orange juice but feels bitter as poison on your tongue. Like that only sweet instead of bitter, and it lasts for two hours. If you try it, you’ll find that lemon is the greatest food ever but be careful not to acid burn your mouth because you don’t get the normal negative feedback. It isn’t practical in a restaurant because, as mentioned, it messes up wines, but I have been told it can do wonders for bad tequila.

  7. I’ve had a miracle berry tablet and then a lemon. It really is fantastic. I think I ate a few lemon segments it was so tasty.

  8. I’m with the commenters who find this pretty distasteful. “Entertainment?” Yeah, I suppose, for the terminally bored who can afford it. Do you imagine all this culinary hocus-pocus comes cheap?

    To be honest, this stuff reminds me of Space-Food Sticks from the 60s (“it’s food the astronauts eat).

    1. Actually. A LOT of modernist cooking comes from commercial food industry. The Modernists just use those tools to create a modern ‘high class’ type. It is indeed weird as the ‘hocus pocus’ is mostly from industrial type processing, technology, and additives for foods. (natural addtives in most cases such as binders and gells).

      Things like veggies burgers for the mass market, egg substitutes, Gluten Free mixes..all use similar techs.

      IMHO, I think it’s a good influence; using the tools and tech to explore, hack, and create…along with failures and excesses and transformations.

      Heck, JELLO and gelatin deserts, pudding and whipped cream, breakfast cereal, wheat germ..etc where once considered upper class luxury before it was packaged for the mass market with new technology of refrigeration. When those first appeared it was for the upper crust society only.
      Today, it’s commonplace.

  9. I agree with the arts and entertainment aspect. This is not only for the gluttonous rich. Miracle berries can be bought, and this can be made at home. Lighten up. It’s not wasteful. It is still enjoyed as food. There are a lot worse restaurants that I have paid more for less quality, originality and taste. This is a capitalist society and that’s okay.

  10. The Japanese, arguably widely regarded as skilled chefs, have a traditional saying when sitting down to eat – “Itadakimasu”. This translates quite literally to “I humbly receive”, and it originates from Buddhist practice as an expression of thanks toward those responsible for the creation of the meal – from the chef, to the farmer, and even down to the living creature itself, plant or animal.

    In English speaking countries with Christian heritages, a similar tradition exists, although it seems to have become far less common during my lifetime – the saying of “Grace”. While the modern form of this saying is perhaps not as elegant as Itadakimasu, the core concept behind it all is still the same – try to be truly thankful for the food you have, for the people who made it, and for the creatures that died that you might live.

    While there is something to be said for entertainment and art, there is something much more pressing to be said for starvation and malnutrition. It doesn’t matter that this is “merely” a small issue in a sea of larger troubles, it is a poor argument that sat that those who see this sort of cuisine as wasteful are simply killjoys or are overly serious.

    Yes, if I had to choose one thing to fix about the world, it wouldn’t be this. It would be something much more important, like shifting unthinkable amounts of resource expendature away from systematized killing and toward improving quality of life for all. But that doesn’t mean this sort of activity is any more innocent or harmless, in and of itself.

    ~D. Walker

  11. It sounds like an astounding experience of a tremendously creative artwork/performance. Just your description expands my perspective of what’s possible.

    So I don’t agree in the slightest with the haters. I would have thought the vegetarian hamburger experiments alone would have illustrated the social utility of the experimentation, if any excuse for experience were so needed, considering the externalities of beef production impact on both environmental resources and indigenous populations. But perhaps that would have required one to read the whole post prior to outraged bleating.

  12. pretty cool, thanks for sharing!

    i understand the perspectives of people who find this frivolous, etc, but i think they are missing the point a bit. experimentation and playfulness are part of the human experience!

  13. To all the people complaining about the immorality of “playing with food”: recent studies (from the University of Arizona) indicate that forty to fifty per cent of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten. Lots of this just rots away as surplus, gets thrown in the garbage or dumped after it expires. We live in a culture that mass produces hamburgers and sandwiches in thousands of production lines and just as quickly throws them into the garbage bin when it has been sitting unbought for more than 5 minutes.

    So, roughly half of the food that gets produced gets thrown in the garbage, and you start complaining when some jokers fashion a sandwich into a cigar (that most definetely gets eaten) ?

  14. I’ve had this mirakuru furuttsu (miracle fruit) in Japan. It was being flogged about 10 years ago to young women who like cakes and desserts, but want to watch their waistlines.

    I then ate a thick slice of lemon, after sucking on the berry for a while. The lemon segments tasted exactly like lemon drops. It was wonderful, and then it was enough. At first I thought I’d eat a whole lemon, but really, who would want to eat a whole bag of lemon drops at a go? Very strange.

    At any rate, the fad died out. I’d forgotten all about miraculin.

  15. Watching the TEDx talk on YouTube paints a better picture of the potential benefits such as improving appetite in cancer patients, overcoming third world food shortages, reducing sugar consumption (and thus obesity, etc.). Not to mention other advances in food technology that come out of their work.

    Arguably this is an example of misleading reportage – an interesting “colour supplement” article that fails to convey the central point, leaving the reader with the impression that this is little more than the “emperor’s new clothes”.

    Until I watched the presentation my initial reaction was – what a load of pretentious bollocks.

  16. And far too many people are trying to capitalize on it right now.

    Moto’s been open the better part of a decade.

  17. I simply must have the secret to that “hamburger”. I have to watch my cholesterol but so deeply desire throwing a raw patty on the grill or in a pan, and watching the thing fry, and, finally, eat it.

  18. Is Cantu still trying to copyright his recipes? What a joke. Wylie Dufresne is much more respectable, to me at least.

  19. Yes, it’s true, I patent, copyright and protect a lot of the innovations you may have read about. Not because I want to, but because I have to. The reality is with food, the elephant in the room is GMO, and other patents the may be bought and sold to inevitably be lost in the process of business. The fact is creative commons will never outpace the ingenuity of commercialized food product design. These patents and intellectual properties I file will become and provide capital for the developing world, those in need and those that need to compete. I didn’t create the current system, I am simply trying to make it work.
    HC

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