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


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."

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."


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.