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THE NEXT LIST

Chef Homaru Cantu: Redefining Food

Aired November 27, 2011 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Get ready to meet Homaro Cantu. He's the futuristic chef behind two of Chicago's hottest restaurants. An international leader in molecular gastronomy, he is equal parts artist and mad scientist.

Using science and technology, he is challenging the very definition of what is and what isn't food. And, over the next half hour, you'll see how the mind bending dishes that he's serving today could change the way that you eat tomorrow.

HOMARO CANTU, CHEF AND MOLECULAR GASTRONOMIST: My name is Homaro Cantu, and I'm a molecular gastronomist. I own Moto, iNG and Cantu Designs in Chicago.

A molecular gastronomist is really just someone who explores the world of science and food. We're always playing with your expectations as to what this food could be.

We use a lot of different tools - centrifuges, sonifiers, lasers. We're actually starting to work with some super conductors. If you look at, you know, the limitations of creating new products, you're only limited by the technology that you have to work with.

You know, the - the real thrill with the food experiments that we do is creating something that's impossible, creating something that just shouldn't be. I built a lab in my restaurant because we really wanted to take experimentation to the next level and just bring it right in front of the guests.

You know, we have, you know, three moving parts here. We have Cantu Designs, which is really the hub of innovation. We can implement those ideas at Moto Restaurant, and then see if they're more applicable to the mainstream, at iNG Restaurant, which tends to be a much more fast, casual establishment.

Well, what's very different about Moto and iNG, you know, as opposed to other restaurants in the similar price categories is we're always looking for a bigger idea. You know, we don't want to make just, you know, crazy food to be crazy. For example, we serve an edible menu here, we have almost since day one, and that's because serving edible menus makes a lot of sense.

Every month about 20 tons of paper are wasted in restaurant menus alone, and so, you know, by that rationale, if you just ate your menu that was made from organic, local products, you could eliminate that paper waste. It looks like a sushi roll, it tastes like a sushi roll, but it's your menu.

We - we just have to always be putting ourselves in a position of taking a bigger risk, because our customers, they expect that. They want to see something really new, you know? They're looking for their hair to be blown back 10 ways, and that's a very big challenge.

We - we like to do a fun thing with what we define seasonal products to be. Here, we have a biosphere and we have some seafood products that are going to go in that biosphere. So here we have some sea beans, we have some saltine crackers, we have cushy oyster, which definitely has a nice brininess to it. A little bit of crab meat.

Next, we have sea foam, so that's sort of reminiscent of going to the ocean. And then finally we have some smoked apple puree.

Next thing we're going to do is take this biosphere and we're going to place it right onto that apple puree to form a watertight seal. We're going to take this gas right here, which is nine times heavier than air, which is going to enables us to pull off this trick of creating a weather system within this biosphere. It's really cool to watch.

Then, at the table, you basically pull that off, and then this - this inner gas starts falling, and then the smoke just sort of, you know, goes right over the food. We clear this, and then the diner just starts shoveling stuff in their mouth that's really tasty.

And that's - that's our seafood biosphere.

You know, I liked to compare what we do to like the iPhone. A tremendous amount of engineering and thought goes into that product, but, when you see it at the table, you're not really thinking about that. This food just sort of works.

The stressful part (ph) that I put pressure on my staff is what are we going to create today? And then, how is it going to become a bigger player in the global picture?

I was really into junk food as a kid. You know, we - we ate a lot of McDonald's and Burger King and things like that. Nothing healthy. That's why I'm so fascinated with people who want to eat junk food.

You know, I want to eat junk food. My kids love junk food. So, we - we want to give them what they want.

Replicating all that junk food out of health food is really where the future in food lies. And then, you know, hopefully we'll see that on aisle, you know, two, four and six at the grocery store, where all of that bad food that you used to, you know, feel guilty about eating is actually good for you.

The - the big goal here is to redefine what we have at the grocery store level. I think that what we do in restaurants is great. It's fun, it's exciting. We get to test it out on our - our guests. But if we could take that to the next level, maybe in a school lunch program or maybe in a homeless shelter or, you know, just somewhere else, I think that would be a huge win. (END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANTU: Ever since I was about eight, people told me that whenever I got birthday presents or Christmas gifts, I'd always take them apart, and I just wanted to know how things worked.

Then, in the eighth grade, I had a science teacher that really gave me a passion for studying science. And then, you know, over the years, just working in restaurants, I - I put the two together.

To (INAUDIBLE) on a socially conscious way really comes from, you know, how I was brought up. When you grow up in poverty, you know, you get - you get to see really, you know, two sides of the coin. At least that's what I've seen.

I was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1976, and my father was in the military. My mother was - they had a whole host of personal problems, drugs, alcohol, you know, things like that. We went in and out of these homeless shelters for a period of about three to four years, and I didn't really know any better until I grew older and realized, hey, you know, that - that might have sucked.

As I grew older, I - I started working in restaurants, realizing that, hey, you know, these people, they could just eat whatever they want at any time, and that was huge, you know, for a kid that grew up on really, you know, horrible food. And so, over the years, I - I would just knock on back doors of restaurants and say, hey, I'm willing to work for free. Teach me something, you know, everything from like sushi bars to, you know, fast food places, Burger King at one point.

I just came to conclude that food was pretty much the same. You know, there were different cultures in food, but, for the most part, the technology in food was, you know, the same across the board. Everybody was using either microwaves or gas burners, and saute pans and things like that.

And so I just started wondering, you know, would it be possible to improve that, to take that into a different dimension? And that's just is where Moto, you know, was - was born.

When we started Moto, it was actually a disaster. It was a disaster for about nine months, where people would come in, we hit them with this edible menu. They'd just be like, we're not having it, and they just get up and walk out.

JAY CHESHES, TIME OUT NEW YORK: It's definitely a difficult cuisine for newcomers. Especially if you go to Moto, you know, you're in for a three or four hour meal, and if - if you're not ready for that - that level of - of insanity, it's going to be a jolt.

CANTU: And we just kept doing our thing. In a time where every smart businessman would say shut it down, you know, this guy is off his rocker. It's never going to work. We stayed open, and we kept pushing.

You know, now we're in a different world where we have a successful business. We have two restaurants that are doing phenomenally well.

I think the most satisfying thing about what I do is, you know, we already know that our food tastes good and it's creative, is that we're able to focus on the future and we're able to create futuristic things here today; to know that we're one step ahead of the curve. And I don't look at the future as something that could be negative. I look at it as an opportunity to create a whole new economy and to create a whole new world that's exciting to live in.

But, you know, I'm still a kid at heart with this place, and we're still always creating things that explode and light on fire, just for our own personal amusement, usually.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: For many on THE NEXT LIST, innovation is equal parts inspiration and luck. For Chef Cantu, one of his wildest innovations came about when he stumbled upon the Miracle Berry.

This remarkable little berry actually contains a protein called miraculin. It makes sour foods taste sweet, and processed into a tablet, it opens the door to endless new food experiences.

CANTU: What we're doing here is we're making something that we could actually serve at one of the restaurants, but it's easy to do for the home cook. We're going to do two sauces with some waffles, and these waffles are sugar free. These sauces are completely sugar free, and they're actually really easy to make.

So, the first one is going to be a caramel applesauce, and all we're going to use for that is apple cider vinegar, some cornstarch and water. And what we do is we just take some apple cider vinegar, and we crank that up. You're going to take a little bit of cornstarch and some of the apple cider vinegar, and you make a little slurry in there.

In over about 10 minutes, after cooking it on slow and low, it will thicken into something that looks just like apple caramel sauce. It's very vinegary, so when you eat the Miracle Berry, it tastes as sweet as apple caramel. Very cool.

OK, so the benefits here is, with something like that, is there's no sugar. And you can't really fool a kid. You know, they want sweetness, and, in this case, you know, we're going to pair it up with some waffles.

You like Miracle Berry? Yes? How about you, Gracie?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. CANTU: You like them? OK, good. Good job. You're hired.

So, yes, there's a huge opportunity here for sugar companies, food companies, you know, research and development companies in food to just rethink all of their products and start really a whole new economy of sweetened products that have no sugar, sugar additives or sugar substitutes.

You know, let's go ahead and give you your berry. There you go. Suck on that like a cough drop. OK, there you go. How does it taste?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Like strawberry.

CANTU: Like a strawberry? (INAUDIBLE).

OK, go ahead and - go ahead and eat your lemon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it sweet or sour?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's sweet.

CANTU: All right. So our overnight sour dough waffles are done. And we're going to sit down and eat. you

Want both kinds of sauce, girls?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.

CANTU: We have carrot cake and caramel apple.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Caramel apple.

CANTU: OK. Good.

Hard to believe it's apple cider vinegar.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How's the sauce?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It tastes like caramel cake-y.

CANTU: Caramel cake-y? That's a very good observation.

GUPTA (voice-over): Chef Cantu's kids are crazy about the berry, but would his customers feel the same way? That was a risk, but this modern day Willy Wonka was more than (INAUDIBLE).

CANTU: The risk in what I do day to day is very important. If we're not risking anything, then we're probably not innovating.

GUPTA: Earlier this year, Cantu launched an experimental dinner series he calls Flavor Tripping on Ice.

CANTU: It's a result of over seven years of hard work, research and development, a ton of money, and a whole lot of lawyer time. Originally, iNG was going to be an all flavor tripping experience, right from the beginning. And that probably would have sunk the restaurant, telling people right when they sit down, by the way, everything on this menu that you see isn't going to taste like what you think it's going to taste like. It's going to taste like that in the beginning, but then, while you're eating it, it's just going to change flavors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that a lemon? It doesn't -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a lemon. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It doesn't taste lemony. It tastes sweeter.

CANTU: And, really, we had to learn ourselves, because we - we had no idea what the hell we were doing. You know, we knew that this experience was explosive, but how do you do that in a restaurant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the quail, we're going to be doing the (INAUDIBLE) Soltano (ph) from Portugal, 2008. So I think (INAUDIBLE), this is going to change with the Miracle Berry into our pork (ph) or cheese plates.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the center of the plate is a chunk there (ph). That's an actual blue cheddar cheese. On the far side, the one that looks like parm (ph) is 100 percent apple that we set. The graham crackers on the bottom is the only thing that really constitutes any sugar whatsoever.

A fresh, fragrant apple has been sliced on the side. It seems a little strange, but once you eat the miracle tablet, it tastes like an apple pie with cheddar cheese on top. So that's our cheese plate.

CANTU: You know, what's going on over there, at first glance, just seems kind of playful and fun, but there's a whole world in gastronomy that we're opening the doors to that's really - really kind of mind blowing.

GUPTA: Cantu first became aware of the berry when he was asked to create a way to preserve it for a friend suffering from cancer.

CANTU: I - I was asked to create a - a flavor strip for a chemo patient because they can only taste rubbery and metallic things. And so I basically shipped out these printed food strips with miraculin on them, and it worked for this chemo patient. They could taste food again.

And, over the past seven years, I've given it to over a thousand patients that just come to us by word of mouth, say, hey, can we get a - you know, a regimen for six weeks of chemotherapy for this?

GUPTA: What Cantu began as a favor for a friend is now undergoing clinical trials at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. Recently, Dr. Mike Cusnir presented the preliminary results, where he calls it a small but promising study to the Society of Integrated Oncology. DR. MIKE CUSNIR, MOUNT SINAI COMPREHENSIVE CANCER CENTER: The results of the study on chemotherapy patients appeared to be beneficial. Forty-eight percent of the patients reported an improvement in their taste, and 14 percent of the patients that underwent study with the Miracle Fruit had an improvement in their weight.

GUPTA: Dr. Cusnir is also studying how the Miracle Berry might affect glucose or blood sugar levels in healthy patients.

CANTU: We - we have a problem with food addiction in our country. Diets don't work, and people that go on diets go on and off. You've never heard anybody ever say, boy, I really enjoyed being on that diet. That was awesome. You know, that just doesn't happen.

We're trying to take the other approach. We want to give you food products, like this waffle, that tastes better than the real thing, just because of the way it's made. And, you know, you - you swear you're ingesting tons of, you know, calories from sugar, but there's nothing there.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANTU: You know, I - I liked to describe our restaurants as restaurants with a purpose. You know, the purpose is health and wellness, you know, environmental, all those things.

For me, personally, the discovery of new techniques and new dishes has gotten much more rapid because we've given ourselves all these tools, these two playhouses, if you will, to innovate. And now, you know, the problem is we don't have enough time in the day to execute all of these ideas.

What the matrix allows me to do now that I couldn't do before is spend 100 percent of my time creating. And so, what it is, is it's a very easy to understand graphical user interface for seeing a snapshot of everything that's going on in the dining room.

We're about two hours away from service here, and so tonight these will be completely filled with a bunch of timers and pictures. And so, essentially, where this is going is this is going to become fully automated. We can speak, you know, a command, meaning it can speak in the kitchen to all the chefs and tell them to fire, you know, course two for table 12.

Even further than that, because it is built on a - a calculating spread sheet, we can actually track our profits and losses in real time. So the electricity usage, the gas usage, our labor, people come in, they punch in, boom, it all gets figured in there. Then, the minute customers start coming in, we can start adding dollars to whatever we're going to make that day.

And so, one of the big problems in restaurants is they fold, 80 percent fold within the first two years, and the reason is because they don't have an accurate, up to the minute, you know, calculation of what they're making and losing. And so, here we have that.

Precision is key. In a restaurant like Moto, if things aren't exact all the way through, it really shows up. When you have a meal that's, say, 16 courses long and it takes an extra minute for five of those courses to get to you, it seems like a lifetime.

And so everything is calculated, down to the second. Prep to service, you know, your wine service, everything is timed and calculated, because we - we have no time to waste. You know, we're maxing out our ability to fabricate all of these new products for you, and we have to fill each second with innovation and production.

Blue is great. Everybody is on pace. Nobody's taking too long. Beige is - means that they're taking a little too long. Maybe they could be like getting up to, you know, take a break or we're taking too long with the food.

Red is like, you know, it's taking too much time to do whatever they're doing. So here, you know, when they're yellow, they're fired on food. When they're not, that blue represents the station it comes off of.

So I can just like glance at this real quick, look at it. All the timers are blue, except for that one. They're taking a little extra time. For the most part, the dining room is moving at a very smooth pace.

So, the reason why I developed the matrix is because before the matrix all of these times were in my head. You know, I would have to sit here and stare at a table and tell everybody, OK, this is when it needs to be dropped. This is when this needs to happen.

I can log into this from a phone, and then it can tell me how much money we're making tonight, how much money we're losing. It can tell me if somebody's unhappy at a table, if somebody's coming back for the third time. It can tell me their phone number, you know, all their information, basically everything that I need to make that guest have a great experience.

And so what the matrix did is it gave those tools to everybody, whether you're the new guy on the - on the staff, it's your first day. You could use this tool. It's so easy to use. You're going to have the ability to manage the place just like Homaro does. So I'm really just giving everybody the tools to be a leader.

The reason why chefs are chefs is because they want to create food. And, you know, it enabled me to just get rid of our office at Moto, and soon we're going to get rid of our office here at iNG.

GUPTA (voice-over): Freed from the confines of his office, Cantu hopes to focus his creative energies on a much larger playing field.

CANTU: The next step for me professionally is building a laboratory that enables me to create just about any food product and really solving a lot of those global problems, anything from CO2 emissions to, you know, healthy food products for kids. And I think that's really my passion.

The food that we're currently consuming really isn't sustainable. The - you know, the end game here is to replicate every food product that you're aware of right out of your backyard.

I'm only limited right now by the equipment that I have and the people that, you know, I surround myself with. And I think that next step is, you know, getting more well funded and tackling global food problems on a bigger level.

GUPTA (on camera): From creating healthy junk food to fighting world hunger, Homaro Cantu is doing nothing less than redefining how we think of eating.

You know, people like Cantu sometimes find their passions quite by accident, and other times it's as if they were born to do it. In the end, though, they are all agents of change, and that's what earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

(END VIDEOTAPE)