There’s a new generation of Chicago chefs who seem more like mad scientists than cooks.
They experiment in their kitchens with liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and syringes. What emerges looks like it's right out of a contemporary art textbook.
These culinary experts unleash their creations on their patrons in restaurants like Next, Alinea and Moto. Sometimes the results of their experiments break out of the culinary bubble.
Molecular gastronomy is a branch of food science that seeks to reverse-engineer the chemical and physical processes of cooking, then use the resulting culinary building blocks in ways that challenge our understanding of food. Basically, they’re doing alchemy with the edible, and their techniques are catching on.
Enter Homaro Cantu, executive chef at Moto, a Fulton restaurant. Cantu’s aspirations extend beyond simply putting some food on a plate and serving it.
“I want to create things never seen, heard of or tasted before,” Cantu says.
His culinary ingenuity has paid off: Last year, Moto broke into Forbes’ list of “100 Best US Restaurants” at No. 44. But more important than the recognition, according to Cantu, is the potential impact his culinary experiments could have. Cantu is considered one of the pioneers of a strange ingredient known as the Miracle Berry.
“It looks like a little cranberry,” he says. “It contains a protein called miraculin that, basically, makes bitter food taste sweet.”
The Miracle Berry is completely organic, its magic protein naturally occurring. While it’s currently used mostly by food scientists in places like Moto (and its sister restaurant iNG next door), Cantu recognizes the berry’s broader potential.
“The implications for [people with] diabetes alone are huge,” Cantu says. “We can make totally sugar-free desserts taste great.” Cantu’s favorite example is how the Miracle Berry makes lemons taste like lemonade, no sugar added. Beyond that, there are tons of applications for it. “The ripple effect of getting rid of sugar across the board is a huge implication,” he says.
In a 2011 TED talk, Cantu and Moto’s executive pastry chef Ben Roche cited a venture in which they sent their kitchen staff around Chicago to gather non-toxic plants that had never before been used in high-end cuisine. The staff returned with sour and bitter weeds, hay and crab apples, using taste-altering proteins like miraculin to produce a sauce that Moto's patrons swore was barbecue.
Cantu and Roche are currently developing new ways to use the Miracle Berry through the production of Future Food, an online television series that explores the applications of the Berry as well as other gastronomic experiments through a series of culinary challenges.
Beyond the Miracle Berry, Cantu thinks his work and goals are closer to food science than the specific realm of molecular gastronomy. He, like Louis Pasteur and other food scientists before him, uses the kitchen as a laboratory to create something new and, more importantly, useful.
To that end, Cantu and his staff developed an aeroponic garden, a sort of rotating indoor tower on which a variety of small plants can grow. It produces everything from strawberries to the mustard used in Moto’s menu. A larger version is currently in the works for iNG, which will have the potential to grow thousands of dollars of produce in a day.
“Imagine the applications that [an indoor garden] like this could have for a church or a school, or in someone’s home,” Cantu says. “We want to create something that could be a great disruptive technology.”