Good food is delicious, but chefs know they not only need delicious food; they also need visual appeal. When it comes to food, Homaro is past conventional schools of thought. His fares are yummy, visually appealing, and mentally arresting. Eating at Moto Restaurant [where he is the executive chef] can change one’s perspective of food the instant they are given an edible menu, nachos for dessert, or the edible Cuban cigar, to name a few. Eating at Moto is not for the bland or faint-hearted. One must be prepared to break away from what they have always perceived to be food. Entering Moto is like traveling in time and taking a peek at restaurants of the future; it’s a peek into what Homaro Cantu makes of food’s fate.
Homaro braved to challenge the norm of the restaurant industry. He did all sorts of unconventional things and was called mad time and time again. But who wouldn’t fall for an edible picture of their order that also tastes like the food served on their plate?
The Miracle Fruit
As a connoisseur of food, Homaro is on a mission to do his part to address hunger. Since the discovery of the “miracle berry,” a fruit endemic in Africa, Homaro has embarked on a quest to find solutions to famine. People know him now as a visionary in the kitchen, but Homaro knows what it feels like to have nothing to eat; he has experienced being homeless and eating only what his mother could afford. So, naturally, his mission is inspired by his desire to alleviate food shortage.
If we could make food out of ingredients eaten by our meat sources, such as cows, goats and pigs, then we would live healthily and not of want for sustenance; this is where Homaro has envisioned the future of food to be. Rather than be afraid like many others as food sources dwindle, Homaro is waving his edible recipe to get people’s attention and change our ideas about what we can eat.
Homaro’s Early Life
Homaro Cantu, Jr. was born in Tacoma, Washington, to Laurie and Homaro Sr. on 23 September 1976. He has a sister named Angela. As a child, Homaro was painfully curious; he drove his father insane by dismantling their lawnmower just to see how it worked. Since he was a young boy, he had shown signs of becoming an adventurous eater. In fact, in addition to dismembering furniture and appliances, Homaro also loved to see how things tasted. Perhaps because he’d seen how crazy people were about money, he reckoned it must taste really good – and that’s how Homaro ended up eating bills. We could say that his invention of edible paper was inspired by that experience.
That’s young Homaro for you. He never really got over his penchant for discovering new things, even if it meant having to test them on himself. As a teenager, Homaro’s mother struggled to keep their finances intact and eventually hit rock-bottom when they lost their home. Homaro, Laurie and Angela were homeless for a time; there was hardly anything to eat. When one is in that situation, it’s incredibly difficult to dream of making it big. Even going to college becomes wishful thinking.
While in high school, he had to take odd jobs and was almost taken to a juvenile facility after setting a field - nearby an apartment building - on fire. He once worked in a fried chicken joint, and even the idea of cooking chicken in a tandoori oven floored him. Had he been a more diligent student, school could have been much easier for him; but, unfortunately, school was simply not a place he wanted to be. Eventually, however, the inventor within him began to come out, coupled with an unshakeable interest in cooking.
Given his sorry circumstances, he could have ended up a miserable man if not for the guidance and assistance of Bill and Jan Miller, a kindhearted couple who sometimes offered troubled teens a place to stay; Homaro was one of those teens. The Millers made an exception for him and offered him more than just a roof over his head: they decided to support him throughout his culinary training. Homaro went home one day and told Jan that he would someday release his own recipe book, just like famous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. The two shared a good laugh, but, deep inside, Jan knew Homaro was going to get it done.
Becoming a Chef and Joining Moto Restaurant
Homaro went to the Le Cordon Bleu School, then known as the Western Culinary Institute. Upon completing culinary studies, he set out to continue learning as much as he could, and he peddled his services to more than 50 restaurants across the state for free. He would knock on restaurants’ back doors and offer to help without being paid. He was after something that money could not buy - knowledge.
And so he worked without compensation for two years, still learning as much as he could. Eventually, he felt ready to face the esteemed Charlie Trotter and decided to stop by his restaurant. The Chef declined to face him, instead setting up an appointment for the following morning. As it turned out, Homaro had made a bad impression; he was told by Charlie that “it’s rude to show up without an appointment.” Homaro’s response was a matter-of-fact, “Sometimes I just want to do things and right now I want to work at this restaurant, and that's the only thing I want to do."
That’s how he got his dream job. With an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, Homaro welcomed every challenge that came his way, including the frantic working environment of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. It was there where Homaro received the most rigid training in the kitchen he’d ever experience…but he never complained. After all, it was his dream job. As he gained more and more experience, Homaro rose through the ranks and eventually became a sous chef.
In the back of his mind, Homaro knew he would put up his own restaurant one way or another. The perfect opportunity came when he heard of Joseph De Vito’s plan to back a restaurant called “Moto” in 2003. He set out to pitch his idea to the restaurateur, this time making an appointment.
Joseph De Vito was certainly not a newbie in the industry; he’d put up a number of burger joints and Italian restaurants in the past. So, when he saw Homaro, who “looked more like an engineer than a chef,” he somehow knew he’d hear something geeky. But nothing prepared him for the out-of-this-world business pitch that Homaro was well-prepared to make. He talked of levitating food and overhauling dining experience; Joseph was bombarded with ideas so futuristic he must’ve felt as if he was listening to a sci-fi movie plot.
He had to cut Homaro short and, in a bemused tone, thanked him for the trouble. But Homaro would not take no for an answer and he managed to convince Joseph to cook for him and his wife. Unbeknownst to Joseph, what Homaro had discussed in his pitch was already in the works; and he saw them all when dinner was served. Both excited and startled, Joseph was converted.
TED Talk and the Miracle Berry
“Moto” opened for business, at first disappointing customers who were expecting Japanese dishes to be offered. As Homaro’s right hand man, Ben Roche, shared in their TED talk:
“So when Moto opened in 2004, people didn't really know what to expect. A lot of people thought that it was a Japanese restaurant, and maybe it was the name, maybe it was the logo, which was like a Japanese character, but anyway, we had all these requests for Japanese food, which is really not what we did. And after about the ten thousandth request for a maki roll, we decided to give the people what they wanted. So this picture is an example of printed food, and this was the first foray into what we like to call flavor transformation. So this is all the ingredients, all the flavor of, you know, a standard maki roll, printed onto a little piece of paper." (SOURCE: TED Talks)
Upon eating edible paper with a picture of sushi, which actually tasted like sushi, word got around about Moto’s strange take on food. The restaurant soon became known in the areas of flavor tripping, cutting-edge recipes, and indoor garden. So amazed were their patrons that it took little time for Moto and Homaro to receive media attention.
Homaro has been interviewed by Ellen DeGeneres, invited to speak at TED, and was offered a hosting job for “Future Food” alongside Ben Roche.
Homaro’s answer to diabetes and other diseases caused by excessive sugar intake came in the form of a “miracle berry,” an African berry that contains glycoprotein, which makes sour food sweet and also eases bitter tastes (he once set out to live on plants found in his backyard for six days with the help of the berry). His experimentation in the kitchen is also seen as a way of utilizing resources around us that we don’t regard as edible. Imagine how this perspective could revolutionize farming and food production; why should we go hungry when strange-looking plants around us are just waiting to be tried?
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Cantu Designs
- Moto Restaurant
- Imagining New Gastronomy (iNG)
- Institute for Advanced Concepts
Awards and Achievements
- 2006: Defeated Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in a battle with beets
- 2007 and 2008: Ellen DeGeneres Show guest
- 2009: Installed first laboratory of its kind at Moto Restaurant
- 2009: Began filming “Future Food” with Ben Roche
- 2011: Featured in CNN's The Next List
- Founded “Cantu Designs”
- Featured in Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and USA Today
- Authored "The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook"
- The “Moto Cookbook” now in the works
- Has 12 pending patents
- Designs exhibited at “Feeding Desire, Design and Tools of the Table, 1500-2005” of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
Cantu Designs (Homaro Cantu)
Cantu Designs (What We Do)
Wikipedia (Homaro Cantu)
Moto Restaurant (Homaro)
Business Wire (Wake Up and Eat the Roses: Celebrity Chef Homaro Cantu Explores mberry as a Viable Solution to World Hunger)
CNN: Eatocracy (A 'Second City' secret supper – miracle berries, flavor tripping and food with a message)
CNN: The Next List (Chef Homaro Cantu: Sneak Peek)
Fast Company (Weird Science)
USA Today (Incredible & Edible: In search of extreme cuisine)
TED (Homaro Cantu: Chef)
TED Blog (Goodbye to sugar? Homaro Cantu on how to trick your taste buds)
Eater (Chef Homaro Cantu to Write The Moto Cookbook)
TED Talks (Homaro Cantu + Ben Roche: Cooking as alchemy)
Rock 'N Roll Ghost (Chef Interview: Homaro Cantu – iNG)
Chicagoist (Interview: Chef Homaro Cantu and Chef Ben Roche on Future Food)
ABC News (Miracle Food: Can World Hunger Be Solved By Tricking Taste Buds?)