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Homaro Cantu + Ben Roche: Cooking as alchemy

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Ben Roche: So I'm Ben, by the way. Homaro Cantu: And I'm Homaro. BR: And we're chefs. 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.

HC: So our diners started to get bored with this idea, and we decided to give them the same course twice, so here we actually took an element from the maki roll and and took a picture of a dish and then basically served that picture with the dish. So this dish in particular is basically champagne with seafood. The champagne grapes that you see are actually carbonated grapes. A little bit of seafood and some crème fraiche and the picture actually tastes exactly like the dish. (Laughter) BR: But it's not all just edible pictures. We decided to do something a little bit different and transform flavors that were very familiar -- so in this case, we have carrot cake. So we take a carrot cake, put it in a blender, and we have kind of like a carrot cake juice, and then that went into a balloon frozen in liquid nitrogen to create this hollow shell of carrot cake ice cream, I guess, and it comes off looking like, you know, Jupiter's floating around your plate.

So yeah, we're transforming things into something that you have absolutely no reference for. HC: And here's something we have no reference to eat. This is a cigar, and basically it's a Cuban cigar made out of a Cuban pork sandwich, so we take these spices that go into the pork shoulder, we fashion that into ash. We take the sandwich and wrap it up in a collard green, put an edible label that bears no similarity to a Cohiba cigar label, and we put it in a dollar ninety-nine ashtray and charge you about twenty bucks for it. (Laughter) HC: Delicious.

BR: That's not it, though. Instead of making foods that look like things that you wouldn't eat, we decided to make ingredients look like dishes that you know. So this is a plate of nachos. The difference between our nachos and the other guy's nachos, is that this is actually a dessert. So the chips are candied, the ground beef is made from chocolate, and the cheese is made from a shredded mango sorbet that gets shredded into liquid nitrogen to look like cheese. And after doing all of this dematerialization and reconfiguring of this, of these ingredients, we realized that it was pretty cool, because as we served it, we learned that the dish actually behaves like the real thing, where the cheese begins to melt. So when you're looking at this thing in the dining room, you have this sensation that this is actually a plate of nachos, and it's not really until you begin tasting it that you realize this is a dessert, and it's just kind of like a mind-ripper. (Laughter)

HC: So we had been creating all of these dishes out of a kitchen that was more like a mechanic's shop than a kitchen, and the next logical step for us was to install a state-of-the-art laboratory, and that's what we have here. So we put this in the basement, and we got really serious about food, like serious experimentation. BR: One of the really cool things about the lab, besides that we have a new science lab in the kitchen, is that, you know, with this new equipment, and this new approach, all these different doors to creativity that we never knew were there began to open, and so the experiments and the food and the dishes that we created, they just kept going further and further out there.

HC: Let's talk about flavor transformation, and let's actually make some cool stuff. You see a cow with its tongue hanging out. What I see is a cow about to eat something delicious. What is that cow eating? And why is it delicious? So the cow, basically, eats three basic things in their feed: corn, beets, and barley, and so what I do is I actually challenge my staff with these crazy, wild ideas. Can we take what the cow eats, remove the cow, and then make some hamburgers out of that? And basically the reaction tends to be kind of like this. (Laughter) BR: Yeah, that's our chef de cuisine, Chris Jones. This is not the only guy that just flips out when we assign a ridiculous task, but a lot of these ideas, they're hard to understand. They're hard to just get automatically.

There's a lot of research and a lot of failure, trial and error -- I guess, more error -- that goes into each and every dish, so we don't always get it right, and it takes a while for us to be able to explain that to people. HC: So, after about a day of Chris and I staring at each other, we came up with something that was pretty close to the hamburger patty, and as you can see it basically forms like hamburger meat. This is made from three ingredients: beets, barley, corn, and so it actually cooks up like hamburger meat, looks and tastes like hamburger meat, and not only that, but it's basically removing the cow from the equation. So replicating food, taking it into that next level is where we're going. (Applause)

BR: And it's definitely the world's first bleeding veggie burger, which is a cool side effect. And a miracle berry, if you're not familiar with it, is a natural ingredient, and it contains a special property. It's a glycoprotein called miraculin, a naturally occurring thing. It still freaks me out every time I eat it, but it has a unique ability to mask certain taste receptors on your tongue, so that primarily sour taste receptors, so normally things that would taste very sour or tart, somehow begin to taste very sweet. HC: You're about to eat a lemon, and now it tastes like lemonade. Let's just stop and think about the economic benefits of something like that. We could eliminate sugar across the board for all confectionary products and sodas, and we can replace it with all-natural fresh fruit.

BR: So you see us here cutting up some watermelon. The idea with this is that we're going to eliminate tons of food miles, wasted energy, and overfishing of tuna by creating tuna, or any exotic produce or item from a very far-away place, with local, organic produce; so we have a watermelon from Wisconsin. HC: So if miracle berries take sour things and turn them into sweet things, we have this other pixie dust that we put on the watermelon, and it makes it go from sweet to savory. So after we do that, we put it into a vacuum bag, add a little bit of seaweed, some spices, and we roll it, and this starts taking on the appearance of tuna. So the key now is to make it behave like tuna. BR: And then after a quick dip into some liquid nitrogen to get that perfect sear, we really have something that looks, tastes and behaves like the real thing.

HC: So the key thing to remember here is, we don't really care what this tuna really is. As long as it's good for you and good for the environment, it doesn't matter. But where is this going? How can we take this idea of tricking your tastebuds and leapfrog it into something that we can do today that could be a disruptive food technology? So here's the next challenge. I told the staff, let's just take a bunch of wild plants, think of them as food ingredients. As long as they're non-poisonous to the human body, go out around Chicago sidewalks, take it, blend it, cook it and then have everybody flavor-trip on it at Moto. Let's charge them a boatload of cash for this and see what they think. (Laughter)

BR: Yeah, so you can imagine, a task like this -- this is another one of those assignments that the kitchen staff hated us for. But we really had to almost relearn how to cook in general, because these are ingredients, you know, plant life that we're, one, unfamiliar with, and two, we have no reference for how to cook these things because people don't eat them. So we really had to think about new, creative ways to flavor, new ways to cook and to change texture -- and that was the main issue with this challenge.

HC: So this is where we step into the future and we leapfrog ahead. So developing nations and first-world nations, imagine if you could take these wild plants and consume them, food miles would basically turn into food feet. This disruptive mentality of what food is would essentially open up the encyclopedia of what raw ingredients are, even if we just swapped out, say, one of these for flour, that would eliminate so much energy and so much waste. And to give you a simple example here as to what we actually fed these customers, there's a bale of hay there and some crab apples. And basically we took hay and crab apples and made barbecue sauce out of those two ingredients. People swore they were eating barbecue sauce, and this is free food. BR: Thanks, guys.


Video Details

Duration: 9 minutes and 13 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 245
Posted by: tedtalks on Dec 14, 2011

Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche come from Moto, a Chicago restaurant that plays with new ways to cook and eat food. But beyond the fun and flavor-tripping, there's a serious intent: Can we use new food technology for good?

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