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Sci-Tech

For Chicago chef, it's prepare, print, serve

Known for his edible menus, Homaro Cantu now wants to print ads you can eat, shrink your kitchen tools into one drawer and "green" the restaurant industry. Photos: Where the menu is an appetizer

CHICAGO--There's a laser show under way in the underground kitchen of Moto Restaurant. The overhead lights dim and an orange beacon starts to spin, a warning to avoid the beam that might be used to vaporize caramel.

Usually found in an operating room or welding shop, a Class 4 laser is just one of the tools Moto chef Homaro Cantu uses to bend diners' expectations of what's edible.

A thick confidentiality agreement prohibits this reporter from describing more about this culinary rabbit hole where meals are printed on edible paper, frozen instantly in liquid nitrogen, and baked in polymer ovens that fit in the palm of your hand. (Foodies often fly into town and shell out $165, plus wine, for a taste of the far-out meals.)

Cantu first attracted national attention by serving edible menus printed with a Canon inkjet. In a January episode of Food Network cult hit Iron Chef America, he dethroned chef Masaharu Morimoto.

But Cantu says he's not merely trying to hog the spotlight; he wants to bring Moto's innovations to the masses and revolutionize the way the world eats. The Cordon Bleu graduate has filed 16 patents and continues to tweak technologies through his skunk works, Cantu Designs. Lately, Cantu has been negotiating with big-brand stores to bring his multifunctional kitchen utensils to store shelves. Cantu sat down with CNET recently for an interview.

Q: What are these utensils you're working on?
Cantu: The multitools are things that do more in your kitchen than existing housewares do. A pan that could change shapes. A cutting board that has multiple functions...Maybe it's a scale, maybe with a sharpening stone on one side. A knife that can transform into 10 different knives, sort of like a switchblade, but you buy one knife and you get 10. I talk in very vague terms because I don't want to get specific, but we're rolling out these multitools with a major retailer.

That's the goal, to get people to buy less and consume less. We're very conservation friendly. We don't even work with paper in the kitchen. We have an all-digital proprietary software system that enables me to track profits and losses in real time, and we're going to bring that to the market as well. So if you don't use paper, you don't use cellulose. You're not using dyes that are harmful, and you're using a much smaller amount of juice in the world when you just go electric.

Did you build that software yourself? Do you code?
Cantu: Yes. I'm very big on open-source and that's a contradiction for me, because I patent everything. But why do I patent everything? Because I want to be first to market. Most importantly, I want to take those patents one day and make them open-source.

I don't create technologies just to create novel technologies. I create because I see a need or gap that needs to be filled at the social or retail level.

Here we use technology in a way that enables us to do more, but do we hire less people? No, we get those people doing more creative jobs...Right now, downstairs my cooks are looking at a giant 60-inch screen projection and they follow their prep lists on this. We don't use paper. And when they're done, it knocks those things off the prep list. It can also speak with dishwashers who might not speak English.

Does it have a touch screen system or a keyboard?
Cantu: Voice-activated. Touch screens are very energy consuming. And we have this thing called the Nabaztag.

The little bunny?
Cantu: Yeah, the Nabaztag utilizes a third of the amount of energy as a laptop or PC, and you don't have to be a genius to work it. I use it downstairs for my e-mail...These sorts of things are going to enter the kitchen whether we like it or not, because one day it might be too expensive to fire up that gas burner and run it the old way.

We're going to have to get more innovative with the way we approach cooking altogether. The raw materials horizons, CO2 emissions--these are the things we need to factor into a daily basis in the kitchen. Otherwise we're going to be headed for a serious problem.

The statistic right now in the state of Illinois: four out of five nights, people go out for dinner. So energy conservation in the home is great, but this is more important at this point.

Why do you do what you do?
Cantu: If you consider how much we're growing as a population, there will be 10 billion people in 10 years. Just a scant 10,000 years ago, we were a 2,000-person tribe in Africa. Materials are being extracted at an alarming rate.

We need to think of food in different ways. We need food that can sustain organic agriculture and growth. The entire human race needs to become more aware of technology and how we can utilize it, and that'll never happen as long as we have the Third World. We need everybody on the same page, and the most immediate crisis is food.

Let's talk about edible advertising. I'm going to be launching that and the coolest thing about it is, it's probably more local and organic than 99 percent of the products that you buy in the store. It just looks a little different.

Why would I do all this? I realized early on from growing up in a very poor family that the most important thing you need is food. What we do has massive impact. I don't create technologies just to create novel technologies. I create because I see a need or gap that needs to be filled at the social or retail level.

Most restaurants are highly inefficient and use too much energy. We do consume less energy. The laser is a great example. When you turn on a gas burner, you're creating oxygen displacement, and what you're creating in the pan is sometimes carbon emissions. Lasers let you focus energy through cooking at a pinpoint with little or no loss of energy into thin air. It's highly unusual, but the beauty of it is you're not actually touching the food. You're creating a thermal optical transfer system that can be as hot as 2,800 degrees or as low as 1 degree. It's about control, eliminating human error.

The most fascinating part is we can take food to this level but we can still follow the rules of fine dining with local ingredients, all that good stuff.

When did you start thinking about sustainability?
Cantu: I'm from Portland, Ore.--the land of the hippie--and I was a hippie for a while. I always had a passion for the environment, but I believe our shortcomings are technological issues, not moral issues. I believe the geeks will inherit the earth.

How much of the food here is organic?
Cantu: About 80 percent. Organic, this is a loose term with food companies nowadays. They really need to get it together. Organic and local is very important.

Let's talk about edible advertising. I'm going to be launching that and the coolest thing about it is, it's probably more local and organic than 99 percent of the products that you buy in the store. It just looks a little different. The visual aspects are computer-generated. But the products that we use in it come out of the ground. It's coming from a farmer. We're just physically changing it, not chemically changing it. You get into dangerous side effects with health when you start chemically changing things.

So edible ads will be a printed substance you can eat, like a wafer?
Cantu: Yeah. You open up a magazine, there's a small plastic thing in there, and you rip it open. It looks like a cheeseburger, tastes like a cheeseburger, it's made from all organic ingredients. In some cases it doesn't contain the ingredients that we would associate with that picture. But the key thing you've got to remember with edible ads is it's got to be an allergen-free substrate. If it's not, then you go do a peanut ad, and there's real peanuts in there, then somebody's going to die.

Edible ads will fund the nutraceutical applications, which is where we take actual nutritional value, caloric value, amino acids and vitamins and all that good stuff. You put it on and now you have a piece of paper that has some sort of text on it...and you can eat it and digest it much quicker than sending someone a peanut butter bar in a starving country where people don't know what peanut butter bars are. They may not eat it or it may upset their digestive tract.

Take it a step further. You have nutraceutical, which we've done, pharmaceutical, which we've done, and then dental. And you can consume all three in one shot. It's kind of cool.

So then you can clean your teeth?
Cantu: Put a little fluoride in there, and that's sort of where we want to take it.

What's happening with the edible ads right now?
Cantu: We're setting up a large product line in an undisclosed location. We're talking to major publishers, like Gourmet, Fast Company, about sustaining edible ads for months and months on end. I think it's going to revitalize the entire print ad market because it's going to have instant consumer impact.

We've been approached by car companies to do this, by credit card companies where they want an edible credit card in there. They want to be out of the box, they want to think differently and they want their products to reflect that. We're probably nine months to a year from lift off, but right now we're still building it. That should be done within three months.

What's up with all these crazy, seemingly unnatural things you do with food?
It enables us to follow the process of innovation from A to B. Let's say I have an apple and I'm going to split it up into the basic building blocks...and put it into printheads, and I have the basic binary code to print food in physical form. We can print food in two dimensions from all-natural, all-organic ingredients. It might look very foreign, but so would Twinkies to a person 2,000 years ago.

We can create a third-world food replicator. All we need is a printer. We print an apple, essentially a replica of an apple from one picked at the peak of freshness. You can't tell the difference between my apple that was transmogrified and the one that was picked. We can create stockpiles without having to worry about their shelf life.

You've talked about how the age of growing meat is upon us.
Cantu: Meat in petri dishes for long-term space missions, that's going to happen. We're not going to see a farm on a space shuttle in our generation. There's a guy who grew chicken in a petri dish and it tastes like a chicken. This crosses the line of is it manmade or not...We're bursting at the seams with our food chain and we have to find new ways to think about food. But at the same time it can't be manmade.

We can print food in two dimensions from all-natural, all-organic ingredients. It might look very foreign, but so would Twinkies to a person 2,000 years ago.

How do you deal with people's gross-out factor?
Cantu: It's kind of gross to me...But if it's grown in a petri dish, then it's sanitary, it tastes good, no cholesterol, doesn't offend the PETA people because the poor little cow doesn't get incinerated. That's the road we're heading down. I look at this more as an innovative product design and utilizing the restaurant as a test market.

Any idols or role models?
Cantu: In the 1950s the military went up to Kelly Johnson who was a colonel and said, look, the Russians are developing nuclear weapons that can reach our country in minutes. We need a jet that can fly at supersonic speed...They said here's the other catch, we need it in 173 days...He organized this entire team, but they didn't know they were a team. And he sort of put the puzzle pieces together, probably the quickest and most inspirational example of efficiency. Yeah, it was designed to create a war machine, but it was the efficiency with which he did it. That is an idol of mine, that and Stephen Hawking for his out-of-the-box thinking.

Do you have any chemistry or engineering background?
Cantu: No, I think very counter-intuitively and then logically. I like to think stupid first: Can I get a strawberry into a magazine?

What do you want to be doing 10 years, 25 years from now?
Cantu: Saving the planet.

You see what you're doing as part of a larger trend?
Cantu: I think of it as anti-consumer goods. We don't want to sell more products. That's ruining our infrastructure in the long haul. We're using up too many materials and we're not going to be able to afford to replenish our concrete roads because concrete is too expensive. We need to produce less.

Does that contradict the products that you're developing to sell in big stores?
Cantu: No, because that's going to replace 500 products in the store.

Do you think it's too late to save the planet?
Cantu: I know a little too much and some days I think it's too late. Humanity has the wherewithal to correct its problems, but it's going to take a massive effort. It's going to take the Steve Wozniaks, Richard Bransons, Stephen Hawkings, and not the policymakers.

Take the trans fat thing. Everybody's screaming that the government's telling us what to eat. Well, look at it from a different angle. OK, we're going to make a substitute for trans fat that's all-natural, cheaper to produce. From a commercialization standpoint, you're sitting on a gold mine if you can do that, rather than crying about it. It's not good for us. The challenge for the innovative future is to start thinking, now what am I going to substitute that with? It's how you look at it. Are we going to allow the small bakers to go out of business because now they can't use trans fat Crisco? No.

What could you substitute that with?
Cantu: I can't talk about that. I'm working with a company on that.

What was it like to win on the Iron Chef?
Cantu: The hardest part was getting there with 18 huge boxes of equipment, including a Class 4 laser, which is a miracle by itself considering you can't get on an airplane with scissors.

What do you eat at home?
Cantu: My wife banned me from the kitchen. She does all the cooking. I do simple things, like a bagel with cream cheese. I do eat normal food. Pizza and a glass of beer--that to me is a perfect meal.

Why Chicago?
Cantu: I love Chicago. We're surrounded by cornfields. People want to take it easy here. Chicago by its nature after the fire is a clean slate...Our real estate prices are still pretty low. I can afford to do 50 people maximum every night and sustain a healthy business.

What's the best pizza in Chicago?
Cantu: Marie's on Lawrence.