Ask America's foremost molecular gastronomist about the Willy Wonka comparisons, and Homaro Cantu will insist that he's just an average guy who likes cheeseburgers. But it's not cheeseburgers that have earned the Chicago chef fame: it's dishes prepared with industrial lasers, inkjet printers and liquid nitrogen.
Look beneath the technical sophistication, though, and Cantu's kitchen pyrotechnics are revealed as explorations of possible answers to a very simple question: What is food? And if the cuisine at Moto, his "molecular tasting lab," can be described as postmodern, Cantu himself has little time for gastro-academic posing. He's driven by a techno-utopian vision of decentralized food in which the world's ever-growing appetites are met by a radical transformation of agriculture itself — and it all begins in our kitchens.
"Make enough food for everyone. That's the end game," says Cantu. "And to get there, we have to start thinking a little crazier about what food is."
Wired.com talked to Cantu about his tastes and vision.
Wired.com: What have you been working on lately?
Homaro Cantu: We've been trying to incorporate food from the green world, and started growing microalgae. You can get 10,000 to 30,000 gallons of algae per acre. It can be grown in salt or fresh water, in a whole variety of temperatures. It increases the food supply rather than depleting it, and it's a net energy gain.
For $300 we built a photobioreactor that produced 15 gallons of food per month. The idea was to take algae, process it into sushi and fuel, and deliver it it in a truck running on algae biofuel. And we're just a bunch of chefs. If we can figure this out, I don't know why others can't.
Wired.com: Hearing about algae or jellyfish as dietary staples depresses me. Those aren't exactly humanity's first choices in food.
Cantu: I can't think of a time in the history of man when food was in excess. We're dealing with the same old problems we've dealt with for 60,000 years.
Look at corn, at how many products come out of it — food, plastics — on one crop a year. Algae provides eight crops per year. It's the responsible thing to do. Algae is the perfect food plant. It doubles cell mass every twelve hours, depending on the strain. The Japanese have a long lifespan in part because they eat different forms of algae.
Of course, we were also doing this to entertain ourselves.
Wired.com: Does that sense of play motivate your work?
Cantu: Sure. The world is full of challenges, but with those come opportunity, and I'm an opportunist. It's fun to be in it, creating all these exciting new ways to live, rather than doing the same old boring thing. That's how mankind has evolved. We're just starting to see it in the kitchen in the restaurant world, but it's been going on in the food processing world for 40 years.
Wired.com: When I think of food processing, I think of food being stripped of its flavor and character — the opposite of dining.
Cantu: I'm not going to pin myself down and say that we don't support processed foods. Sixty-five percent of food in America is genetically modified or processed. We're part of that.
There's two ways to look at it. Let's say you have a food printer and eight cartridges, and grow eight crops on the roof, and that's all you need to replicate any food product you can imagine, from mom's apple pie to a cheeseburger with French fries. That would decentralize the food structure, and you'd know exactly where your food comes from.
At the other extreme, you have what we've been doing: agriculture. The thing that came after permaculture. The forest goes away, and we plant neat straight rows. But it's not sustainable over the long haul. In the end we're going to want to keep the pleasurable eating experience we have today, and technology is going to step in and decentralize that.
I support farmers, whether the farmer is a guy next door or a guy that lives in the breadbasket of America.
Wired.com: But why cook these decentralized foods with printers or lasers?
Cantu: We have sautee pans and burners, too. You can't print a great pizza unless you know how to make a great pizza. There's a lot to be said for classic cuisine.
Wired.com: Are there principles that guide the design of your dishes?
Cantu: Make enough food for everyone. That's the end game. And to get there, we have to start thinking a little crazier about what food is.
Wired.com: What is food?
Cantu: It's what enables us to live — and more than that, it's dense energy storage. If you look at it from that point of view, you start shooting two birds with one shot.
How can we get something new into the food supply while serving another purpose, such as making plastic? We're going to start working with things that grow easily in varied climates, and the end result will be printed food that grows on your roof. Decentralizing food is the wave of the future.
Wired.com: Now that molecular gastronomy has gone relatively mainstream, do you see yourself as being different from other practitioners?
Cantu: There's different parts to what I do. There's the restaurant, and everything I do outside.
In the restaurant, our food looks different. You'll have a Cuban sandwich that looks like a Cuban cigar with ash on it. We specialize in the transmogrification of known food products into other forms. That's the biggest difference between us and the others.
But it isn't always the restaurant. It's me and the pastry chef, working out of sheer curiosity. If you showed the average tinkerer how to do this, they'd do it in a heartbeat. That's what I like about this — and it's the stuff that you'll see in a year or two that sets us apart.
We're going to show people how to make plastic from potatoes. How to make styrofoam peanuts from two ingredients and a microwave, and you'll eat them, too. There will be a polymer oven you can put in your microwave and 30 seconds later, it's 500 degrees hot. Instead of using a gas oven or giant electric oven, you'll shrink it down to the size of your hand and only heat the space you need. If you walk into a kitchen and it's hot, there's wasted energy there. Our kitchen isn't hot.
Wired.com: Are you aware of what's going on, at the molecular level, with your dishes?
Cantu: Yes and no. We think of things in simple terms: how can we end world hunger? And then you investigate that.
Recently I started thinking about how people can eat the stuff they don't eat now, that already grows around them. If you can turn that into food and make it taste good, you've got an answer. I can't tell you more about this, but let's just say I've had my neighbors eating twigs and branches by giving them a supplemental product that makes it taste good.
You have to have some understanding of chemistry, of how taste receptors work, of how people perceive food. But it starts with that initial crazy question: What is food?