Chef Homaro (Omar) Cantu mastered more in a decade than some chefs accomplish in a lifetime. He opened his restaurant Moto in Chicago in 2004, and early on earned a reputation for approaching fine-dining fare with a unique dose of fun and farce. Diners and critics were both dazzled and perplexed by fantastical dishes — edible paper menus, vegetables cut into three-dimensional puzzle pieces, consumable living terrariums — which Cantu dreamed up and served until the restaurant closed in 2014. His food was groundbreaking, forward-thinking, and, in some ways, ahead of its time.
The culinary world was stunned when Cantu committed suicide in 2015. At the time, he was in the middle of several projects, including his first book, which comes out this week: MOTO: The Cookbook is an exhaustive look at Cantu’s approach to cooking.
Best known for his work as a champion of molecular gastronomy, Cantu also saw the bigger picture. He experimented with ways to cut sugar from the modern diet, and thought about what a locavore approach would mean in fine dining — where most chefs were still serving dish after dish of foie gras, truffles, and caviar shipped in from afar. When his publisher, Little, Brown and Company, decided to move forward with MOTO, they retested and shot each recipe, but left Cantu’s foreword intact. Here it is, below:
My beginnings in the restaurant business were inauspicious.
When I was very young, my mother, older sister, and I were homeless. My mother had drug addiction problems, and my father just wasn’t there. I went to violent schools, and we floated from shelter to shelter, sometimes driving into the woods of the Pacific Northwest and living out of our car.
Then, when I was 11, my sister and I moved to live with our father in California. He had worked to track us down, but by the time he found us, he had started another family and had basically moved on. We didn’t feel wanted. We lived on the rough side of town, and I kept getting into trouble.
I hid in a closet during recess and stole baseball cards to sell to other kids for cash. I bought pencils and sold them, too — and then made sure my customers’ pencils came up missing. I threw cherry bombs in the boys’ bathroom and damn near burned down an apartment complex. Growing up around meth and crack addicts and verbal and physical abusers took its toll on me. I was an out-of-control fuckup, headed for jail or addiction.
One of the most meaningful moments in my life came in the seventh grade, when my science teacher took an interest in me. Mr. Moore saw that I was floundering and threw me a challenge. “You are a real joker, but I bet you have a couple of useful marbles upstairs, Omar. If you read an article from Popular Science and give me a full report, I’ll give you an A.”
Do one report so I can screw around the rest of year? Sign me up. The article was about an emerging technology called superconductors. Mr. Moore said, “Something tells me you’d have a knack for this stuff. When you joke around in my class and disrupt others, I think you are actually bored with what we do here. Am I right?”
I had never thought of that, but I did like taking things apart to understand how they worked. In fact, I spent that summer taking apart my dad’s lawnmower and putting it back together.
The next day I made my full report, and Mr. Moore encouraged me to enter a science competition, building a rocket out of a two-liter bottle. I won first place. For the first time in my life, I was good at something. Mr. Moore didn’t give me the answers but rather encouraged me to be artistic and use science to compete. It was a turning point for me.
Around that time I got my first real job. I lied about my age and started working at a fried-chicken joint. The food was awful, but I was fascinated by the restaurant and loved working with the cooks. I finally felt at home.
After graduating from culinary school, I worked everywhere from Spago in Beverly Hills to a Burger King in Orange County.
I wanted to end up at a fine-dining restaurant but was willing to work anywhere that would teach me something new. I filed it all away for my own future use.
In 1999, I flew to Chicago with a backpack, $350, and just enough guts to ask for a tryout at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant. I stayed for four years and left with the title of sous chef and a million unforgettable experiences.
Charlie was a god. I paid careful attention to every move he made. I copied his vocabulary and tried to think like he did. And I worked hard. Whatever they piled on, I did it, no matter how insane it looked or sounded. When someone mentioned a chef I had never heard of, I looked him up and read all night. I tried to move a little quicker every day. I was always thinking of ways to increase efficiency, improve flavor, and make the best possible product I could.
For a long time, I was only happy at Trotter’s. I got four hours of sleep a night and could barely pay my rent. But motivation has to come from within, and I had found mine. Technology and science helped me to become a chef. Focusing on the present made the past nonexistent. I had all this creativity I was dying to unleash.
Eventually, I got an executive chef position at a restaurant that was still under construction. Before it opened, I convinced the investors to change their original concept to a tasting menu restaurant that incorporated the inventions I had been tinkering with. I began to work full-time on bringing those crazy ideas to life. That restaurant became Moto.
Instead of looking for plates at housewares stores, I went to lab suppliers, medical distributors, welding shops — any place that could help me prototype my ideas. One of my favorites was a heat-retention oven. I had read about a product called aerogel that NASA was using; it was 99.8% air and had amazing thermal properties. I had always wondered what would happen if you never felt the warmth from an oven. What if we could trap all of that heat inside?
I did research, bought some materials from the Internet, and made a small transparent elastomer oven that could retain heat for hours without much energy input. The process was simple: I would heat up the oven, place a piece of fish in it, and it would cook right in front of you on your tabletop. No wires, no complex circuitry. And did I mention that the result was the most perfectly cooked, juicy, moist piece of fish I have ever tasted?
Moto would be all about new ideas like that. And I had many more ideas forming and not nearly enough time in the day to make all of them. All I knew was that there was so much more I didn’t know about cooking, and this was only the beginning.
Over the next ten years, Moto became the first restaurant to offer edible menus, to grow food in a high-efficiency indoor farm, to use lasers and custom software to explore the fringes of innovation in food. My goals were to create amazing flavors and deliver perfectly cooked and seasoned dishes. But I also wanted to introduce diverse ways of producing, executing, and enjoying great food. And it had to be fun.
This book explores the unknown in how and what we cook. The world is full of food-related challenges and it’s up to chefs to fix them. With these recipes, ten for each of the first ten years of Moto’s existence, I hope to inspire tinkerers to get into the kitchen and start asking big questions. For instance: Why do we use the same 300-year-old agricultural system while technology gets exponentially smarter around us?
We must change the way we think if we want to change the current system. That involves letting go of the past and educating ourselves to find solutions in the future. I was a junk-food kid who ate the worst food society can offer. I am fascinated with the idea of reshaping food for those who don’t have a chance in hell to get out of poverty. It’s no coincidence that many Moto alumni have gone on to work for cutting-edge sustainable companies that take a strong stance on the green side of the food business.
It’s neither easy nor convenient to want to change the world. But we must stretch our imaginations and never forget that we have gone from cave dwellers to space explorers in the blink of an eye.
Welcome to Moto.
Excerpted from MOTO: THE COOKBOOK, © 2017 by Homaro Cantu, Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.