The Secret to Homaro Cantu's Genius

Ⓒ Jason Wallis
Ⓒ Jason Wallis / Ⓒ Jason Wallis

Last week, the legendary chef Homaro Cantu took his own life. It’s a sad and familiar story of someone too talented leaving us too soon. At mental_floss, we were very much in awe of Cantu’s special breed of genius. And we were floored by his ambitions (one of the many things he expected to do was to use edible paper soaked with nutrients to end world hunger). Eight years ago we put him on our New Einsteins list for all the madcap inventing he was doing on and off the plate. He was one of the first interviews we ever landed (we had our pal Erik Vance report the story), and couldn’t have been nicer, giving his time to a little magazine from Birmingham. Just a few weeks ago, I was wondering about something he’d said in this interview—that he’d figured out a way to flip a gene that would turn tomato plants into organic nightlights, and I made a note to myself to schedule a follow-up. Unfortunately, we never got the chance. In light of Cantu’s passing, I thought it would be a good time to post this short interview. I remember reading Cantu's words and feeling inspired to tinker and invent and dream bigger. I’m hoping others will stumble into this interview and feel the same way.

Ⓒ Jason Wallis

The Restless Chef

by Erik Vance

In the back of Homaro Cantu’s chic Chicago restaurant, Moto, hangs a Salvador Dalí poster that reads, “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”
It’s in the right place. With his penchant for cooking with lasers and liquid nitrogen, Chef Cantu has created one of the edgiest dining experiences in the country. On the Moto menu, you might find doughnut soup, flapjack popsicles, and, to drink, a glass of vanilla-bean smoke. “First we shock people, and then we awe them with the fact that this stuff is real food,” Cantu says. “If it doesn’t make you go, ‘Holy sh**, that was the greatest spaghetti I’ve ever eaten—and it looked like a cheeseburger!’ then it’s just not worth it.”
As a teenager in California, Cantu says he was on a one-way track to juvenile hall when a high-school science teacher got him hooked on science. A love for experimentation led to a passion for tinkering in the kitchen, which eventually evolved into his peculiar brand of high-tech gastronomy. Obsessed with new ideas, Cantu believes he is more inventor than chef. Indeed, he spends many waking hours on projects that have nothing to do with cooking, such as making tomatoes glow in the dark. Recently, mental_floss grabbed a few minutes on the phone with Cantu to ask him about his latest pursuits. In a dialect that’s one part California surfer and one part Chicago construction worker, he tends to throw ideas around one on top of the next. All them could be dismissed as hare-brained, except that most of them are proving remarkably successful.

Q: What is the worst thing you’ve ever created?
A: This thing called the Black Course. It was calamari with red sauce, but everything was pitch black. The ladies didn’t like it because after about five minutes, their lips and their teeth turned black. They’d be looking at their date and trying to be sexy, but they weren’t very sexy.

Q: You’ve been working with products from a company called American Anti-Gravity. What’s that about?
A: This guy created a particle gun that pumps out 40 watts of negative ions, which can levitate some objects. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘We’ve got to see if there are any edible products that we can electrify to make them float around!’ And that’s when I thought of salt. You can actually charge certain types of sodium chloride so that they store energy, which can be released on demand.

Q: So you had levitating salt floating around your restaurant?
A: Yeah. We were just shooting salt with this particle gun, and it bounced around. It was cool and novel, but how do you turn that into a product? Instead, it led me to this other invention I’m working on now that’s essentially going to turn every building in America into a net energy producer. It’s a motor that I’m hoping will create more energy in a building than the building consumes. I’ve got eight households in my neighborhood that use it, and they’re going to start cutting me checks for all the energy they’re saving.

Q: Why do you think there’s an energy crisis?
A: Because we’re over-thinking everything these days. I’ll give you one example. Tomatoes actually have a gene in them that can be switched on and off, enabling them to glow in the dark. And if a tomato can throw off 240 lumens, that’s equivalent to 10 LED lights. So you take your tomatoes and you put them in an upside-down planter and you grow them, and then they glow at night. I think the key to unlocking energy potential is looking at food as a means of dense energy storage. If you could take something that you can eat and use it to light your home, that’s a double whammy. When it’s ripe, it burns out and you eat it! Man, that’s how we’ve got to start thinking.

Q: How long do you work every day?
A: [loud, grinding, whirring sound] Until six o’clock.

Q: Hello? I think I’m losing you. Did you say you work regular hours?
A: Yeah. Sorry about that background noise [sound goes to a lower pitch]. That thing you heard right there is a motor I’m working on.

Q: The net energy producer?
A: No, this one’s a little different. It’s an internal combustion engine for a remote-controlled car that uses hydrogen gas to boost the car’s fuel economy by 60 percent. The hydrogen gas is extracted from falling water. I know that sounds weird, but any building can do it. Everyone in my neighborhood watches me come out here every day with this thing.

Q: [More grinding] Are you working on the motor as we speak?
A: Yeah, I just fired it up again.

Q: Do you do this often, or am I getting a treat?
A: I do it quite a bit, actually.

Ⓒ Jason Wallis

Three Questions
1. What piece of advice has stuck with you?

Never be too good to listen. My first chef taught me that. I listen to everybody, including my dishwashers.

2. What would you have been if not a chef?

What I am right now—an inventor. I haven’t handled a single piece of food today, just so you know.

3. What is “genius”?

Doing unconventional things. Lock yourself in a room with two things and stare at them. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be willing to sit there and do what it takes to create the end result.