E&T gets the taste of the new technology of food printing.
I sat anxiously awaiting my post-modern gastronomy at Moto restaurant in Chicago's bustling Fulton Market. And, while I wasn't quite sure what was on the menu for the evening, my expectations were high. The soft lighting, clean lines and earth tones surrounding the intimate dining room created a tranquil, modern setting. Glowing artwork and hand-woven grass cloths covered the walls. The industry buzz on Moto included descriptions like "one-of-a-kind", "interactive", "multi-sensory", and "technologically mind-blowing". Diners reportedly savoured one course after another, which ranged from a five-course up to a 20-course menu. It turned out that my courses for the evening included mahi-mahi with fried rice, crispy hash browns and beef, pumpkin tamale, and biscotti and coffee. But first, something to kick the meal off with - the appetiser. Would it be shrimp crostini, artichoke phyllo cups, or maybe amuse bouche, I wondered. But as the waiter arrived and presented my menu, I was promptly told that it was my appetiser. That's right - the menu I was using to order my food was edible. As I began to break it apart and eat its light, rectangular pieces, I felt as if I was eating tortilla chips and salsa. The edible menu was quite tasty, and, as I quickly polished it off, I looked around and noticed that most of the other patrons of Moto had devoured their menus as well.
Food is a science
Moto, which opened its doors in 2004, is home to one of the most notable food scientists in the world, executive chef Homaro Cantu. With post-modern cuisine is in its infancy in America, Cantu, aged 31, is helping to propel this culinary art into a technological spectacle. And, while some industry insiders call Cantu a scientist, he has also been compared to Salvador Dali, Willy Wonka, and even Buck Rogers. "The human race has been eating the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years," Cantu says. "At Moto, we strip away the rules, stretch the imagination, and entice guests with never-before-seen dishes. It's about being open-minded and having a lot of fun with food." Cantu uses a Class IV laser, normally utilised for surgery or welding, as a cooking tool. Scientific elements, such as liquid nitrogen and helium, and devices like a centrifuge and a hand-held ion particle gun, make regular appearances in the Moto kitchen. According to Joseph DeVito, Moto's owner, "We're looking for ways to not only push the boundaries in the kitchen but also to leverage today's technology like it was never used before in the restaurant industry." DeVito, one of the United State's leading restaurateurs, said some diners are suspicious of Moto's many printable foods at first. "But when they try them, they realise they taste just like the real food." Chef Cantu's purpose with all of this is simple: to change the way the world thinks about food. "Gastronomy has to catch up with the evolution in technology, and I'm just helping that process along," Cantu says.
Cooked by printer
Cantu's edible paper flavours include birthday cake, candy floss, cheesecake, sushi, panini, and mojito. How does he do it? With a modified Canon i560 inkjet printer, which he calls his "food replicator" - think Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk generating a synthesised meal aboard the USS Enterprise. The print cartridges are filled with food-based ‘inks', including juiced carrots, tomatoes, and purple potatoes, and the paper tray contains edible sheets of soybean and potato starch. The backs of the printouts - normally used to put images onto birthday cakes - are flavoured by dipping them in a powder of dehydrated soy sauce, seaweed seasonings, squash, sugar, vegetables, or sour cream, and then they are frozen, baked, or fried. The printer generates versions of foods based on images downloaded from the Internet. Cantu might print an image of a cow that tastes like filet mignon or a copy of MC Escher's ‘Sky and Water' drawing with tastes reminiscent of the sea. "My goal with every course is to give you something you won't forget for the next ten years, and that starts with the edible menu," he says. Cantu won't reveal what he did to the printheads to have them print in vegetable juice, nor the exact ingredients in his colorful inks. The patent-pending status on many of his inventions makes their inner workings hush-hush, much to the chagrin of many eager onlookers. Boundaries do not contain Cantu, and he meets with his chefs weekly to conceive new and exciting creations. Other Cantu inventions include new utensils, which he hopes will change the way people eat, and his polymer cooking box, which allows food to continue cooking even after it is removed from a heat source.
When Cantu was a young child, he and his mother drove by a billboard featuring a cheeseburger. He turned to his mother and asked if he could eat the cheeseburger in the picture. After being told that the picture was not edible, Cantu wondered why. "I always had a fascination with pictures of food," he says. When he was 12, he took a job as a cook and restaurant attendant, mainly to earn money for buying remote-controlled aeroplanes and helicopters that he then took apart. After high school, Cantu attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, affiliated with Le Cordon Bleu Academy. He then worked in some of the top kitchens around the country, eventually talking his way into a job at Charlie Trotter's, a well-known restaurant in Chicago, where he became a sous-chef.
With mentors such as Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it's hardly surprising Cantu strives to break through technological barriers and stretch the imagination. John Gabrysiak, a Chicago-based marketing consultant and Moto regular, has made fine dining his favourite past-time. As one of the first Moto patrons, he sampled Cantu's edible paper creations when they were first unveiled. "The menus are always changing at Moto, and Chef Cantu is always trying to do something on the cutting edge of restaurant technology," Gabrysiak said. "You don't see edible paper or a laser in the kitchen at too many other restaurants." Gabrysiak has sampled the edible menu, as well as the paper candy floss and paper sushi. He was amazed at how the paper tasted just as the actual food item would. The first time he was presented with the edible menu, he had never seen anything like it. "It was fun to watch the reaction of other diners," he said. "I consumed every bite of my menu - after deciding what I wanted to eat." Given the right amount of time, Gabrysiak believes patrons will eat meals on paper from Chef Cantu that taste better than the actual food in many other restaurants.
Currently, Cantu is experimenting with liquid nitrogen, helium, superconductors, and a hand-held ion particle gun to make foods levitate, in an effort to create a magical dining experience. So far he has practised on salt and sugar, but hopes one day to make whole meals float before captivated diners. "I want to make food float or disappear and then reappear," Cantu said. "I want to make the utensils edible. I want to make the plates, table, and chairs edible too." Cantu also has plans for using his printing technology beyond Moto. He has already begun publicising it to advertisers. Soon you could be flipping through a magazine and come across an edible advertisement for a pizza delivery company. Or perhaps you'll pull out an ad that looks and tastes like Coca-Cola and fries and is made from the real ingredients of those products. He also intends investing in a 3D printer to make physical prototypes of his inventions. The 3D printer could function as a cooking device, creating silicone moulds for pill-sized dishes, flavoured like watermelon, bacon and eggs, or even beef bourguignon."With the 3D food printers, you could dissect into a food's core ingredients, hold those ingredients in cartridges, and then reformulate that in 3D," Cantu says. "If I was to do that with an apple, I'd have a direct copy of the fruit; even the best reverse engineers wouldn't be able to tell which one was the real apple." Cantu says the 3D printer, which would ultimately be user-programmable, will take more tinkering on his part before it's ready to go. But he foresees a possible real-world application in five years. "This technology would allow people to have food on demand and not have to wait for a good season or rely on the two per cent of farmers who produce all the foods," he says.
"Think about the implications of replacing a factory with a printer," he says. Chef Cantu envisions edible paper - a healthy and cheap alternative to traditional food - being delivered to starving people anywhere. "Nutrients and calories could be infused into the edible paper, which has an indefinite shelf life and is cheap to produce. A guy like Paul Allen could take this thing and wipe out world hunger if he wanted to," Cantu says. Printable food applications are endless, according to Cantu, and include dental products, pharmaceuticals, military, and space travel. Having polished off my freeze-dried biscotti and coffee, I couldn't wait to get home and share the story of my edible-paper dinner at Moto. In a few short years, we might find ourselves traipsing into our kitchen, turning on our 3D food printer, and printing out our favourite dinner, drink, or dessert without a second thought.