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Futuristic Food

Chefs at a Chicago restaurant are using technology to change the way people perceive and eat food.

by Laura Goodall and Sandrine Ceurstemont

Photo courtesy of Stephen Orlick and Homaro Cantu

No ordinary sushi: this sushi is made up of flavoured sheets printed out on an inkjet printer.

Using ink-jet printers and lasers in the kitchen may seem like a futuristic vision but at Moto restaurant in Chicago, it's already a reality. Its chefs, who are also engineers, are transforming the traditional dining experience by using inventive technology to create their food and to provide diners with an interactive, multi-sensory experience. Tired of steak and a plate of vegetables? The philosophy of the restaurant is to push the boundaries of known taste, texture and technique and to change the way that people perceive and eat food.

The brain behind the restaurant is 29-year-old executive chef Homaro Cantu . Also a self-taught engineer and inventor, he has filed many patent applications for dining items, cookware and edible surfaces. He uses Moto as his laboratory and is trying to help gastronomy catch up to advancements in technology.

Stove-top or printer?

Perhaps Cantu's greatest innovation at Moto is a modified Canon i560 inkjet printer (which he calls the "food replicator" in homage to Star Trek) that prints flavoured images onto edible paper. The print cartridges are filled with food-based "inks", including juiced carrots, tomatoes and purple potatoes, and the paper tray contains sheets of soybean and potato starch. The printouts are flavoured by dipping them in a powder of dehydrated soy sauce, squash, sugar, vegetables or sour cream, and then they are frozen, baked or fried.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Orlick and Homaro Cantu

The menu (on the lefthand side) which is printed out from an inkjet printer can be eaten once you're done with it.

The most common printed dish at Moto is the menu. It can literally whet your appetite by providing a taste test of what's on the menu: tear off and eat a picture of a cow and it will taste like filet mignon. Once you are done with your sampling, the menu can be torn up and thrown into a bowl of soup - but only once you've ordered your two-dimensional sushi which consists of photos of maki rolls sprinkled on the back with soy and seaweed flavouring.

Cantu will not divulge what he did to the printheads to have them print in vegetable juice, nor the exact ingredients in his colourful inks. But he does have plans for using this printing technology beyond Moto and has already started to publicise it to advertisers. Soon you could be flicking through a magazine and eating an advert for a pizza delivery company.

Creative cooking

Aside from using printers, Cantu is developing new ways of cooking food. He plans to buy a class IV laser, the type normally used in surgery or welding, to create "inside-out" food. By using the laser to burn a hole through a piece of meat, steaks will be seared in the centre and be more rare towards the edges. Bread can also be "baked" in this way, with crusts in the middle and soft dough outside.

But in addition to preparing food in unconventional ways, Cantu is thinking of innovative ways to make a trip to the restaurant a different experience. He takes his inspiration from experience design, which involves creating something with the process, rather than only the product, in mind. It concerns involving the "users" in the entire life cycle - for example having the food experience start from the time a person enters the restaurant until they take their last bite. Cantu is also focussed on combining purpose with aesthetics and tries to understand what makes other media successful. Perhaps what people enjoy from the theatre or using a web site can be incorporated into the experience of eating out.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Orlick and Homaro Cantu

A polymer box can cook your fish right on in front of you.

Interactivity is one element that Cantu is introducing in his restaurant and one way he is doing this is by having patrons participate in cooking their food. If you order one type of fish, the waiter will bring you a clear polymer box that can retain heat for hours on end. Boiling water and lemon is placed in the box along with the piece of fish, and the cube is then covered so that you can watch the fish as it bakes.

Cantu also plans to levitate an entire meal in front of diners using superconductors and handheld ion particle guns. So far, he has managed to use this technique to suspend salt and sugar in mid-air. Helium may also prove to be useful for floating lighter menu items. One dessert - created by filling a sphere with fruit juice and spinning it, while applying liquid nitrogen to form a thin, frozen shell - may be able to hang in front of diners if helium can be injected in the shell.

To turn his inventions into reality, Cantu works with a product development consultancy called Deep Labs. He relies on weekly design meetings with their aerospace and mechanical engineers to brainstorm the latest off-the-wall ideas. These ideas are not limited to just the food techniques, but also include Moto's restaurant d├ęcor, which he prefers to keep simple so that diners focus on the food.

By commercializing his inventions, Cantu hopes to make them useful to other sectors. He envisions that some utensils he has designed will be used for military meals and hopes that his experiments with food will lead to chance discoveries - perhaps he will discover food that can be created in cold temperatures and can grow on Pluto? Now that would truly be futuristic...

For more information:

Cantu Designs

Moto Restaurant

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First Science 2014