How Cantu learned to noodle
Science couldn’t help the chef learn a traditional Chinese technique.
Homaro Cantu wanted to make noodles. Not just any noodles, but Chinese la mian, made from wheat dough that is stretched and pulled by hand until the unassuming blob turns into a symphony’s worth of strings. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, a rhythmic technique that appears effortless. But it’s not easy, and it’s not something you learn in American culinary school. So Cantu did some online hunting for the best fresh noodles in Chicagoland, and when all signs pointed to Katy’s Dumpling House, he hopped in his car and headed to Westmont, $500 cash in hand.
“I showed up and was just like, ‘I want to watch you make noodles, and I’ll give you this money to do it,’ ” Cantu recalls. “But I don’t speak their language, they don’t really speak English, and they were a little skeptical. They took down my number and said they would call me…. They never did.”
Shut out from the go-to source, Cantu turned to YouTube, straining to make out the details in grainy, badly lit videos showing champion noodle-pullers yielding 8,000 strands out of one ball of dough. For yet another lesson, Cantu trekked to Chinatown and stood outside Hing Kee, where chef Chang Ming Lie pulls noodles in the window. It took Cantu and his cook Michael Burke six months of mimicking these masters to complete one successful batch of noodles. “There are some techniques that are timeless and that’s one of them,” Cantu says. “I don’t care how much equipment you have, you just can’t make it any other way than by hand. Sure a lot of science goes into it, but at the end of the day it’s an art, not a formula.”