Irons in the fire
Homaro Cantu has taken on science and food critics and has his eye on world hunger. But what happens when he goes toe to toe with Iron Chef Morimoto? We went behind the scenes for our hometown chef's Kitchen Stadium debut.
“Get that thing away from me!”Homaro Cantu has made the two-hour trip from Chicago to New York to take on Iron Chef America’s Masaharu Morimoto. But right now, his biggest opponent in the Food Network’s Kitchen Stadium is the makeup artist. Chef Cantu may be impervious to criticism of his restaurant-cum-science-lab Moto, but he’s deathly allergic to makeup and is holding off the studio’s shine-stopper with conviction.
In the past two years, since opening Moto in Chicago’s meatpacking district, Cantu has been written about in every publication from The New York Times to Fast Money. The articles can’t resist commenting on the restaurant’s lab coat–clad servers instructing diners to dispense liquid-filled syringes into their bowls or avoid touching the “polymer compound box” that’s cooking a piece of fish atop the table while they eat. His gadgets and gimmicks have earned Cantu plenty of ink, if not respect, and happen to be the perfect props for great television, especially for the lightning-speed theatrics of Iron Chef America.
But turning Moto into a traveling road show is no small feat. Along with his two assistants, Ben Roche and Daryl Nemeth, Cantu has brought 16 boxes of equipment and supplies with him, with the airline tacking on a $75 charge per box. As for the liquid-nitrogen tank that towers over the two crew men positioning it in Kitchen Stadium, “that would have been a bit of a flight risk for us to bring ours,” Cantu says. “So we settled for having one delivered.”
Both the challenger and the Iron Chef submit an ingredient request to the show’s producers a couple of weeks before the taping, and while Cantu’s grocery list was fairly common (lemongrass, fennel, bacon), his disclosure sheet of items he would be bringing himself included “dried saifun noodles, malic acid, citric acid and Styrofoam packing peanuts.” A half hour before the battle is scheduled to begin, Roche and Nemeth nervously chatter while double-checking their kitchen to ensure that all ingredients are in place. Clad in Kermit-green shirts, matching chef pants and clogs, and wearing LED screens across their chests that flash WATCH THIS and RAGE + HUMILITY + RESPECT = MY TEAM, they, along with Cantu, look like they’ve stumbled into the wrong studio, having mistaken it for tryouts for a Blue Man Group spin-off.
Cameras roll as Cantu tapes the show’s intro, with the chef accepting the challenge from “chairman” Mark Dacascos. Introduced as the nephew of the Japanese Iron Chef Chairman Takeshi Kaga, Dacascos is really a Hawaiian actor and martial-arts expert. He’s also apparently a fan of those facial stretches and vocal warm-ups used by awaiting candidates on American Idol.
Across the studio, nestled into an elevated command center of sorts, host Alton Brown shuffles papers around and checks the half-dozen or so reference sites he keeps on hand on three different laptops. He hops down to walk over to Cantu’s station and inspects the display of unrecognizable equipment. “This is the class-four laser, huh?” he hollers to no one in particular. “And this thing?” A sous chef responds, “Uh, that’s a food replicator.” “A what?” Brown shoots back. “Never mind,” Brown says. “Fine, fine, we’ll see.”
A set manager shoos everyone away from the kitchen to prepare for the ingredient reveal. Team Cantu was told prior to the trip that it would be working with either beef, caviar or beets, and the trio not only held six mock battles with those ingredients in the Moto kitchen, but the guys requested a Kitchen Stadium floor plan and reconfigured theirs to match identically. In the last two days, they have watched three battles from the small audience section of the studio, which Cantu says helps, but “is really just all Martian until we get in there and start doing it ourselves.”
Dacascos takes his place a few steps above the secret-ingredient table, which is hidden under a shiny cloak of steel. With the swoop of his arm and a cry of “BEETS!” the lid is lifted, a few puffs of smoke rise, and a pile of golden, red and candystripe beets await the chefs. Team Cantu seems relieved—Roche comments, “Thank God, something I can make dessert with”—while Morimoto and his crew slowly make their way to their kitchen, confident and deliberate. Cantu asks a production assistant for three double espressos and says to his team, “Concentrate on what you came to do, not TV stuff.”
A producer yells over the intercom, “Okay, now you’ll go at it, 60 minutes people.” A countdown, a call for action, and the battle begins with chefs grabbing armfuls of beets from the table and hustling back to their station. Cantu immediately starts juicing the fat red globes with balsamic, cream and red bell peppers, while Morimoto turns his attention to toro, speed-slicing glistening fatty tuna before pounding it to a near-pulp along with baby shrimp. Floor reporter Kevin Brauch peppers the chefs with questions (through an interpreter for Morimoto) and takes slips of paper from black-clad crew members whose sole job is to get details on what each team is working on while staying out of the line of the camera. Via headsets, tidbits like “that’s yuzu juice he’s using” and “the fish is actually hapu, a Hawaiian grouper” are transmitted up to the production booth and also to Brown, who is simultaneously pulling up ambient temperatures for liquid nitrogen, the name of “that gosh darn sushi box,” doing temperature conversions on Morimoto’s immersion circulator, looking up botanical info on beets, and cross-referencing an ingredient PowerPoint presentation complete with photos.
“Welcome to the 21st century, folks,” Brown calls out, watching as cameras zoom in on Cantu as he injects the beet juice into balloons, inflates them with nitrogen gas and then rolls them, barehanded, in a bath of liquid nitrogen to create a frozen, hollow, beet sphere. A few feet away, Morimoto uses some of his beet juice to tie-dye napkins. Cantu fires up a mini blowtorch to melt the rubber balloon shell from its interior sphere; Morimoto grates wasabi root. Cantu uses a 2,800-degree laser to burn tiny holes through wonton paper; Morimoto makes tumiki block sushi. Brown shakes his head and laughs, commenting, “There is no commonality here whatsoever other than the secret ingredient.”
The battle continues, filmed in real time, for 60 minutes. Nearing the end, the Moto crew uses a tripod-outfitted digital camera to take a photo of itself toasting wine glasses filled with horchata, the nonalcoholic Mexican rice drink. After the camera flashes, the image is sent to an adjacent printer and Cantu pours the remaining horchata into his “patent-pending food simulator,” where it’s instantly turned into edible horchata paper. The paper is fed into the printer and the image of the team is then printed on the horchata paper. An intercom call of “three minutes left” jars the floor crew, Brown and Brauch out of a momentary stunned silence while a cry of “Oh my God” comes from Morimoto. Time is called and the battle has ended.
Having won the coin toss, team Cantu plates its creations first, sending three of each of its five dishes to the judges (food writers Jeffrey Steingarten, Melissa Clark and Naomi Moriyama), one to the chairman and one to be carted off for beauty shots. During Morimoto’s turn, the three Chicago chefs, amped up on adrenaline, march through the back hallways of Food Network’s studios at Chelsea Market, take the freight elevator to a loading dock and share a cigarette. Cantu starts talking excitedly about his company, Cantu Designs. His mouth can barely keep up with his spiel. “We’re licensing technology to NASA, the Department of Defense, Fortune 500 food companies, basically anybody that’s got a lot of money,” he says. “I’m creating food that you can download and print out on Mars. My ultimate goal is to stamp out world hunger with printers. Let’s say for people who are starving in Uganda, you serve them a wildebeest-flavored piece of paper that has dental care, pharmaceuticals, nutrients, carbs, everything on it. No one has ever done this and we’re going to make it happen. The captain of the international space station is…” He’s cut off when someone from the studio radios down to their escort that the judges have made their decision. Cantu stomps out his cigarette and runs his fingers through his hair while turning to head back. Makeup or not, he’s ready for his close-up.
Find out who reigns supreme when “Cantu vs. Morimoto” airs on Food Network Sunday 21 at 9pm and midnight.