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The life and death of Homaro Cantu, the genius chef who wanted to change the world

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Kieran Morris writes in the Guardian:

Between 2004 and 2016, the most inventive food on the planet, possibly in history, came out of a small restaurant in downtown Chicago. At Moto, your first course was your menu itself, which was typically printed in edible ink on a giant tortilla chip. When you finished your menu, you would be handed what looked like a Polaroid of a maki roll. The photograph was made of rice paper and coated in a dust of nori seaweed and soy sauce. It tasted the only way it could: like sesame, avocado, cucumber and crab sticks.

Next to emerge would be a tumbler containing butter-poached lobster tail resting on a spoon, with creme fraiche, trout roe and carbonated grapes that would fizz in your mouth like soda. After that, a plate apparently splattered with roadkill would arrive. If you balked at the sight of the gore and guts, that was just what the chefs wanted. The dish was designed to look repulsive but taste delicious. The gristle was made from confit duck and the blood from juniper berry sauce. Thank God for that.

You were being pushed and pulled about. Your ice-cream would be piping hot; your caramel apple would be made from pork belly; your table candle would be poured all over your clam bake. You were eating the food of chef Homaro Cantu and normal rules no longer applied.

Cantu wanted to change what it meant to go to a restaurant – to reimagine how you were served, how you interacted with food, what could and could not be eaten. “I want to make food float,” Cantu told the New York Times in 2005. “I want to make it disappear, I want to make it reappear, I want to make the utensils edible, I want to make the plates, the table, the chairs, edible.” A large photograph of Salvador Dalí hung over the stairwell leading down to Moto’s basement kitchen. Printed on it was a quote: “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”

Since its birth in the late 19th century, haute cuisine has had little impact on what most of the planet eats. The greatest advances in cooking and taste barely trickle out from the 40-seat dining rooms of the world’s top restaurants, let alone make an impact upon the human relationship with food. Ferran Adriá’s El Bulli, one of the most acclaimed restaurants ever, once boasted 2m reservation requests a year, with a waiting list of 3,000 people per seat. But the cacophony of powders, foams and tinctures that issued from his Catalan kitchen were enjoyed by no more than 100,000 people before the restaurant closed in 2011.

By contrast, Cantu’s project was about more than elevating haute cuisine to ever-higher levels or garnering Michelin stars (though he did win one, in 2012). His ambitions extended far beyond the walls of his restaurant: he wanted to eradicate hunger, eliminate diseases such as type 2 diabetes and save the planet. He was a compulsive inventor, dreaming up new technologies as well as new dishes. One of his big ideas was to eliminate cardboard and plastic packaging for juice drinks by blasting fruit with an ultrasonic wave generator. By bursting a fruit’s cells while keeping its skin intact, he hoped it might be possible for people to drink an orange, say, like a coconut. Another of his creations was a transparent polymer oven (US patent no 11118955) that could cook with minimal power by trapping heat. Cantu believed this oven had the potential to reduce energy consumption and enable people to cook in areas with restricted power supplies.

“He just disgorges inventions,” Cantu’s patent lawyer, Chuck Valauskas, once said. By 2016, Cantu and his companies had at least four concept patents, with scores more in the works, tucked away somewhere in his garage or kitchen lab. Part of what made these inventions so remarkable was that Cantu was a self-taught high-school dropout. He learned much of what he knew by tinkering tirelessly in the kitchen and reading voraciously when off-duty, sleeping only three or four hours a night (something he put down to lack of oversight as a child).

Many of Cantu’s ideas were quixotic at best, or beset by problems that meant they eventually ended up discarded. But others were potentially transformative. “Nobody understood how influential, or how radical, or how far out there the stuff we were doing was,” one of Moto’s former chefs de cuisine, Richie Farina, told me. Since Moto closed, several of Cantu’s biggest ideas, and much of his experimental ethos, have moved to Silicon Valley, where Farina and six of Cantu’s former staff, backed by the strength of California capital, are developing vegetarian replications of meat and eggs, so that animals can be removed from the human diet.

Cantu himself is not around to lead the projects he inspired. In April 2015, six months after submitting the first draft of Moto: the Cookbook, he killed himself. He was just 38. The book he left behind is perhaps the fullest expression of his philosophy. Characteristically, Cantu wanted to create something new – a cookbook that would include 100 stop-motion recipe videos. Each of these recipes would have a code you could scan with your phone: once you scanned it, a stop-motion video would appear, showing the dish being assembled. “A restaurant cookbook, typically, is just a faded memory of something that once was,” the book’s editor, Michael Szczerban, told me. “It kills the butterfly and mounts it. He wanted a book that wasn’t fossilised, and still lived.”

Although Cantu is gone, the revolution he began endures. Since his death, his ideas have become increasingly influential and if his proteges in Silicon Valley succeed, then Cantu might one day be known as the chef who helped change the way we all eat.


Cantu, known to his friends as Omar, often said that his desire to do something radical with food came from growing up poor. Born in 1976 and raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, he was a quiet child who floated between apartments and homeless shelters with his sister and mother, who was often absent. “I don’t know if she was working or doing drugs. I was too young and naive to tell,” Cantu wrote many years later in a Facebook post describing the beatings and abuse he received as a young boy. “Our neighborhood was filled with gangs, drugs and violence,” he wrote. “As long as I didn’t get into fights, my teacher could give a shit why I came to school in tears.” Cantu’s widow, Katie McGowan, with whom he had two daughters, told me that her husband hoped to “use his platform for social change” and eradicate the hunger and suffering that he had experienced in his childhood.

When he was 11, Cantu moved to the Bay Area to live with his father, who made him pay rent to sleep in an outhouse on his small property. His first job, when he was about 13 – he had to lie about his age to get it – was in a fried-chicken shack. “The food was awful,” he wrote, but he was enraptured by the restaurant’s tandoor. It was cooking at its most elemental, with the chef as nothing more than the mediator between food and fire.

He also worked as a floor-sweeper at his father’s workplace, a factory that developed high-tech parts for the aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin. At his jobs he “watched and learned between the cooking and the machinery”, absorbing lessons about craft, precision, and mechanics, Cantu said in an interview in 2011. He would often talk about how, as a kid, he had taken apart and rebuilt his father’s lawnmower to understand how a combustion engine functioned.

In 1991, after dropping out of high school, Cantu was offered free bed and board by Bill and Jan Miller, a Portland couple who offered help to teenagers in need of support. Encouraged by the Millers, who became like family to Cantu, he enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. After culinary school, he spent the next few years travelling up and down the Pacific Northwest, working for next to nothing in dozens of restaurants, from fancy establishments such as Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills to a Burger King in Orange County.

One day, during this period, while he was tripping on magic mushrooms, Cantu came across a copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, the foundational text of molecular gastronomy, a style of cooking that promised to fuse postmodern art with intricate scientific experimentation. The book was a revelation to Cantu, and from then on, he began devouring books and new influences. From the 19th-century French gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Cantu took the idea that just as food sustains our physical existence, taste sustains our psychological existence. Enchanted by MC Escher, Dalí and Van Gogh, Cantu resolved to infuse the ideas of great artists into his cooking. At Moto – named after a Japanese word that can mean anything from “idea” to “desire” to “origin” – he would go on to create a dish of duck and skate wing emulating Escher’s tessellated woodcut Sky and Water I. It was accompanied by an edible image that would change tastes – from duck to fish – as you chomped your way through it.

Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was the legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, whose cookbook Cantu had cherished at college. Trotter, who died in 2013, was besotted with jazz and philosophy and sought to bring relentless improvisation to his cooking, trying never to serve the same dish twice. As a boss, he was notoriously demanding and volatile. For every anecdote of Trotter’s brilliance and exactitude – many former employees went on to win Michelin stars – there were dozens more accounts of the brutal culture he fostered. Employees at the restaurant were expected to give, give and give again, with 16-hour shifts considered normal.

Resolving to learn at his master’s feet, Cantu flew to Chicago in 1999 and headed to Trotter’s restaurant, where he begged Matthias Merges, the long-term chef de cuisine, to hire him. Eventually Merges gave in. “I needed a guy to show me how to kick ass in a no-holds-barred kitchen with nothing but hall-of-fucking-famers on every station. That’s what it was,” Cantu recalled in a Facebook post years later.

“It was intense, it was unforgiving,” Merges told me. “Most people who couldn’t take that kind of pressure in that environment usually weaned themselves out after 10-12 months.” But Cantu relished the hothouse atmosphere. If one of the restaurant’s senior chefs joked that Cantu should shell peas after work until 4am while watching the Discovery Channel, he took it as a challenge. “No matter what they piled on, I did it,” Cantu wrote.

Cantu lasted four years at Trotter’s, ascending the ranks to become sous chef, the second-highest position in the kitchen, at one of the most daring and decadent restaurants ever to have opened its doors to the public. He was 26 years old. In 2003, Cantu applied to be executive chef at Ima, a yet-to-open Asian fusion restaurant in Chicago. After laying on an intricate tasting dinner for the investors, including fish cooked tableside in his polymer oven, Cantu convinced them to not only to hand him the role, but also the creative reins. He also suggested another name for the restaurant: Moto.


Setting up a new restaurant was a very different business to working at an established institution. Money was tight, access to the city’s finest suppliers was gone. Moto was the first restaurant in Chicago’s now-bustling West Loop meatpacking district, and each night, before service could begin, staff had to hose down the street outside to stop the smell of pig blood wafting in through the windows. Ben Roche, who joined Moto early on, told me that the restaurant started out “super low-budget: broken brick walls, plumbing that didn’t work, and shit ovens,” that initially gave the kitchen the feel of a torture chamber.

In its early days, many customers, mistaking Moto for a sushi bar, were bewildered when they were presented with a 20-course degustation menu. Cantu’s solution was to hand them the edible polaroid of the maki roll. This was just the start of Cantu’s joyously bizarre innovations. He was obsessed with the seemingly infinite forms a single taste could assume. A pork sandwich, say, did not have to look like a pork sandwich. For the Moto dish Cuban Missile Crisis, the constituents of a Cuban pork sandwich – bolillo bread, pork shoulder, pickles – were flattened out, rolled up, fried and wrapped in a collard green. The end was then dipped in red pepper puree, rolled in an “ash” made of spices and placed in a $2 ashtray, looking for all the world like a Bolivar no 2 cigar.

Moto’s most characteristic dishes were all, in some way or other, bound to this mischievous method, from the Cuban cigar to the duck and mole cannoli that looked Sicilian but tasted Mexican. “We wanted people to leave the restaurant wondering ‘How?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘What the hell was that?’” Trevor Niekowal, who worked at Moto from 2005 to 2007, told me. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 April 2018 at 6:57 pm

Posted in Art, Business, Food, Science

Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch Case for Neandertal Symbolism

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Our predecessors were more sophisticated than is commonly supposed, including (apparently) having a religion.

Kate Wong reports in Scientific American:

Once upon a time, in the dim recesses of a cave in what is now northern Spain, an artist carefully applied red paint to the cave wall to create a geometric design—a ladder-shaped symbol composed of vertical and horizontal lines. In another cave hundreds of kilometers to the southwest, another artist pressed a hand to the wall and blew red paint around the fingers to create a stenciled handprint, working by the flickering firelight of a torch or oil lamp in the otherwise pitch darkness. In a third cave, located in the far south, curtainlike calcite formations were decorated in shades of scarlet.

Though nothing of the artists themselves remains to establish their identity, archaeologists have long assumed that cave painting was the sole purview of Homo sapiens. Another group of large-brained humans, the Neandertals, lived in the right time and place to be the creators of some of the cave art in Europe. But only H. sapiens had the cognitive sophistication needed to develop symbolic behavior, including art. Or so many experts thought.

Now, dates obtained for the images in these three Spanish caves could put that enduring notion to rest. In a paper published this week in Science, researchers report that some of the images are far older than the earliest known fossils of H. sapiens in Europe, implying that they must have instead been created by Neandertals. The findings open a new window into the minds of these oft-maligned cousins of ours. They also raise key questions about the origin of symbolic thought, and what, exactly, distinguishes H. sapiens from other members of the human family.

The dating results come as a vindication long in the making for Neandertals, who have had an image problem ever since the early 1900s, when French paleontologist Marcellin Boule famously reconstructed a Neandertal skeleton from the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France as an apelike brute. In the decades that followed, scientists discovered that Neandertals were much more like us physically than Boule had surmised. They also found that Neandertals and H. sapiens made the same kinds of stone tools for millennia. But the bad rap stuck.

For a long time arguably the most significant point of distinction between Neandertals and modern humans seemed to be that Neandertals did not make or use symbols. Whereas H. sapiens left behind jewelry, sculptures and cave paintings—all products of symbolic thought—no such items could be unequivocally attributed to Neandertals. In recent years, however, evidence for Neandertal symbolic behavior has been accumulating from sites throughout Europe. In Gibraltar a Neandertal engraved a hashtag symbol in the bedrock of a cave. In Croatia, Neandertals harvested eagle talons and made them into necklaces. At sites in Gibraltar and Italy Neandertals hunted birds for their feathers, perhaps to wear as ceremonial headdresses and capes. In Spain, Neandertals made shell jewelry and mixed sparkly paint that they may have used as a kind of cosmetic. In a cave in France, Neandertals erected semicircular walls of stalactites, possibly for some ritual purpose. The list goes on.

Still, a key form of symbolic expression appeared to be missing from the Neandertal repertoire: rock art. The spectacular cave paintings of woolly rhinos, mammoths and other Ice Age animals at famous sites such as Chauvet and Lascaux in France, among other examples, were all linked to early modern humans. In the absence of any unambiguous evidence to the contrary, scientists assumed that all cave paintings everywhere were likewise the handiwork of H. sapiens.

But in 2012 researchers led by archaeologist Alistair Pike, now at the University of Southampton in England, made a discovery that challenged this assumption.  . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2018 at 11:18 am

Posted in Art, Evolution, Memes, Science

The good guy/bad guy myth

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Catheine Nichols writes in Aeon:

The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do. Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Eddahad personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairytales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 January 2018 at 9:10 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

John Portman, Architect Who Made Skylines Soar, Dies at 93

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Robert McFadden writes in the NY Times:

John Portman, the architect and developer who revolutionized hotel designs with soaring futuristic atriums, built commercial towers that revitalized the downtowns of decaying postwar American cities and transformed Asian skylines from Shanghai to Mumbai, died on Friday in Atlanta. He was 93.

Mr. Portman’s family announced his death. No cause was given.

One of the world’s best-known and most influential architects, Mr. Portman, over a half-century, redefined urban landscapes in the United States. He built the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the Renaissance Center in Detroit and scores of hotel, office and retail complexes in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Fort Worth, San Diego and other cities.

His buildings often evoked oohs and aahs from the public, but were not always a hit with critics, who called them concrete islands, self-contained cities within cities — serving their patrons yet insular, even forbidding to outsiders. But by combining architectural talents with the savvy of a real estate entrepreneur, Mr. Portman was hugely successful and a rarity among contemporaries: both an artist and a tough businessman.

In the 1960s and ’70s, his signature hotels — skyscrapers with escarpment atriums, cantilevered balconies overlooking interiors big enough to contain the Statue of Liberty, whooshing glass elevators, waterfalls, hanging gardens and revolving rooftop restaurants — offered thrilling antidotes to the standard lot of dreary hotel lobbies, claustrophobic box elevators and shotgun corridors lined with cells for the inmates. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

30 December 2017 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Art, Business, Daily life, Memes

How far can you generalize “homonym”?

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The sound produced by reading, “The s-[long o sound]-l is h-[long o sound]” aloud. It has two meanings, as you see—one good, one bad.

I came to the thought because I am reading the Richard Stark “Parker” novels, and just started the first one published, “The Hunter.” Early on there’s something that triggered the thought. But then I started thing about what that is and trying to think of other examples. —[ Aha! Here it is: “His shoes and socks were both black and both holey. The shoes were holey on the bottom [thus bringing in “s-[long o sound]-l”)), the socks were holey at heel and toe.” I got to thinking about holey/holy, and in the context sole/soul came right along.]

It’s just a generalization of a homonym— a phase instead of a word having two meanings.

So I wondered how far you could take it, and thought of great literature—Shakespeare, for example: He writes plays in which speeches, characters, and meaning can be read many ways (see this fascinating article (PDF)). So it’s sort of the next level of generalization/abstraction. I suppose the ultimate generalization of this kind of ambiguity is life, since each person has his or her own reading of their experience/life.

And for the icing on that particular cake:

Written by LeisureGuy

22 December 2017 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Endlessly zooming art

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Jason Kottke explains what’s behind this video:

Written by LeisureGuy

19 December 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Art, Technology, Video

The Not Yorker: New Yorker cover designs that didn’t make it (but still are good)

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Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2017 at 7:24 am

Posted in Art

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