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Ⓒ Jason Wallis
Ⓒ Jason Wallis

The Secret to Homaro Cantu's Genius

Ⓒ Jason Wallis
Ⓒ Jason Wallis

Last week, the legendary chef Homaro Cantu took his own life. It’s a sad and familiar story of someone too talented leaving us too soon. At mental_floss, we were very much in awe of Cantu’s special breed of genius. And we were floored by his ambitions (one of the many things he expected to do was to use edible paper soaked with nutrients to end world hunger). Eight years ago we put him on our New Einsteins list for all the madcap inventing he was doing on and off the plate. He was one of the first interviews we ever landed (we had our pal Erik Vance report the story), and couldn’t have been nicer, giving his time to a little magazine from Birmingham. Just a few weeks ago, I was wondering about something he’d said in this interview—that he’d figured out a way to flip a gene that would turn tomato plants into organic nightlights, and I made a note to myself to schedule a follow-up. Unfortunately, we never got the chance. In light of Cantu’s passing, I thought it would be a good time to post this short interview. I remember reading Cantu's words and feeling inspired to tinker and invent and dream bigger. I’m hoping others will stumble into this interview and feel the same way.


 Jason Wallis

The Restless Chef

by Erik Vance

In the back of Homaro Cantu’s chic Chicago restaurant, Moto, hangs a Salvador Dalí poster that reads, “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”
It’s in the right place. With his penchant for cooking with lasers and liquid nitrogen, Chef Cantu has created one of the edgiest dining experiences in the country. On the Moto menu, you might find doughnut soup, flapjack popsicles, and, to drink, a glass of vanilla-bean smoke. “First we shock people, and then we awe them with the fact that this stuff is real food,” Cantu says. “If it doesn’t make you go, ‘Holy sh**, that was the greatest spaghetti I’ve ever eaten—and it looked like a cheeseburger!’ then it’s just not worth it.”
As a teenager in California, Cantu says he was on a one-way track to juvenile hall when a high-school science teacher got him hooked on science. A love for experimentation led to a passion for tinkering in the kitchen, which eventually evolved into his peculiar brand of high-tech gastronomy. Obsessed with new ideas, Cantu believes he is more inventor than chef. Indeed, he spends many waking hours on projects that have nothing to do with cooking, such as making tomatoes glow in the dark. Recently, mental_floss grabbed a few minutes on the phone with Cantu to ask him about his latest pursuits. In a dialect that’s one part California surfer and one part Chicago construction worker, he tends to throw ideas around one on top of the next. All them could be dismissed as hare-brained, except that most of them are proving remarkably successful.

Q: What is the worst thing you’ve ever created?
A: This thing called the Black Course. It was calamari with red sauce, but everything was pitch black. The ladies didn’t like it because after about five minutes, their lips and their teeth turned black. They’d be looking at their date and trying to be sexy, but they weren’t very sexy.

Q: You’ve been working with products from a company called American Anti-Gravity. What’s that about?
A: This guy created a particle gun that pumps out 40 watts of negative ions, which can levitate some objects. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘We’ve got to see if there are any edible products that we can electrify to make them float around!’ And that’s when I thought of salt. You can actually charge certain types of sodium chloride so that they store energy, which can be released on demand.

Q: So you had levitating salt floating around your restaurant?
A: Yeah. We were just shooting salt with this particle gun, and it bounced around. It was cool and novel, but how do you turn that into a product? Instead, it led me to this other invention I’m working on now that’s essentially going to turn every building in America into a net energy producer. It’s a motor that I’m hoping will create more energy in a building than the building consumes. I’ve got eight households in my neighborhood that use it, and they’re going to start cutting me checks for all the energy they’re saving.

Q: Why do you think there’s an energy crisis?
A: Because we’re over-thinking everything these days. I’ll give you one example. Tomatoes actually have a gene in them that can be switched on and off, enabling them to glow in the dark. And if a tomato can throw off 240 lumens, that’s equivalent to 10 LED lights. So you take your tomatoes and you put them in an upside-down planter and you grow them, and then they glow at night. I think the key to unlocking energy potential is looking at food as a means of dense energy storage. If you could take something that you can eat and use it to light your home, that’s a double whammy. When it’s ripe, it burns out and you eat it! Man, that’s how we’ve got to start thinking.

Q: How long do you work every day?
A: [loud, grinding, whirring sound] Until six o’clock.

Q: Hello? I think I’m losing you. Did you say you work regular hours?
A: Yeah. Sorry about that background noise [sound goes to a lower pitch]. That thing you heard right there is a motor I’m working on.

Q: The net energy producer?
A: No, this one’s a little different. It’s an internal combustion engine for a remote-controlled car that uses hydrogen gas to boost the car’s fuel economy by 60 percent. The hydrogen gas is extracted from falling water. I know that sounds weird, but any building can do it. Everyone in my neighborhood watches me come out here every day with this thing.

Q: [More grinding] Are you working on the motor as we speak?
A: Yeah, I just fired it up again.

Q: Do you do this often, or am I getting a treat?
A: I do it quite a bit, actually.

 Jason Wallis

Three Questions
1. What piece of advice has stuck with you?

Never be too good to listen. My first chef taught me that. I listen to everybody, including my dishwashers.

2. What would you have been if not a chef?

What I am right now—an inventor. I haven’t handled a single piece of food today, just so you know.

3. What is “genius”?

Doing unconventional things. Lock yourself in a room with two things and stare at them. Inspiration is everywhere, but you have to be willing to sit there and do what it takes to create the end result. 

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Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte
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The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]

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Kirill Ignatyev, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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Live Smarter
Why Some Cold Cuts Make Iridescent Meat Rainbows—and Why They're Still OK to Eat
Kirill Ignatyev, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Kirill Ignatyev, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

We eat with our eyes first, and sometimes what we see on our plate turns us off a meal altogether. Take so-called “meat rainbows”: They happen when a slice of deli meat takes on an iridescent shimmer reminiscent of an oil puddle in a parking lot—a.k.a. not something you want on your sandwich. Despite giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "mystery meat," the odd discoloration is perfectly safe to eat, as physicist Dave McCowan at the University of Chicago explained for The Takeout.

The colorful sheen on a slice of roast beef or pastrami isn’t a sign of spoilage or chemical additives—it’s actually a result of the way the meat is cut. Slicing meat “against the grain” means cutting through, rather than parallel to, the bundles of fibers composing the meat’s musculature. This makes for a more tender bite, and it also leaves a grid of evenly-spaced meat fibers. In the right light, this surface lends itself to something called “diffraction.”

Diffraction occurs when light hits a repeating pattern of nooks and crannies. As the white light bounces off the grooves in the meat, it separates into a spectrum of distinct colors. Some of these colors are amplified, creating a mother-of-pearl appearance when viewed together. This is the same effect we see on the backs of CDs and DVDs.

Another possible culprit behind your rainbow meat is thin-film interference. This is sometimes present in meat with a thin layer of oily fat on the surface. The film affects the light passing through it in such a way that only some of the colors in the spectrum come through, hence the rainbow. This phenomenon produces a sheen closer to that of bubbles or oil slicks than laser discs.

Why do meat rainbows only seem to show up in deli slices, not raw cuts? The answer lies in the curing process. A cured ham is likely greasier than a raw pork cutlet, which makes thin-film interference more likely. The muscle fibers in cured and cooked meats are also more tightly packed together, producing the rigid grid necessary for diffraction.

Color also plays a role. Iridescent shimmers are easier to spot on darker meats like beef and some pork—so if you’re eating a slice of turkey from the deli, it could be covered in meat rainbows you don’t notice. We’ll let you decide if that’s a positive thing.

[h/t The Takeout]

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