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Omnivorous: Backstage at Moto

A rare peek at the machinations (and machines) behind a Saturday-night service

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The Reader's first review of Moto (I didn't write it), published shortly after it opened in January 2004, always bugged me. Apparently I wasn't alone. Even back then it read like we were rejecting an invitation to play from the weird but possibly brilliant new kid on the block. A few years later another critic, Martha Bayne, filed a new, more positive review of Homaro Cantu's "full-immersion experience" in the "lunatic fringe of contemporary cooking," but the chef never forgot the first one.

"I didn't sleep for a week," he told me. That may be the most surprising thing I heard during a full day of surprises when I hung out recently in the restaurant's kitchen during prep and a good part of Saturday-night service. At least from his public persona, Cantu never struck me as someone who'd give a rat's ass about his critics. But if he felt vulnerable five years ago, he certainly doesn't have any reason to now: while I was there he and his crew cranked out something like 500 plates to a near-full house with barely a hitch, all the while cracking wise on their headsets and watching Super Mario Brothers videos projected on the kitchen wall.

I'd accepted the invitation of Moto's publicist, who was fishing around for a writer who wanted to work a shift in the famously secretive kitchen and live to tell about it. Cantu told me that because of that first review the Reader was probably one of the last publications he'd want taking notes over his shoulder, but he let me in anyway. Moto hosts one to three interns every week, professionals and amateurs alike, but they're required to sign nondisclosure agreements and reporters are rarely allowed in for long. Cantu told me, "I usually kick people out at five o'clock." I was allowed to stick around longer, and explained that an agreement not to disclose wouldn't really jibe with my job description.

On a recent Saturday afternoon Cantu reeled me down into his restaurant's basement kitchen and launched into one of the multitangent discourses on technology and the future of food that he's known for: the patents pending, the 3-D food replicator, permaculture versus agriculture, the decentralization of food, redirecting the energy given off by rising bread dough, and "a whole bunch of things I can't talk about." He did though, obliquely enough for most of them to go right over my head.

He was particularly pleased with his photo bioreactor, an aluminum rack holding four clear plastic bags filled with aerated green water set against a wall across from the dishwashing station. Currently they have little to do with the operation of the restaurant, but in them he's growing nannochloropsis—an algae typically used to grow zooplankton—feeding it waste and extracting its oil content. He said he's already used the stuff to power his toy remote controlled cars, but one day he imagines such a system biofueling self-contained ecosystems (like restaurants) to produce truly sustainable local food.

"It smells like pond scum," he admitted when I took a sniff.

Temporarily absent was the notorious class 4 laser used to blast aromatics and collect the scent in wineglasses. But an intern was performing the tedious and decidedly low-tech task of plucking individual fennel fronds, line cooks were bustling among stations, muttering warnings to the others—"hot," "behind you," "corner"—and chef de cuisine Chris Jones was working on a dish for a future menu, a riff on Moons Over My Hammy at Denny's that featured saffron-butter-filled ravioli made from a protein-binder-manipulated scallop fused with a piece of house-cured pork belly. In short it's a kitchen operating mostly on the same organizational fundamentals as any other fine-dining galley.

Cantu wasn't going to babysit me all night and he excused himself, taking his staff meal into the kitchen's "secret location" behind a locked door, the one place I was forbidden to enter. An assistant pastry chef put me to work assembling spiced sponge cake and sous vide gala apples in pastry rings for one of Ben Roche's dessert courses, and then I dipped brown-butter-popcorn-flavored packing peanuts in white chocolate for a mignardise. Things were heating up, so after that I just tried to stay out of the way.

At 4:15 general manager Matt Gundlach called the staff meeting and ran down some of the customers' dietary restrictions: one vegan, a couple of vegetarians, a peanut-oil allergy. One table didn't drink alcohol. Then at five o'clock as the night's first three tables arrived, the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night" came on over the sound system, the lights went down, and the projection on the wall turned into "The Matrix," a digital restaurant management and expediting system Cantu's been developing for years; he says it eliminates about $7,000 worth of paper and printer expenses annually. When it's completed he wants to offer it as open-source software to independent restaurants. Chains would have to pay a fee. Till then he's keeping it under wraps, and I agreed not to reveal too many details.

According to Roche, things became a lot more relaxed in the kitchen when they started relying on the Matrix. Aside from its practical uses, it allows them to access the Internet during lulls and watch YouTube videos, like UFO news reports and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer losing his marbles at a company presentation. Lately, Roche said, they'd been watching Gordon Ramsay screaming at people. "Me and Omar used to work at Charlie Trotter's. So we like to make fun of those guys. Who does that anymore?"

Around 6 PM Cantu and Roche were igniting an edible birthday candle in the microwave under an overturned heat-resistant beaker, capturing bright rising spheres of electrified fire that quickly snuffed themselves out on the roof of the glass. Around seven a Karate Kid video montage set to Joe Esposito's "You're the Best Around" was projected up on the wall, and Roche was experimenting with a dessert for the following week, an Acme S'more Bomb, a perfect sphere of crispy chocolate encasing a graham cracker puree, ignited by one of the edible wicks. Cantu was over on the hot line telling a line cook how to do the crab cakes plated alongside a passion-fruit-coconut fried egg. "Dude, make sure those look like Jimmy Dean."

As the dining room filled and orders rushed in, the videos stopped and the experiments were put aside. A pair of diners finished their meal and were invited downstairs for a peek at the kitchen. The Matrix went dark and Jones borrowed a line cook's handheld laser (for temperature measuring), aiming it through the murk at Cantu as the couple gawked and grinned. The chef gave them the thumbs-up and muttered into his headset, "OK, time to go now." And a little bit later it was time for me too.v

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