Homaro Cantu, Chicago Chef, Dishes On Pizza, Elvis And How Science Can Solve Our Food Problems

02/13/2013 05:29 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2013

Homaro Cantu swears he sleeps, though it's hard to image when exactly that happens.

In addition to overseeing his two restaurants — Moto and iNG — the unbelievably busy Chicagoan has been adding author, web series host and entrepreneur to a long resume that already includes inventor and executive chef.

Much of Cantu's work in the last eight years has been dedicated to figuring out just how to harness the potential of the West African "Miracle Berry." After learning the berry changes the way human taste buds perceive sweet and sour, Cantu experimented with it in attempts to make food more palatable for a friend whose taste was affected by chemotherapy.

Learning the berry could "trick" his tastebuds into perceiving a better flavor, Cantu saw more than just culinary sleight-of-hand: the berry was a way to solve food problems like famine, obesity and sustainability.

"A food's value is based on how good it tastes," Cantu explains. "By using the miracle berry to change the taste of bushes or roots or something widely available and making those things palatable, you can solve hunger. You can eat less sugar because [with the berry] a lemon tastes like candy."

When Cantu isn't busy with everything else, he's inventing products that have been used by NASA, Whirlpool and others. Cantu recently invited HuffPost Chicago to his kitchen labs to peek around and learn more about his Chicago:

What is your age? What is your occupation? 36. Executive chef and owner of Moto restaurant, chef and creator of iNG restaurant, chairman and founder, Cantu Designs.

Where in the city do you live and how long have you lived there? I live in Old Irving Park and I've been there for 10 years.

What was your first job in Chicago? Charlie Trotter's.

After I got this job at Atwater's in Portland, Oregon, the chef there, he actually worked for Charlie Trotter before he opened Charlie Trotter's, he said "I got this book I want to give you; it's this guy doing really groundbreaking stuff in Chicago." It's Charlie Trotter's first book. He said "You remind me of this guy. Maybe one day you'll be able to eat there" or something.

So I made it my life's goal to become a Sous Chef for Charlie Trotter. I literally just flew out here one day with $300 in my pocket and no place to stay, and I knocked on the back door [of Charlie Trotter's] and got a job.

I knocked on the back door and Matthias Merges, who's now at Yusho, he answered it. I said, "Look, I flew out here from California just to work here, and I'll work for free." And that was my schtick: I'll work for free. And of course they're not going to do that, so they give you a two-day tryout and on the second day, I met Charlie.

Now here's a crazy story: I met Charlie three years before at UCLA when he was doing a book signing. There were maybe 500 people there. I'm one of 500 people in this crowd. I walk up there and I say, "Hey, do you know any other purple foods other than purple potatoes." And he's like, "Well, there's purple cabbage, purple carrots, purple this, purple that." It was like a 10-second moment, and he probably has 50 people in line. I meet him on the second day of the tryout and he said, "You were the guy who asked me about purple foods. You were there with your buddy, Rob."

And I was like, "Holy shit! This guy is like a file cabinet."

I told him I showed up to work for him and he said, "Did you call?" He likes to screw with people. He said, "Next time, you should call first."

"I told him that I showed up and would work for free and I want to be his Sous Chef." He told me, "Well, that remains to be seen. But you have a job to do now."

He said I could go downstairs if I wanted to work. It meant I got the job and I stayed there four and a half years.

Interview continues below the slideshow.

Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto and iNG

Which Chicago "celebrity" -- living or dead, real or fictional -- would you have over for dinner? What would you talk about? Ryne Sandberg, he was a second baseman for the Cubs back in the day. [I'd talk about] why I didn't make it in the Big Leagues. I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid. I'd want to know where I screwed up!

Where is your favorite place for a nightcap? I like to go to [points across the street from Moto] — this place. It's pretty cool, La Sirena Clandestina. Just because it's right there ... and time is of the essence.

Where is your favorite place to grab a hangover brunch? For brunch I like to go to Over Easy. They do a really good breakfast. They take it to another level. Or, I also like Jam restaurant.

What are your go-to spots when you have visitors in town? Burt's Pizza [ed. note: the name is officially Burt's Place, in Morton Grove], Freddy's Deli in Cicero and Bread & Wine.

What is the last cultural event you saw in the city? What'd you think? I saw "Million Dollar Quartet." Have you seen it? It's mind-blowing. Absolutely mind-blowing. I never knew the story of Sun Records. It was how Elvis, Johnny Cash and all these guys really did record at the same studio at one point — and the talent they have in this thing? It's amazing. I've never seen a play where they take music and acting to that level.

If you had to have your last Chicago meal for some tragic reason, where and what would it be? Burt's Pizza. You gotta check it out. He's the guy that invented Chicago pizza. He's 82 years old? He's going to die any day now, but he invented it back in the '60s, and his name is Burt Katz. He makes the best fucking pizza ever. He makes his own fresh dough, he goes to the market every morning and he makes his own tomato sauce and you can taste it. The dude is a legend. If it wasn't for him, we'd be eating New York [style] pizza.

[HuffPost Chicago pointed out there are several others who lay claim to creating Chicago-style pizza. Cantu's response: "You know, I look at it this way: if they did, they'd have the best pizza."]

You should go to Burt's, it is the best pizza ever. It's so good. And it's one of the reasons I picked Chicago: because I'm a pizza junkie. Wherever I fly, I go to the best pizza places in the city, and Burt's is the best.

Cubs or Sox? I don't know — I don't care who's playing.

Wicker Park, 1993 or Wicker Park, 2013? I wasn't there in '93, so I don't know. I guess 2013?

Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago-style pizza or Chicago-style politics? Pizza. I mean, why would you like a Chicago-style hot dog? It's like eating a salad.

What advice would you give to a new Chicago transplant? Buy a lot of clothes for the winter. And get a place with a cheap heating bill. Cheap electricity — make sure it's all-inclusive.

What do you miss most when you're not in Chicago? I miss my neighborhood spots. Smoque Barbecue. I live up there and I think it's the best barbecue in the country. And just going to Bread & Wine. Our whole neighborhood goes up there. I do like going to Publican Quality Meats for a lunch or something.

I like going out in other cities, but it's always a gamble. Here, I know these places are going to be good.

If you could change just one thing about our fair city what would it be? The weather.

Describe Chicago in one word. Comforting.

In 1951's "Chicago: City on the Make," Nelson Algren wrote: "Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." Through My Chicago, HuffPost is discussing what, to this day, makes the patch we call home so lovely and so broken with some of the city's most compelling characters.

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