Future Food: Series Premiere

You can only BS the eater so much.

— Homaro Cantu

Don’t expect your usual cooking show competition when you tune in to Planet Green’s Future Food. Instead of challenging contestants to prepare a multi-course meal using mahi mahi, hosts Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche ask the staff of Moto, their trendy Chicago restaurant, to create several “seafood” dishes without any seafood at all. And forget about quaint black baskets containing mystery ingredients à la Chopped: Cantu and Roche are far more interested in utilizing cryovacs and liquid nitrogen in their kitchen.

Cantu is Moto’s Executive Chef, but he’s just as passionate about science as he is about food. Moto boasts a state of the art lab where he and Roche are constantly experimenting with cooking techniques and the molecular structures of food. The premiere episode of Future Food — titled “Something Fishy” — focuses on that seafood challenge. When an unusable seafood delivery arrives at the restaurant, Cantu’s solution is to make the dishes without fish. Think: tuna made from watermelon rolled in sushi spices, then put in the cryovac, or “scallops” from tofu with a bit of protein-binding transglutanimase, which the chefs explain, is the stuff used to make liquid band-aids.

The structure of the show is simple: problem, experiment, field test, correction. Then they serve up the solution to Moto’s diners. The field tests are the most fun, since random passersby seem to have no clue who these two are. When Cantu and Roche take their faux fish to sushi and seafood mecca Mitsuwa Market for some blind taste tests, no one (who appears in episode, anyhow) is fooled, instantly guessing “This is watermelon,” or proclaiming, “No fish in there.” But after more tweaking in the lab, the dishes make it onto Moto’s tasting menu for that evening. The diners’ praise is a bit suspicious, given the total failure of the field test and the fact that they look very aware the meal is being filmed.

Future Food is mostly fun, but one can’t help but wonder, what’s the point? Cantu offers one reason right off. “It takes a lot of energy and a lot of money,” he says, “to bring the seafood in here, whereas soybeans grow right here in Illinois.” But those words — uttered in an obviously very expensive restaurant — ring a bit hollow. In the second episode, “French Evolution,” the staff prepares a range of dishes using nothing but French toast. Cantu explains that this is “just a small example of what we can do with recycling food.” Without the benefit of understanding Cantu’s larger vision (which is nothing short of ending world hunger), calling this “recycling food” sounds silly: at my house, we call that concept “leftovers.” Worse, it seems a forced rationale for why this show is on Discovery’s Planet Green instead of the Food Network, though in fairness, the address makes more sense in later episodes.

Despite Cantu’s noble goal, or perhaps because of it, there are moments in “French Evolution,” in particular, that don’t sit quite right. When staffers “rescue” loaves of French bread from a bakery that plans to throw them in the trash, one can’t help but wonder if both the community and Cantu’s higher purpose wouldn’t be better served by donating the bread or the resulting mass quantity of French toast to a local shelter or soup kitchen. That they serve it up on Moto’s $240 per person tasting menu seems disingenuous.

Cantu’s personal history sheds more light on what drives his inventiveness. He was often homeless and hungry growing up. In a later episode, he reveals an idea to allow people to eat flowers, weeds, and other plants whose bitterness typically renders them inedible. Cantu and his team create dishes using these ingredients, plus something they call a “Miracle Fruit,” a berry that blocks the taste buds from recognizing either bitter or sour. These are far more intriguing reasons and results than those featured in the first two episodes.

RATING 5 / 10