Homaro Cantu on Miracle Berries, Chewing Tin Foil, and the Best Peanut-Butter Cookies Ever
Eight years ago, the Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, who regularly serves guests edible menus and "prints" flavors like broccoli and Cheddar using rapid prototyping machines, was contacted by a friend on behalf of a chemotherapy patient who could no longer taste food. "She said everything she chewed tasted like metal and rubber," he says. Because the 36-year-old chef develops flavors and invents techniques for corporations in his spare time, Cantu approached the problem of the chemo patient's lost appetite like any other fully funded research project, synchronizing his innovative and do-gooder impulses. He ordered thousands of spices and industrial flavor compounds, and back in the restaurant kitchen, he and his team set out plates of rubber bands and aluminum in at the top, like some demented food pyramid. "My pastry chef and I got to work," says Cantu, "chewing on tin foil and rubber for weeks at a time in different combinations with other ingredients just trying to figure out how to change the taste."
The answer was miracle fruit, the West African berry that temporarily reroutes taste buds around sour, spicy, and bitter flavors and makes those compounds taste abundantly sweet. You may remember the "flavor tripping" craze from a few years back, where young entrepreneurs were holding raucous loft parties and serving big glasses of the sourest lemon juice in world, which turned incredibly sweet, of course, after one chewed on a shriveled red berry.
Miracle berries restored the chemo patient's appetite, and while his restaurants became successful and he began doing contemporary chef things like competing on television shows, Cantu kept miraculin on the back burner, occasionally sending free packets of the olive-shaped berries to patients across the country. He knew it was more than a party trick, but it wasn't until he met Charles Lee, a miraculin start-up enthusiast and founder of mberry. "His company didn't fund our book," Cantu says, but "made it all possible" with many, many shipments that were channeled into recipe development. Without Lee, the manuscript would be a collection of lab notes, not a hardcover available at Target: Though several entrepreneurs are trying to bring down the costs of miracle berries, a kilogram of freeze-dried powder can set you back $6,500. The finished book is less about experimentation, Cantu says, than trying to change the way we eat.
Start with your morning coffee. "Put a little lemon juice in a freshly brewed cup," the chef says, "and take the mberry tablet. The miraculin makes that coffee taste better than it would with any sweetener that's on the market." Cantu likes to picture a world where everyone would want to try "flavor-tripping" with their coffee so much that coffee shops with bowls of miracle berries by the tip jar would open and compete with places like Starbucks. Then, Cantu says, in a perfect world, the chains would stop using so much sugar and integrating miraculin themselves. "I guarantee it," he says.
Miraculin itself, Cantu explained during an Underground Eats event last week at Fatta Cuckoo, is a safe-to-eat glycoprotein found within the so-called miracle berries that causes the taste-transforming effect and does not need to be metabolized in order to make sour flavors taste sweet. "It's just another berry," Cantu says, "like a blueberry." At home in Chicago, Cantu even encourages his daughters to experiment with flavor-tripping with miracle berries. "They're 5 and 7," he says.
In trying to finish the book, which took eight years to write and dozens of iterations for each recipe, Cantu says he became aware of how sugar shaped the craft of modern cooking. Cookies, he learned, were essentially a byproduct of the sugar industry, a way to turn baking scraps into a marketable food.
"When you take the sugar out of cookies," he says, "you've basically eliminated the entire product." As a result, some of the recipes in The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook often include agave or a touch of honey, not really to sweeten the deal, but to provide foundational support. "We worked on our peanut-butter-cookie recipe for six months," he says.
Cantu says the book is best used as a tool. "Readers should take this book and steal its content," the Moto and iNG chef says, imagining a world where any plucky entrepreneur can buy a few kilograms and start selling sugar- and artificial-sweetener-free ice cream across the street from Baskin-Robbins with the strawberry-balsamic recipe on page 236.
"Are you diabetic?" he continues. "This thing is going to change your life." Last week, he made his first appearance on Good Morning America to talk about the book, which provides recipes for cocktails that completely change flavor — a dry Champagne fizz turns into a lemon drop, for example. It's hard to explain how this kind of thing works in less than two minutes of airtime, when the effect of the miraculin is just kicking in.
As such, the cookbook can be skimmed for recipes, but Cantu suggests this may be the equivalent of trying to watch a high-definition picture on a black-and-white television. The effect of eating miracle berries is, in one sense, a reinvention of how flavors are experienced. He says he want readers to become inventors who use their palates as a toolbox.
Cantu and his sister grew up far under the poverty line, and his family was homeless for portions of his childhood. "I used to steal other people's baseball cards and sell them so I could buy remote-controlled cars," he says. "The word inventor was so far outside my realm of possibility."
When he was a kid, "big meals" meant Christmas dinners from a buffet inside a homeless shelter, or warm casserole served in a church basement. Cantu was 12 when he got his first food job at a fried-chicken restaurant — he lied and said he was 16. "The owner was Saudi and wanted to do other menu items and make the business better, so he imported a huge tandoor," he says. "I didn't even know food like that existed."
The experience changed him. Following that, Cantu worked anywhere that was hiring or places that let him trail for a day or two, including burger restaurants, pancake houses, and a fancy Italian restaurant. Twenty years later, he owns several patents and is working on the next phase of miracle-berry tech.
"This should lead to a new product," he says, a powder made from miracle berries that could be baked directly into those peanut-butter cookies. "We'd ultimately want it to be cheaper than sugar," he says. When will that be available? "Honestly, I don't know."
How will a powdered form of a berry that's hard to cultivate and is best grown halfway around the world catch on with the broader food movement focused on free-range chickens, food miles, and rooftop farms?
"So many chefs talk about local and sustainable in one breath," he sighs,"but then turn around and load up their food with butter and sugar in their restaurants."
"Look," says Cantu. "I'm interested in new kinds of food movements. I'm interested in getting people to stop eating so much sugar. We're never going to get rid of sugar. But this is a good place to start cutting it out."