If necessity is the mother of invention, then serendipity must be the father. On the road to grand discoveries, innovators hit speed bumps along the way, but sometimes those speed bumps will knock you onto a new path. Such was the case with Chicago-based chef and molecular gastronomist Homaro Cantu when he discovered the miracle berry and the culinary phenomenon of flavor tripping.
As a molecular gastronomist, Cantu realized the power the miracle berry had to eliminate the need for sugar in food. He argues that if your tongue is coated in miraculin, healthy, sugarless foods can be combined to make a healthy junk food. This phenomenon is called “flavor tripping,” and it is the driving force behind the success of his two restaurants, Ing and Moto. A video on the Ing website shows Cantu at home with his wife and two daughters. He walks viewers through the process of flavor tripping and makes waffles with caramel apple sauce—all without sugar. The entire science has been developed in the field of flavor tripping based out of the food laboratories that are connected to his restaurants.
The innovations that stem from this discovery go much farther than an amazing culinary experience. Cancer specialists are currently studying mirculin for the possibility of treating chemo patients. Though the studies are incomplete, they are beginning to show that chemo patients who use miracle berries gain more weight and have a more enjoyable eating experience. Cantu is also working toward applying the “sugarless junk food” he has created to the obesity epidemic in America. He believes that technology can be developed to infuse junk food with miriculin, essentially making the two-step process he uses at his restaurants into a one-step, everyday experience.
In addition to the extensive work with the miracle berry, Cantu has developed a system of indoor farms where the offices of his Moto restaurant used to be. He organically grows all his own food, saving the business $2,000 a week in extraneous packaging, preserving, and shipping costs. This also gives him complete control over the food he gives his customers. Cantu says that the thing he values most is efficiency. With efficiency, he can save money, and put that saved money toward becoming more efficient.
“Everything becomes obsolete at some point,” he said. “The trick is staying ahead of the curve.”
Cantu draws his inspiration from experiences he had as a child:
I grew up very poor. My mother, sister, and I were homeless for about 3 years. We went from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, and all we saw was junk food. When I started working in nicer restaurants I realized the biggest difference between poverty and upper middle class was diet. There’s a huge opportunity out there to take all the problems with food that I grew up with and really flip them upside down.
His family background and childhood as well as his expertise in the fields of molecular gastronomy and culinary arts both served him in his creative and innovative endeavors.
Even though it’s as if timing and circumstance led Cantu to his discovery, he also used all but one of the “Creative Aids” outlined by Steven M. Smith and Thomas B. Ward in their article “Cognition and the Creation of Ideas.” These aids are: combination, abstraction, noticing, knowledge, and support technologies. Combination is the technique of blending novel ideas with old ones. In developing new foods for his restaurants, he takes what he has already created and reshapes it to make new taste experiences. Essentially, the ingredients he uses are not new, they’re just combined in new ways. Abstraction is looking at the problem in an abstract way so as to see all possibilities instead of focusing on what is in front of you. Cantu searched the world over for the miracle berry when a less creative person would have looked for a medication or a certain food group that they already had at their disposal.
Noticing involves seeing all of the possibilities of your discovery. After he found a solution to his friend’s problem, Cantu could have moved on with his life and started other projects. Instead, he noticed that the miracle berry could be used for other purposes as well. Knowledge is the next step after noticing. Because Cantu had the knowledge base he did, he was able to expound upon the possibilities he noticed. Without cooking school and a scientific education, he would not have been able to capitalize on his ideas. In the same vein, he would not have been able to make his creations without the help of the support technologies at his disposal. He used all of these cognitive creative aids to turn his discovery into a business, then a career, then a science.
The fact that his work is on its way to change the food industry is a real life example of how little-c creativity can become Big-C. Little-c creativity is his restaurants and the various concoctions made to delight customers. Big-C creativity is the paradigm shift in suggesting that sugar could become obsolete. In Cantu’s own words, “There’s a whole world in gastronomy that we’re opening the doors to. It’s really kind of mind blowing.”