Talk Shows, Food, and Homaro Cantu

Michael Nagrant / 04.11.07

photo courtesy of the Ellen show

I’ve basically become a glorified Midwestern housewife. Or at least, since I quit my “real job” and became a freelance food writer a year and a half ago, my tastes have begun to skew that way.

Being home in the afternoon on occasion, and armed with an HD Tivo, I’ve managed to see every single Oprah and Ellen show in the last year. (Ironically, I’ve only managed to watch a couple of the Rachael Ray shows, including today, where she did a segment teaching America how to properly peel an onion….seriously.)

Despite my liberal intellectual leanings, I genuinely drink the Oprah juice. Sure, she occasionally works the shallow feel good journalistic angle, but she often tells stories no one else is covering. She’s also the secular female manifestation of Jesus, saving the world one Katrina survivor and one African schoolgirl at a time. And, despite the incongruous ancient Birkenstocks and the stoner looks, everyone knows you don’t mess with Jesus.

I’m so dedicated, that when Jonathan Franzen, author of “The Corrections”, postured as a “principled” writer and spurned Oprah’s Book Club, I dreamt of inviting him to get super drunk with me at some hipster bar like Gold Star here in Chicago, and then once he became witless, I’d punch him in his black writer’s glasses, straight jacket him in a cast -off hoodie, and dump him into Lake Michigan, where tied to a handful of William Gaddis’s (one of his favorite authors) onerous thick ass novels, he’d surely sink.

And Ellen, well it’s tough not to love someone who is truly joyful, someone who amidst all the celebrity pomp over how hard their lives are, really enjoys and is good at her job- though her dancing has become a “jump the shark” rallying cry for me as of late.

The one thing I hate about both Ellen and Oprah is their poor food related segments. Oprah’s usually pimping Rachael Ray or our local boy Art Smith without actually teaching the audience anything.

Ellen, who surely would bristle at an interruption during one of her stand-up acts, becomes the iconoclastic heckler, often making fun, ruining the recipes, and throwing the food of chefs like Jamie Oliver during culinary segments.

Of course, this fear or ignorance regarding food isn’t a problem confined to afternoon television. When Grant Achatz was on the Today show earlier this year, Al Roker, who with his own Food Network show should be the most clued in of the hapless bobbleheads, ended up scarfing down the garnish from Achatz’s Hot Potato/Cold Potato soup before Achatz could explain that the garnish should be released in to the soup where the flavors could meld. Ticky tack point on my part I know, but, gastric bypass or not, Roker was too much the fiend rearing at the trough.

So, yesterday, when I came across Ellen and found that Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant was going to be on the show, I was sure someone was gonna lose a limb. I figured Degeneres, up to her usual antics, would stick her fingers in a vat of liquid nitrogen or get an eyeball transmogrified by one of Cantu’s lasers.

Apocolyptically, Cantu, who has become the P.T. Barnum of what I’m now dubbing “evolutionary gastronomy” (since his cuisine is very much a punctuated equilibrium of sorts that doesn’t reflect his antecedents very much, and also because most of the chef’s so characterized by the labels “science food” and “molecular gastronomy” reject them as meaningless) tamed Degeneres.

As Cantu zinged his way through birthday cake bubbles and frozen mozzarella, Degeneres was enwrapt like Snoop Dogg in a strip club after smoking a Winston Churchill sized Philly blunt outfitted with Humboldt County’s finest . Degeneres even invited Cantu to come back on the show.

Degeneres did unwittingly say of Cantu’s liquid nitrogen infused birthday cake shell, “It’s just an empty shell. If that’s someone’s birthday, that’s a rip-off. I thought it was going to filled with batter.” And of his liquid nitrogen infused Vichysoisse, that it was just like soup, but that happens to smoke. These are points that many of Cantu’s ardent critics have also made, that his food is, to quote Macbeth, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ellen even displayed a little of the agitation that an unsuspecting first time Moto diner must feel, inquiring of a piece of fruit nut toast, “Is this just toast? Did you make this any freaky way?”

Degeneres still proved that she has a ways to go. Cantu prepared a plate of “eggs” made from mango and coconut and cold “fried” on a subzero like anti-hotplate and dotted with fresh cracked pepper accompanied by a pipette containing liquid beignet, a nod to Degeneres’s New Orlean’s youth. Ellen recoiling like a vegetarian at an organ meat society dinner told Cantu that it looked good, but that she doesn’t like pepper.

It was kind of like when the invincible boxer Ivan Drago, as played by MIT Engineering grad Dolph Lundgren, bleeds for the first time in Rocky IV. Cantu, the man with an unflappable attention to detail and laser focused brilliance is human! Next time, I bet he’ll be sure to ask his host, as they do at the restaurant, if she has any food allergies or incomprehensible hatred for certain ingredients. Ultimately though it was a magnificent triumph of sorts, that one of Chicago’s own was able to finally create an entertaining food segment in the unfriendliest of places.

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