In 2004, before Fulton Market area was dotted every few steps with swank new restaurants, Moto’s beloved late founder and visionary Executive Chef Homaro Cantu, opened his doors right in the heart of the bustling Chicago commercial food district. As you drive up the street, you don’t expect to find an acclaimed restaurant tucked next to a back-end dock area of a meat-packing company. But there it is, Moto, with it’s sleek front window reflecting refrigerated trucks lumbering by on the pitted market streets. The surprise of this juxtaposition makes for a perfect beginning to an experience at Moto. From the first moment you pull up to the front of the building, right after your first, “hmm”, before you step in the doors, before you experience one morsel, Moto has you thinking.
In Japanese, the name Moto means idea, taste and desire, all of which apply to a dining experience at the restaurant. The thing that you should know is, this is a place that answers the question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” The notion that failing is part of the process, the birth of an idea to a complete concept is celebrated, and that experimentation and pushing limits makes us better. These are the courageous attitudes behind Moto. It’s important to note that in the midst of all the science and conceptual antics, it may seem like taste could be over-looked but deliciousness is the goal and has not been compromised.
The ideals and vision of Moto came from a creative genius, the late Chef Homaro Cantu. Sadly, he passed-away earlier this spring. Cantus’ legacy lives on in the many chefs he mentored and inspired with his bright and innovative ideas, through the lives he touched with his kind, giving spirit and his legacy continues vibrantly through every dish served at Moto.
Executive Chef Chris Anderson carries the torch into a new time for Moto. At an important moment in the restaurant’s history, he is doing what each executive chef at Moto has done when taking their place at the helm. He brings the history of his life to the Moto table. The uber-talented executive chefs that have made their mark at the futuristic Moto are impressive, and Anderson fits the profile perfectly. Moto is a place for brilliant chefs that are scientists at heart and Anderson is no exception.
Chef Anderson brings Moto something that’s never been done there before. He’s created a menu that brings a “little south to your mouth” while wowing with deep rich flavors and “rustic meets refined” presentations. His current Moto menu is built on the nostalgia of his momma’s southern cooking. Growing up in North Carolina, southern food was influential in Anderson’s life. He took his interest in food and cooking into jobs that paid the bills in chain restaurants but his creative brain and his love for all things food made him want more. He began to explore his life as a chef in culinary school and went on to build his experience while working in and running some of the finest kitchens in the world. Like many chefs, Anderson’s first culinary influence was his mother, but her influence in food was just one element she shared with her son. Chef Anderson’s mother is a scientist. Not until later in his career did Anderson truly understand that his childhood; full of biscuits, shrimp and grits, and having a scientist for a mom, had prepared him so specifically as an expert in molecular gastronomy. His early experiences were the basis for the strong pull for him to follow a path to delicious science-based post-modernistic cuisine.
As Anderson enthusiastically walked me through the restaurants’ “lab” we focused on the treasured centrifuge where he magically separated the solids and liquids of a Shishito Pepper right before my eyes, creating an “essence o’ Shishito”. Not only did the essence of pepper end up as one of many carefully chosen elements of flavor for the evenings’ menu, it is evidence that the pairing of art, science and food are the dominant genes within Chef Anderson’s DNA.
After a tour and demo of the centrifuge with Chef Anderson it was time to meet the whole team. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned I had the opportunity to tour the kitchen. I’ll be honest, my first thought was that the Moto kitchen may be more lab-like than the kitchens I’ve come to know. The picture in my mind had me prepared for chef-scientists working double “Bunson” burners under the cover of goggles, white lab jackets using sterilized tongs, and beakers. You know, “Bill Nye” style. Imagine my happy surprise when I was greeted by great kitchen smells, a gorgeous cheese board and a dedicated group of the friendliest kitchen team running a sparkling-clean, calm kitchen with nary the “Bunson” burner.
The team was welcoming and genuinely excited to share their part in creating the Moto experience. The first thing we talked over was the use of their cool “food science” equipment – I immediately reverted to my school days and grabbed a pen to take studious notes. This is beyond the simple sous vide, we are talking a centrifuge and an awesome super deep freeze machine that makes Astronaut ice cream, and other “chill” goodies.
The restaurant, its’ chefs and their unconventional take on food, delightfully challenge guests in the very best way. Excitement builds throughout each course as the orchestrated service brings an edible concept to your table. As you await instruction from the server, anticipation brings about the notion that this dish has meaning behind it, that it is something special. The food on the plate began as a creative spark. A plate at Moto holds an idea that is realized in artful design, developed to engage and entertain. The pay-off is a transformative and satisfying “best food of my life” kind of bite. Your eyes will see one thing but the textures and flavors are full of Willy Wonka-esk mind-blowing moments. The Moto team creates an experience that is brilliantly delicious and full of fun surprises.
The formula for Moto’s continued success is the dedicated, curious, courageous chefs with a history of talent that precedes and bolsters every new chef that steps in the kitchen. Add a sprinkle of nostalgia, mix with a little science, lots of creativity and tons of deliciousness, artfully served up in an unexpected presentation and you have, Moto; a legacy to be proud of, a future where gastronomy is continued to be explored, pushing the limits in food using modern ideas and technology, beyond all else, keeping us thinking.
Special Thanks to moto Restaurant team members: Christopher Anderson, Bobby Gilbert, Dustin Charbonneau, Christian Sia, Alana Soogrim, Mike Nolan, Noosha Elami, Rodrigo Olmos, Evan Carter, Layne Taylor, Megan Macias, Tristan Acevedo, Trevor Rose-Hamblin, Andy Ashcroft, Rangel Bello-Jacinto, Julia Larumba.