Local chef takes extreme ‘cookiNG’ online

By Alex Stedman

Superstar chefs have taken to the airways in shows such as Food Network’s “Iron Chef” and Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Now Chicago’s Homaro Cantu, executive chef of restaurants iNG and Moto, is doing them one better by producing his own YouTube series that explains how he concocts his signature dishes.

Cantu recently launched “CookiNG Under Pressure,” a YouTube series focusing on iNG, which changes its menu every six weeks. The first episode premiered Nov. 13 and had more than 260,000 views as of press time.

“The reason we want to do this show is we were just realizing this is really stressful stuff,” said iNG General Manager Trevor Rose-Hamblin. “This is us doing crazy stuff that a lot of other restaurants have never done before.”

The first 40-minute episode shows the team putting together a new menu inspired by the Tim Burton film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with items like “Jack’s Lament,” an octopus and mushroom dish that mimics the face of Jack Skellington, the film’s central character. The episode follows the menu’s conception, its first test dinner—which resulted in negative reviews from several customers—and how the recipes were retooled.

This isn’t Cantu’s first time in front of a video camera. He competed in a 2006 episode of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and starred in a 2009–2010 series on Planet Green called “Future Food,” in which he and pastry chef Ben Roche explored the origins of “molecular gastronomy,” which uses lab techniques to prepare food.

“[‘Future Food’] was a great opportunity, but at the end of the day, a show can get canceled at any time,” Cantu said. “The future of television is really going on YouTube.”

While the show is distributed for free, it certainly isn’t free to produce. Cantu estimated that he’s spent $100,000 on his production company, Future Food Films, during the past year.

Cantu said it’s worth the expense because he has a more ambitious goal than just gaining exposure: He’s trying to eliminate sugar from the human diet using the miracle berry. He has created an all-natural powder and tablet from the West African fruit that makes foods taste sweet without sugar. As shown in the episode, the menu at iNG is completely sugar-free.

“Now that we’ve unlocked this door of flavor, we’re going to push it out there in a fun way, not a way that tells you to eat your medicine and hate it,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get through to this generation.”

According to Cantu, three TV networks approached him and expressed interest in the show less than 24 hours after the first episode aired, but he did not want to reveal which ones. However, he said he believes utilizing the Internet gives him more exposure because there’s less competition, and people would rather not pay for cable. He also said he enjoys the creative freedom of producing the show internally because he “got sick and tired of taking orders.”

“When you have to, say, take a commercial break, you have to do certain things,” he said. “You have to work your creativity around it. Here, we just don’t care. Every episode might be an hour. It might be 30 minutes. We just don’t know.”

Valerie Bolon, a local private chef, experienced the network reality TV scene when she competed on Food Network’s fourth season of “Top Chef” in 2008. She said the experience was beneficial and she gained a lot of exposure, but it was not easy.

“It’s really stressful because you have no control over anything,” Bolon said. “What most people don’t realize is that they pretty much cut you off from the world.”

She said it was hard to focus and manage her nerves when surrounded by competitors and cameras. Rose-Hamblin said iNG’s chefs sometimes bump into the cameras during filming, but they are now used to them being around for the most part.

Cantu isn’t sure what they will be doing in future episodes after the second one, which is scheduled to be released Jan. 1 and will feature his mid-America road trip in which he promotes his “The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook.” He said a promotional tour is also planned for Europe.

Cantu also plans to create a show for Moto and has faith in the staying power of an online show.

“The best thing about this show is it’s not going to be like ‘Friends,’ where it gets canceled, and then everybody cries and moans because it’s gone,” he said. “It’s just going to keep going forever, and that’s the future of television.”