Moto Magic

By KatherineGamby

A couple is escorted to their table in the back of the dimly-lit, quaint, sea-green colored restaurant. The patrons are buzzing in a frenzy of anticipation and wonder about their coming meal. Mouths are watering, stomachs are growling and thoughts run rampant as the menus are served. There it is—the menu of 30 delectable items for anyone’s taking. Once the meal is chosen, the experience takes a bizarre twist . Instead of collecting the menus, the guests eat their menu. This is only the first demonstration of non-traditional dining at Moto Restaurant, 945 W. Fulton Market.

Molecular gastronomy is the use of scientific principles and practices in cooking and food preparation. This is the foundation on which Moto Restaurant was built. Chef Homaro Cantu started the restaurant almost six years ago when molecular gastronomy was relatively unknown. Since then, the restaurant has been featured on Chicago Public Television’s “Check, Please!” and Cantu competed for and won an Iron Chef title.

“The mission of our restaurant is to give a diner an experience that they will never forget and to wow every single person that walks through our door, not only with our techniques, but with the flavors and tastes of our food,” said Chris Jones, chef de cuisine of Moto Restaurant.

The 20-member staff, all of who are cooks, develop the menu on a weekly basis. It is based on inspiration and seasonal considerations. Most of the ingredients come from the freshest selections of local farmers’ products.

“Our menu gets developed every Tuesday,” Jones said. “Our entire staff gets together and we talk about what we did over the weekend. Maybe it was a dinner that we ate or something that we saw on TV. Or maybe we were walking down the street and we saw a pile of trash and we thought maybe we could do something like that, that could freak a customer out.”

Jones described a typical dining experience as a diner sitting down to order a meal, which only comes in 10 and 20-course selections. Once a choice is made, the guest can eat his or her menu made from bread served with butter. He said after a few courses, a Cuban cigar will be served in an ashtray that, when eaten, tastes just like a Cuban sandwich.

“You’re along for a ride, it has no rhyme or reason to the menu itself,” Jones said. “If we think a dish is really awesome, we’ll put it in there … we just like having fun. You’ll get a candle tableside that is edible and all of a sudden, a server will snuff the candle and you’ll think it’s for ambiance. [Instead], it’ll be poured onto your dish as the sauce—expect the unexpected.”

Dining at Moto is an expensive venture. The 10-course meal costs $115 in addition to the selection of wines and other accommodations. Jones said that because of the expense, the staff does what it can to make the customer feel as comfortable as possible.

“This experience is a vacation, you don’t have to lift a finger,” Jones said. “We make sure that doors are held for you, your napkins are folded into place, your water is refilled for you, your food is perfectly seasoned [and] your plates look beautiful. Every detail is accounted for and meticulously groomed. I think that’s what makes our restaurant so special.”

Jones said he thinks food is in a transitional stage and Moto is taking a lead role in what could be the future of cuisine, alongside Cantu.

“The idea of food and what we are trying to do has to change, the products that we use and the ways that we cook it are very labor intensive and high energy,” Jones said. “As the world keeps growing, those techniques are going to be outdated … and that’s [when] it’s nice to be able to work with [Cantu] on special projects and new projects that are hopefully going to be able to change the world.”

Moto Restaurant also prides itself on bringing up the next generation of chefs through its internship program.

“The Iron Chef, actually two chefs, came to our school and did a demonstration on what they do and what their philosophies are and I was very inspired by [Cantu’s] philosophy,” said Ray Kim, a freshman arts, entertainment and media management major at Columbia. “He thought of food as more than just eating and just something we need—he thought of it as a formula that had multiple answers.”

Kim transferred from Kendall College, a top culinary arts school in Chicago, and he is a member of a family of cooks. At the time of his transfer, Kim was in the process of solidifying an internship with Moto Restaurant, but felt his passion for the fashion industry was much stronger than his passion for cooking. While in pursuit of the internship with Moto, he ate at the restaurant and talked with Cantu about some of his special projects, one of them being with NASA.

“He was trying to develop [something] like a printer that had every vitamin, but [he] had trouble with water because it is limited and it can’t be created out of nothing,” Kim said. “All of the other vitamins he could break down [into] an ink cartridge.”

He said that NASA was relying on Cantu to come up with a way to send food to astronauts on other planets in the future using this e-mail and print system, except the paper that it is printed on would be food, keeping in mind that paper food is a technique that is already used in the Moto Restaurant. Kim said he thinks that it is a genius idea and a glimpse into the future.

“I think it’s brilliant, it’s like another step to human development,” Kim said. “The food industry is just food, but the next step is like a high-tech type of food.”

One customer who was visiting Chicago does not plan to revisit Moto because she thought that the food wasn’t as good as she expected after reading about it in a magazine.

“I only tend to do these types of restaurants once [because] I’m looking for an experience that’s completely new and different and exciting, which it has been in terms of the way the food is presented and prepared, but the way that it tastes isn’t spectacular,” said Zarina Ma, an accounts payable supervisor for Westfield in England.

Ma said that though Moto’s “staff was attentive”, the food doesn’t compare to other fine dining experiences she’s had recently.

“I live in London and I’ve recently [eaten at] a string of Michelin restaurants,” Ma said. “If I was to rate [Moto] out of 10, I would give it a seven. My best experience was in Melbourne, [Australia].”

At Vue de Monde, which is where she had her best dining experience, there is no menu. The guests are asked what their likes and dislikes are in terms of food and a menu is customized for each diner, with no ingredient repeated throughout a 17-course meal. Ma gave a few critiques and recommendations on how to make the Moto a better experience like the one she had in Australia.

“I have to say that the way the food tastes wasn’t that exciting,” Ma said. “It has to be a little bit more bold. The presentation was fabulous … it just didn’t feel new, didn’t taste new. In terms of the service, even though it was attentive … I have a feeling I was presented the dessert wine because I would be doing the interview … unfortunately [the wine] wasn’t paired well with the dessert.”

Moto is open Tuesday -Saturday. For more information on Moto Restaurant, visit