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Non-Food Nonsense

Sometimes I miss regular food, the kind many of us ate when we were kids. Now, because of health concerns, economics, and fashion, there are all kinds of things on our plates that a few decades ago wouldn't have even qualified as food. Some people have non-eggs with a side order of non-bacon, and then put non-sugar in their decaf to finish off their non-breakfast. After dinner, they'll have non-ice cream with non-chocolate sauce. Now one restaurant — Moto, in Chicago — has taken non-food foods to a new level. They serve edible paper.

Using a computer printer, Homaro Cantu, the head chef at the place, prints images of food on paper made of soybeans and cornstarch. The inks he uses are flavored. The paper pictures of sushi that he prints out on his inkjet actually taste like sushi, and the pictures of chicken really taste like chicken. The menu is edible, too. It's an amazing technological triumph. But wait a minute. Real sushi also tastes like sushi, and real chicken tastes like chicken, so why bother?

The answer, of course, is that it's new, it's experimental, it's trendy. And a dinner including paper courses at Moto can run $240 a person. That's a tough check to swallow, no matter what it's made of. Cantu wants to infuse the dining-out experience with fun. He feels people are tired of just ordering conventional food, being served it, and going home. I'm not. That's what I like about going to a restaurant: you order food you like, you eat it, and you go home. This chef dreams of cooking with lasers and is currently experimenting with helium to make foods levitate. I dream of going to a restaurant where all the foods on my plate at least look vaguely familiar to me.

These days, when you go to a trendy restaurant, that dish that you always enjoyed when it was just cooked normally is either served blackened or raw. Vegetables that they now refer to as "baby greens" used to be called weeds. And I don't want to try the "pizza of the day" — the one with pineapple and peanut butter. I just want one with cheese and tomato sauce.

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But obviously, not everybody is a fuddy-duddy like me. There are people who suddenly decide to try a new brand of jeans instead of buying the ones they've been comfortable in for twenty years. There are some adventurous souls who, just to see what it's like, decide to try to sleep on the other side of the bed one night. I guess these are the people who get excited about trying "different" or "interesting" food.

They're tired of eating burgers that they've loved all their life, so they eat an ostrich burger. They don't want the same old delicious fish that they've enjoyed in the past, so they'll have some eel. And they try weird and exotic foods that, for some strange reason, we're always told "taste just like chicken." Chef Cantu is banking on these people eventually even getting bored with exotic foods and turning to munching on his paper goods.

But after a while, his paper concoctions are going to seem mundane to those always chasing the latest trend. Serving edible pictures of normal foods won't be unusual enough. He'll have to rev up his Canon i560 and start serving paper versions of stranger and stranger foods. With all his enthusiasm for technology and innovation, he'll probably pull it off. In a few years, I can imagine a customer there asking the waiter, "What does the rattlesnake taste like?" And then the waiter will answer, "It's good. It tastes just like a picture of chicken."

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver

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