Opening Statements

Mixing IP with Mmmmmm

Posted May 1, 2007 6:07 AM CDT
By Martha Neil

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There’s a multipage nondisclosure agreement that visitors must sign before they’re allowed in the kitchen at Moto restaurant in Chicago. And some of the food prepared by executive chef Homaro Cantu is served with a copyright notice.

Cantu is part culinary pioneer, part prolific inventor which makes him an intellectual property attorney’s dream client. What worries Cantu most, he says, isn’t chefs or individual diners trying to recreate his signature preparation and presentation. It’s corporations capitalizing on his gastronomic inventions and restaurant management methods without authorization.

Hence Cantu’s close relationship with his lawyer, Charles C. Valauskas. The two frequently talk and meet for meals to make sure no opportunity is missed to patent, copyright, trademark or otherwise protect Cantu’s creations from would be business buccaneers.

“He’s got a large intellectual property portfolio, and we talk on a very, very regular basis,” says Valauskas, a principal in the three lawyer IP boutique Valauskas & Pine in Chicago. “It’s listening to what the new inventions are; it’s strategizing what’s the best way to protect the new techniques.”

It would be standard practice, for instance, for an IP attorney to file a patent application once a client has completed a new invention. But because Valauskas and Cantu are in such regular contact, Valauskas can follow Cantu’s ideas as they develop. “We stay on top of that,” Valauskas says, “and we continue to file as he continues to refine his invention.”

Those inventions include the whimsical a spiral handled fork designed to hold a sprig of basil that adds an aromatic element to each bite of food taken from the business end of the utensil as well as high tech business management tools.

One of those tools involves a camera set unobtrusively into an upper wall of Moto. The camera is linked to a computer, allowing staff to track important aspects of the restaurant’s operation. The system can warn when usage rates threat en to deplete supplies, notify the kitchen when a diner leaves for the restroom so the chefs can adjust the spacing of their preparations, and anticipate orders from regular customers. And it’s all linked to Cantu’s cell phone so he can be in the loop even when he’s not in the building.

Then there’s Cantu’s celebrated edible paper a soybean and cornstarch concoction that can be imprinted with virtually any image and any flavor. The chef prints his menu on it (along with a copyright notice), and when diners are finished ordering, they can eat it. In addition to the copyright, Valauskas has filed a patent application on the process Cantu uses to create the paper. Both believe the paper holds the potential for myriad commercial uses such as magazine advertising inserts.

Valauskas began representing Cantu about four years ago, after the chef realized he needed to find an IP attorney and asked another lawyer he knew for a recommendation. At that point, Cantu was seeking to patent a tiny, see through polymer oven that allowed food to be cooked at the table without any visible power source.

The two met, and Cantu showed off his oven. “I saw the prototype, and it floored me,” Valauskas recounts. “I just got excited at the possibilities.”

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