Cantu at Cusp Conference 2008
September 23, 1976|
Tacoma, Washington, U.S.
|Died||April 14, 2015
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Cause of death
|Suicide by hanging|
|Education||Western Culinary Institute|
|Home town||Portland, Oregon, U.S.|
|Spouse(s)||Katie McGowan (m. 2003–15)|
|Cooking style||Molecular gastronomy|
Homaro "Omar" Cantu Jr. (September 23, 1976 – April 14, 2015) was an acclaimed chef and inventor known for his use of molecular gastronomy. As a child, Cantu was fascinated with science and engineering. After he got his first job in a fast food restaurant, he saw a lot of similarities between science and cooking and decided to pursue a career as a chef. In 1999, he was hired by famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. In 2003, he became the first chef of Moto, which he would later become owner of.
Through Moto, Cantu explored his unusual ideas about cooking including edible menus, carbonated fruit, and food cooked with a laser. Initially seen as a novelty only, Moto eventually was recognized for quality food, in addition to innovation, earning a Michelin star in 2012. Cantu's second restaurant, iNG and his coffee house, Berrista, focused on the use of "miracle berries" to make sour food taste sweet. He was working on opening a brewery called Crooked Fork at the time of his death by suicide.
In addition to being a chef, Cantu was a media personality, appearing regularly on TV shows. In 2010, he produced and co-hosted a show called Future Food. Through his media appearances, he advocated for an end to world hunger and thought his edible paper creation and the miracle berry could play a significant role in that goal. He volunteered both his time and financial resources to a variety of charities. Cantu is remembered as a science-minded chef and innovator. His food-gadget related patents have been used by NASA and Whirlpool.
Cantu was born in Tacoma, Washington on September 23, 1976. His father was a fabricating engineer and Cantu developed a passion for science and engineering at a young age. He disassembled the family lawn mower three times to learn how it worked, and his "Christmas gifts would wind up in a million pieces."
A self-described problem child, Cantu grew up in Portland, Oregon. From the age of six to nine, he was homeless with his mother Laurie Cantu and sister Angela Cantu. He would later credit the homelessness for his inspiration to make food and become a social entrepreneur. At the age of twelve, he was nearly jailed for starting a large fire near his apartment. That same year, he took his first job, working in fried-food fast food restaurant (he lied on the application and said he was 16) to earn money to buy gadgets such as remote-controlled airplanes. When the owner bought a tandoori oven, Cantu's life was changed; he saw that cooking was similar to working in a science lab. "It is chemistry and physics and biology all wrapped into one," Cantu later remarked as an adult. "What other field can I experiment on something different every single day?"
After high school, Cantu found himself without a home. He connected with Bill and Jan Miller, a couple who took in troubled teens. They gave him a couch to sleep on under the condition that Cantu attended culinary school.
Cantu graduated from the Western Culinary Institute (now a Le Cordon Bleu School) and spent the next two years staging on the West Coast. After about 50 such two-week to one-month internships, he was ready for a paid job. One day in February 1999, he decided to try to get a job with his idol, Charlie Trotter. "I made it my life's goal to become a sous chef for Charlie Trotter," Cantu remarked. "I literally just flew out [to Chicago] one day with $300 in my pocket and no place to stay". Cantu had no real plan to get employed – he simply showed up at Trotter's back door and begged him for a job. Trotter agreed to an interview the following day, and was impressed enough to give Cantu a job. Cantu worked his way up the ranks, becoming one of Trotter's sous chefs. On his days off, he began to explore new ways to prepare and present food.
In 2003, Cantu learned of a chef opening at a soon-to-open restaurant called Moto. The restaurant's backer, Joseph De Vito, was looking to do something a bit out of the ordinary, perhaps Asian fusion. When Cantu interviewed for the position, he pitched something really different. "This guy comes in with these little glasses, he looks like an accountant," De Vito recalled, "and started talking about levitating food. I walked away saying, 'Wow, that's a lot to take in.'" Cantu persuaded De Vito to let him cook a meal for De Vito and his wife. The seven-course meal, which featured an exploding ravioli and a small table-top box that cooked fish before the guest's eyes, won De Vito over.
When Moto opened in January 2004, guest were confused. People would come in looking for sushi and leave when offered a degustation menu instead, De Vito recalled. Enough people braved the menu, however, and soon the restaurant was discovered by foodies. Cantu soon earned a reputation for shocking guests. For example, one feature was synthetic wine squirted into the glass with a medical syringe. Other innovations included edible menus and carbonated fruit. An industrial-sized tank of liquid nitrogen was kept outside the restaurant to make hot food cold and give fishes odd shapes.
Describing himself as a scientist at heart, Cantu emphasized usual cooking devices and experimentation in his food. He would keep a tape recorder by his bedside to capture middle-of-the-night random thoughts to turn into new inventions. His kitchen included a centrifuge, a hand-held ion particle gun, and a class IV laser, among other science gadgets. His menus too showed off his zany ideas, describing dishes as "surf and turf with mc escher" and "after christmas sale on christmas trees." At weekly brainstorming sessions, Moto chefs were encouraged to come up with new takes on ordinary food by discussing how they could change foods they ate that week. Prototypes were created, and failure was encouraged. Within two years, Moto's crazy dishes had attracted the attention of The New York Times and Gourmet magazine, and Cantu had been asked to cook for Nobel Prize winners and molecular gastronomy pioneer Ferran Adrià. Burger King sent a group of executives to Moto to explore Cantu's edible paper invention and other ideas.
Initially, food critics were not impressed saying Moto sacrificed deliciousness in favor of cleverness. Other chefs were split, variously describing Cantu as a "faddish flavor of the month" or a "creative genius." Over time, guests and critics began to notice the quality of the food in addition to the odd presentation. A 2005 review by The New York Times Magazine declared "A 20-course tasting menu can begin with 'sushi' made of paper that has been printed with images of maki and wrapped around vinegared rice and conclude with a mint-flavored picture of a candy cane ... It may sound like some sort of Surrealist stunt with dire intestinal consequences, but here’s the rub: The 'food' tastes good. Good enough to lure diners back at $240 per head".
Fellow molecular gastronomy chef Grant Achatz described Cantu as "an ambassador of creative food." Together with Achatz and Graham Elliot, Cantu helped earn Chicago a reputation as the center of the innovative food. Cantu took over ownership of Moto and earned the restaurant a Michelin star in 2012, which it retained until his death.
Cantu's second restaurant, iNG, was a "reboot" of an earlier idea for a restaurant called Otom that never got of the ground. It was focused around a concept he called "flavor-tripping" – the use of the "miracle berry" to make sour foods taste sweet. The restaurant lost money and was closed in the Spring of 2014. After iNG closed, Cantu opened a coffee house called Berrista focused on the same concept. At the time of his death, he was preparing to open a brewery/brewpub called Crooked Fork with his friend and former Moto manager Trevor Rose-Hamblin.
Cantu created a business called Cantu Designs to license his food-related inventions. Inventions included new utensils, a polymer cooking box that allows food to continue cooking after it is removed from the heat source, and an edible printer he called the "food replicator" in homage to Star Trek. He filed more than 100 patents, and signed deals with NASA and Whirlpool or use of his patents. With Chicago design firm DeepLabs, Cantu marketed inventions such as a fork and cork screw combination and a utensil-sized device that turned into a plate at the push of a button. Cantu's patent lawyer, Chuck Valauskas, said the chef had so many ideas that his primary duty was to filter the more impractical ones out. Cantu also converted Moto's office into a "state-of-the-art indoor farm to grow vegetables – complete with a vortex aerator".
In 2007, Cantu appeared on Iron Chef America, defeating Masaharu Morimoto. In the episode, Cantu used a laser to caramelize edible packaging material and liquid nitrogen to create beet (which was the secret ingredient) "balloons," among other innovations. He returned to the show in 2013, again facing off with Morimoto, this time in a battle of herring. He lost the rematch.
Also in 2007, Cantu was featured in the documentary series Unwrapped and on Dinner: Impossible. He appeared Good Morning America and twice on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He was featured on Roadtrip Nation in season six and was twice a guest judge on Hell's Kitchen. Cantu was also featured in the At the Table with... documentary series and the British science documentary series Horizon. he appeared on the November 27, 2011, episode of CNN's The Next List.
Cantu said his mission was to change the way the world thought about food, which had barely changed over time while the rest of the world changed dramatically. "What is cooking? 'Cooking' is a loose term. It's understanding energy or the lack thereof," he said. "People are afraid because their mentality as a whole has been held back with food and pushed forward with everything else around them ... I don't want to be the guy doing the bottled hot sauce. We're changing the way humans perceive food." He saw his edible paper as a novelty to amuse customers, but also a way to combat world hunger. "My goal with this is to deliver food to the masses that are starving," he declared. "We give them something that’s healthy, that has an indefinite shelf life and that is super cheap to produce." He also said it could be used as an alternative to MREs, on long space missions (an idea NASA was reportedly "extremely excited" about), or in refugee camps.
Cantu's biggest cause was the miracle berry, which he believed could end hunger by allowing people to eat normally unpalatable food and end dependence on processed sugar. At the 2011 TEDx conference, he explained his vision: "If you look at developing countries and things like that, if you could just open up maybe two or three ingredients that are hyper-local, so we don't have to distribute products, you're knocking down food miles ... I was out in my backyard one day, and I popped a miracle berry, and then I just started eating blades of grass ... And so, let's just stop and think about it: hyper-local cuisine would be just that: you walk out your door, and you don't look at it as weeds; it's now a new page in gastronomy." On Future Food, Cantu demonstrated this idea by spending a week on a diet of miracle berries and common weeds, grass, and leaves he found in his backyard. He would regularly donate the berries to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to make food more palatable to them.
In 2013, Cantu founded the Trotter Project, a non-profit aimed at providing culinary education to students in poor neighborhoods. He gave away up to 250 lunches a day to kids in the Old Irving Park neighborhood who picked them up at Berrista.
Business troubles and death
On March 19, 2015, former Moto and iNG investor Alexander Espalin sued Cantu. Espalin alleged that Cantu had misused restaurant funds for personal use and to promote Cantu's cookbook. He also said he did not receive his share of Moto's profits and called for his ouster at Moto. After Cantu's death, his widow called the lawsuit "just another case of someone trying to make a buck off of [Cantu] or take credit for his ideas." Earlier in March, Cantu's pastry chef, Claire Crenshaw, left Moto to work at another restaurant. In April, Moto's executive chef, Richie Farina, announced plans to also leave the restaurant.
On April 14, 2015, Cantu's body was found hanging inside a building he was renovating into Crooked Fork on the Northwest Side of Chicago. After an autopsy on April 15, the Cook County medical examiner’s office said the cause of death was asphyxiation by hanging and ruled it a suicide. Cantu did not leave a note and had no history of depression or mental illness.
Cantu's wife acknowledged they were having financial problems, but said they had had "one of the best conversations of our life the other night about how we were going to fight [Espalin]" and that everything was fine. Family friend and fellow chef Matthias Merges said Cantu seemed stressed in recent days, but was still shocked by the news of Cantu's death. Architect Rachel Crowl, who designed Berrista and Crooked Fork, said Cantu "was an inventor at heart. Some people might say he was a little crazy, but it was crazy good, excited, positive, laughing. This would be the last thing I would have ever guessed for Omar."
Cantu was survived by his wife and two daughters, aged 7 and 9. His funeral was held April 17.
Cantu had black hair, pale skin, and smile that gave him "a faint resemblance to Eddie Munster". He was known for his generosity and positive attitude. The New York Times describe him"almost compulsively giving [of] his money, his time, [and] his encouragement." Farina said nothing ever appeared to bother Cantu: "He had this persona around him of being Teflon. No matter what someone said, it didn't faze him. He almost seemed invincible." Others, however, wondered if Cantu was too excitable and took on too many challenges at once. "There was a sense of almost detachment from the real world," said Chicago chef Brandon Baltzley. "My first impression of him was, this guy was in a fantasy place."
Cantu was described as a "celebrity chef" and his restaurants as "internationally renowned". He was considered more experimental than even other molecular gastronomers, pushing the challenging preconceived notions of what could be considered "food." A 2005 Fast Company article described Moto as "a temple for science-based gastronomy" and Cantu as "the classic mad scientist, a Stephen Hawking acolyte with a basement filled with gadgets, robots, and gazillions of inventions aching for just a little bit more time and attention." New York based chef Wylie Dufresne described Cantu as "an inventor who accidentally ended up as a chef and is returning to being an inventor". The host of Iron Chef described Cantu as the most "wildly original" contestant in the show's history.
Upon Cantu's death, Mergis remarked "It was really inspiring to see someone who would come up with an idea that’s so wacky and he would be like, 'I need to go with it,' ... I think it was a testament to his creative drive and passion that so inspired myself and a generation of chefs." A Washington Post obituary remarked that Cantu had "turned cooking into alchemy through his playful and surprising brand of molecular gastronomy at Moto". Elliot said he hoped Cantu would be remembered for his vision to end hunger, saying "no other chef anywhere is thinking about those same kind of things."
Berrista and Moto will remain closed for one week in honor of Cantu's memory. After that, McGowan said it would be "business as usual" and that plans for Crooked Fork would move forward.
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- Moto official website
- Cantu Designs official website
- Future Food television series on Dicovery
- USA Today Article
- FLYP Media multimedia article: "A Menu with Meaning"
- "Homaro Cantu on The Interview Show"
- Presenter at Cusp Conference 2008
- Homaro Cantu at TED