Cantu at the 2008 Cusp Conference
|Born||Homaro Cantu Jr.
September 23, 1976
Tacoma, Washington, U.S.
|Died||April 14, 2015
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Cause of death||Suicide|
|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 American chef and inventor known for his use of molecular gastronomy. As a child, Cantu was fascinated with science and engineering. While working in a fast food restaurant, he discovered the similarities between science and cooking and decided to become a chef. In 1999, he was hired by his idol, Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. In 2003, Cantu became the first chef of Moto, which he later purchased.
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 earned critical praise and, in 2012, a Michelin star. 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 suicide in 2015.
In addition to being a chef, Cantu was a media personality, appearing regularly on TV shows, and an inventor. 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. Cantu volunteered his time and money to a variety of charities and patented several food gadgets.
Cantu was born in Tacoma, Washington, on September 23, 1976. His father was a fabrication 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, Cantu 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, guests 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 quickly 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.
Describing himself as a scientist at heart, Cantu emphasized unusual 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 class IV lasers, among other science gadgets. His menus too showed off his zany ideas, with descriptions such as "surf and turf with mc escher" and "after christmas sale on christmas trees." At weekly brainstorming sessions, Moto chefs were prompted 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.
Cantu's edible paper – a corn flow and soy concoction, similar to material used on birthday cakes – in particular attracted a lot of attention. In 2005, The New York Times ran a story on the paper. Burger King sent a group of executives to Moto to explore Cantu's edible paper invention and other ideas. Featured heavily in early Moto menus, the paper was fed through a Canon i560 inkjet printer filled with inks made out of food. It was then brushed with powdered seasonings to give it whatever taste Cantu wished to convey. In 2005, Cantu began experimenting with liquid nitrogen to flash freeze food and to give dishes unusual shapes and with helium and superconductors in an attempt to levitate them. A profile by Gourmet talked a "floating course" with a specially made silicone cube that became lighter than air when heated and was imbued with smoke to give it a varying aroma. Cantu purchased a class IV laser (the highest grade available) to cook the interior of fish while leaving the outside raw and to create "inside out bread" with a doughy exterior and crusty interior.
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 off 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 around 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.
In addition to cooking, Cantu had a passion for inventing. He filed more than 100 patents applications, and signed deals with NASA and Whirlpool for use of his inventions. A 2006 Food & Wine article by Pete Wells declared that if he could put one dish in a time capsule to explain the food trends of the past year, it would be Cantu's cotton candy paper, not because of its taste, but rather because of the copyright notice on the paper. He explained: "If chefs in the future call their lawyers every time they change their menus, we'll be able to look back on this two-dimensional treat and say, 'This is where it all began.'"
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. Cantu had weekly meetings with a Chicago design firm called DeepLabs. There, he brainstormed with engineers and design people on new food presentation and gadget ideas. With DeepLabs, Cantu marketed inventions such as a fork and corkscrew combination and a utensil-sized device that turned into a plate at the push of a button. Other collaborations included an fork-spoon-knife combination utensil, utensils that released aromatic vapors on the push of a button, and a prototype utensil with a built in heating device. 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 on 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 while the rest of the world had 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 also 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 Cantu's 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, had 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 the 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 seemed fine. Family friend and fellow chef Matthias Merges said Cantu seemed stressed in recent days, but was 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 described 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."
Reputation and legacy
Cantu was described as a "celebrity chef" and his restaurants as "internationally renowned". In the 2013 guide, Fodor's described him as "a cult figure". He was considered more experimental than even other molecular gastronomers, challenging preconceived notions of what could be considered "food." Fellow chefs compared Cantu to Salvador Dali or Willy Wonka; The New York Times called him the Buck Rogers of cuisine "blazing a trail to a space-age culinary frontier." 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 [was] returning to being an inventor". The host of Iron Chef described Cantu as the most "wildly original" contestant in the show's history. Food & Wine said his "gonzo innovations place[d] him among the shock troops of American cuisine".
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.
Farina said Cantu had created a "very inspirational environment" at Moto to which he would "always stay connected". A Washington Post obituary said that Cantu had "turned cooking into alchemy through his playful and surprising brand of molecular gastronomy". 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 remained closed for several days in honor of Cantu's memory. Moto reopened on April 18 with a special "celebration of (Cantu's) life" menu featuring contributions by 10–20 former Moto employees. Farina commented "The last thing he would want was for us not to be in the kitchen cooking ...We're going to continue to do what he taught us and what he would want." Although he still plans to leave Moto to start his own restaurant, Farina said he would continue to help out at Moto beyond his planned last day. Moto returned to its regular menu on April 21.
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