Editor’s Note: Our Digital Media Editor, Laura Levy Shatkin, has been writing about food, wine and spirits for more than a decade. She had the great pleasure of knowing Chef Homaro Cantu as he rose to culinary prominence in Chicago. She experienced his cuisine at his various restaurants, in addition to having had a friendly professional relationship with him. Here are her words about the chef, who died tragically yesterday at age 38.
Here at Make It Better, we pride ourselves as social entrepreneurs. But there wasn’t anyone more committed to this concept than Chef Homaro Cantu, whom we lost yesterday. Despite his difficult upbringing and bouts of homelessness in Tacoma, Washington, Cantu—known to his friends as “Omar”—set out on a mission to end poverty through his culinary endeavors.
Cantu graced Chicago with his presence, arriving in 1999 for a five-year stint at Charlie Trotter‘s. By 2005, Cantu’s culinary ingenuity and genius emerged in full-force as he opened one of Chicago’s first molecular gastronomic playgrounds, Moto. His Michelin-starred kitchen became more like a laboratory that, if you were lucky, you got to peek into either on his gracious kitchen tours or via his TV show “Future Food,” which aired briefly on Planet Green.
His dish featuring prosciutto rolls with foie gras disguised as cigars (served in an ashtray with edible ashes) was just one of Cantu’s amusing sleights of hand. Rather than your typical kitchen salamander, Cantu transformed food into new substances with tools like the Class IV Laser and nitrous oxide. Where else could you find an edible “mini-menu,” have an “aroma” course that wasn’t edible and eat your fish served atop a tank of Pacific seawater?
Cantu was a star. He was covered in all of the major press, from The New York Times Magazine to Fast Company, and of course every major food rag. Despite this attention, Cantu was gracious and kind, forwarding his unconventional approach to the culinary arts in an inclusive manner.
One of his more recent efforts to eradicate hunger was his “flavor-tripping” berry, a feature at the now-defunct iNG, which turned sour flavors into sweet. He hypothesized about its ability to solve global hunger with this magical effect. I recall many mind-boggling and surprising meals at Moto and several at iNG, where I experienced one of the flavor-tripping cocktails on the front patio. Cantu was thrilled to explain to me why this will have the biggest impact on world hunger and how he was impassioned about making a difference. His book “The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook“ came out in 2013. He echoed this focus in his recently opened coffee shop, Berrista, in Old Irving Park.
A true pioneer, Cantu’s grace and unusual talents will be greatly missed by the Chicago food community. Our hearts go out to his family. He will be fondly remembered for causing a stir of the best kind in Chicago’s food and dining scene.