The life and death of Homaro Cantu, the genius chef who wanted to change the world


The long read: How a homeless child grew up to become the most inventive chef in history

Between 2004 and 2016, the most inventive food on the planet, possibly in history, came out of a small restaurant in downtown Chicago. At Moto, your first course was your menu itself, which was typically printed in edible ink on a giant tortilla chip. When you finished your menu, you would be handed what looked like a Polaroid of a maki roll. The photograph was made of rice paper and coated in a dust of nori seaweed and soy sauce. It tasted the only way it could: like sesame, avocado, cucumber and crab sticks.

Next to emerge would be a tumbler containing butter-poached lobster tail resting on a spoon, with creme fraiche, trout roe and carbonated grapes that would fizz in your mouth like soda. After that, a plate apparently splattered with roadkill would arrive. If you balked at the sight of the gore and guts, that was just what the chefs wanted. The dish was designed to look repulsive but taste delicious. The gristle was made from confit duck and the blood from juniper berry sauce. Thank God for that.

You were being pushed and pulled about. Your ice-cream would be piping hot; your caramel apple would be made from pork belly; your table candle would be poured all over your clam bake. You were eating the food of chef Homaro Cantu and normal rules no longer applied.

Cantu wanted to change what it meant to go to a restaurant to reimagine how you were served, how you interacted with food, what could and could not be eaten. I want to make food float, Cantu told the New York Times in 2005. I want to make it disappear, I want to make it reappear, I want to make the utensils edible, I want to make the plates, the table, the chairs, edible. A large photograph of Salvador Dal hung over the stairwell leading down to Motos basement kitchen. Printed on it was a quote: The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.

Since its birth in the late 19th century, haute cuisine has had little impact on what most of the planet eats. The greatest advances in cooking and taste barely trickle out from the 40-seat dining rooms of the worlds top restaurants, let alone make an impact upon the human relationship with food. Ferran Adris El Bulli, one of the most acclaimed restaurants ever, once boasted 2m reservation requests a year, with a waiting list of 3,000 people per seat. But the cacophony of powders, foams and tinctures that issued from his Catalan kitchen were enjoyed by no more than 100,000 people before the restaurant closed in 2011.

By contrast, Cantus project was about more than elevating haute cuisine to ever-higher levels or garnering Michelin stars (though he did win one, in 2012). His ambitions extended far beyond the walls of his restaurant: he wanted to eradicate hunger, eliminate diseases such as type 2 diabetes and save the planet. He was a compulsive inventor, dreaming up new technologies as well as new dishes. One of his big ideas was to eliminate cardboard and plastic packaging for juice drinks by blasting fruit with an ultrasonic wave generator. By bursting a fruits cells while keeping its skin intact, he hoped it might be possible for people to drink an orange, say, like a coconut. Another of his creations was a transparent polymer oven (US patent no 11118955) that could cook with minimal power by trapping heat. Cantu believed this oven had the potential to reduce energy consumption and enable people to cook in areas with restricted power supplies.

He just disgorges inventions, Cantus patent lawyer, Chuck Valauskas, once said. By 2016, Cantu and his companies had at least four concept patents, with scores more in the works, tucked away somewhere in his garage or kitchen lab. Part of what made these inventions so remarkable was that Cantu was a self-taught high-school dropout. He learned much of what he knew by tinkering tirelessly in the kitchen and reading voraciously when off-duty, sleeping only three or four hours a night (something he put down to lack of oversight as a child).

Many of Cantus ideas were quixotic at best, or beset by problems that meant they eventually ended up discarded. But others were potentially transformative. Nobody understood how influential, or how radical, or how far out there the stuff we were doing was, one of Motos former chefs de cuisine, Richie Farina, told me. Since Moto closed, several of Cantus biggest ideas, and much of his experimental ethos, have moved to Silicon Valley, where Farina and six of Cantus former staff, backed by the strength of California capital, are developing vegetarian replications of meat and eggs, so that animals can be removed from the human diet.

Cantu himself is not around to lead the projects he inspired. In April 2015, six months after submitting the first draft of Moto: the Cookbook, he killed himself. He was just 38. The book he left behind is perhaps the fullest expression of his philosophy. Characteristically, Cantu wanted to create something new a cookbook that would include 100 stop-motion recipe videos. Each of these recipes would have a code you could scan with your phone: once you scanned it, a stop-motion video would appear, showing the dish being assembled. A restaurant cookbook, typically, is just a faded memory of something that once was, the books editor, Michael Szczerban, told me. It kills the butterfly and mounts it. He wanted a book that wasnt fossilised, and still lived.

Although Cantu is gone, the revolution he began endures. Since his death, his ideas have become increasingly influential and if his proteges in Silicon Valley succeed, then Cantu might one day be known as the chef who helped change the way we all eat.


Cantu, known to his friends as Omar,often said that his desire to do something radical with food came from growing up poor. Born in 1976 and raised mostly in Portland, Oregon, he was a quiet child who floated between apartments and homeless shelters with his sister and mother,who was often absent. I dont know if she was working or doing drugs. I was too young and naive to tell, Cantu wrote many years later in a Facebook post describing the beatings and abuse he received as a young boy. Our neighborhood was filled with gangs, drugs and violence, he wrote. As long as I didnt get into fights, my teacher could give a shit why I came to school in tears. Cantus widow, Katie McGowan, with whom he had two daughters, told me that her husband hoped to use his platform for social change and eradicate the hunger and suffering that he had experienced in his childhood.

When he was 11, Cantu moved to the Bay Area to live with his father, who made him pay rent to sleep in an outhouse on his small property. His first job, when he was about 13 he had to lie about his age to get it was in a fried-chicken shack. The food was awful, he wrote, but he was enraptured by the restaurants tandoor. It was cooking at its most elemental, with the chef as nothing more than the mediator between food and fire.

He also worked as a floor-sweeper at his fathers workplace, a factory that developed high-tech parts for the aerospace and defence company Lockheed Martin. At his jobs he watched and learned between the cooking and the machinery, absorbing lessons about craft, precision, and mechanics, Cantu said in an interview in 2011. He would often talk about how, as a kid, he had taken apart and rebuilt his fathers lawnmower to understand how a combustion engine functioned.

Cantu
Cantu holds a piece of passion fruit pasta in Motos kitchen. Photograph: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty

In 1991, after dropping out of high school, Cantu was offered free bed and board by Bill and Jan Miller, a Portland couple who offered help to teenagers in need of support. Encouraged by the Millers, who became like family to Cantu, he enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. After culinary school, he spent the next few years travelling up and down the Pacific Northwest, working for next to nothing in dozens of restaurants, from fancy establishments such as Wolfgang Pucks Spago in Beverly Hills to a Burger King in Orange County.

One day, during this period, while he was tripping on magic mushrooms, Cantu came across a copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, the foundational text of molecular gastronomy, a style of cooking that promised to fuse postmodern art with intricate scientific experimentation. The book was a revelation to Cantu, and from then on, he began devouring books and new influences. From the 19th-century French gourmand Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Cantu took the idea that just as food sustains our physical existence, taste sustains our psychological existence. Enchanted by MC Escher, Dal and Van Gogh, Cantu resolved to infuse the ideas of great artists into his cooking. At Moto named after a Japanese word that can mean anything from idea to desire to origin he would go on to create a dish of duck and skate wing emulating Eschers tessellated woodcut Sky and Water I. It was accompanied by an edible image that would change tastes from duck to fish as you chomped your way through it.

Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was the legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, whose cookbook Cantu had cherished at college. Trotter, who died in 2013, was besotted with jazz and philosophy and sought to bring relentless improvisation to his cooking, trying never to serve the same dish twice. As a boss, he was notoriously demanding and volatile. For every anecdote of Trotters brilliance and exactitude many former employees went on to win Michelin stars there were dozens more accounts of the brutal culture he fostered. Employees at the restaurant were expected to give, give and give again, with 16-hour shifts considered normal.

Resolving to learn at his masters feet, Cantu flew to Chicago in 1999 and headed to Trotters restaurant, where he begged Matthias Merges, the long-term chef de cuisine, to hire him. Eventually Merges gave in. I needed a guy to show me how to kick ass in a no-holds-barred kitchen with nothing but hall-of-fucking-famers on every station. Thats what it was, Cantu recalled in a Facebook post years later.

It was intense, it was unforgiving, Merges told me. Most people who couldnt take that kind of pressure in that environment usually weaned themselves out after 10-12 months. But Cantu relished the hothouse atmosphere. If one of the restaurants senior chefs joked that Cantu should shell peas after work until 4am while watching the Discovery Channel, he took it as a challenge. No matter what they piled on, I did it, Cantu wrote.

Cantu lasted four years at Trotters, ascending the ranks to become sous chef, the second-highest position in the kitchen, at one of the most daring and decadent restaurants ever to have opened its doors to the public. He was 26 years old. In 2003, Cantu applied to be executive chef at Ima, a yet-to-open Asian fusion restaurant in Chicago. After laying on an intricate tasting dinner for the investors, including fish cooked tableside in his polymer oven, Cantu convinced them to not only to hand him the role, but also the creative reins. He also suggested another name for the restaurant: Moto.


Setting up a new restaurant was avery different business to working at an established institution. Money was tight, access to the citys finest suppliers was gone. Moto was the first restaurant in Chicagos now-bustling West Loop meatpacking district, and each night, before service could begin, staff had to hose down the street outside to stop the smell of pig blood wafting in through the windows. Ben Roche, who joined Moto early on, told me that the restaurant started out super low-budget: broken brick walls, plumbing that didnt work, and shit ovens, that initially gave the kitchen the feel of a torture chamber.

In its early days, many customers, mistaking Moto for a sushi bar, were bewildered when they were presented with a 20-course degustation menu. Cantus solution was to hand them the edible polaroid of the maki roll. This was just the start of Cantus joyously bizarre innovations. He was obsessed with the seemingly infinite forms a single taste could assume. A pork sandwich, say, did not have to look like a pork sandwich. For the Moto dish Cuban Missile Crisis, the constituents of a Cuban pork sandwich bolillo bread, pork shoulder, pickles were flattened out, rolled up, fried and wrapped in a collard green. The end was then dipped in red pepper puree, rolled in an ash made of spices and placed in a $2 ashtray, looking for all the world like a Bolivar no 2 cigar.

The
The Edible Menu: food-based ink on a tortilla. Photograph: Amy Stallard

Motos most characteristic dishes were all, in some way or other, bound to this mischievous method, from the Cuban cigar to the duck and mole cannoli that looked Sicilian but tasted Mexican. We wanted people to leave the restaurant wondering How? or Why? or What the hell was that? Trevor Niekowal, who worked at Moto from 2005 to 2007, told me.

Behind the subterfuge and sleight-of-hand lay deeper philosophical questions: if something looked, smelled and tasted like a particular food, did it really matter that it didnt contain the food in question? If you could produce a lobe of foie gras from yellow split-peas without force-feeding a duck, then would foie gras in the future have any more value than an apple or a pot of cress?

Cantu was equally fascinated by the practical implications of his experiments: if these products could be made cheaper and more accessible say, to those with dietary restrictions or little money then animal cruelty could be reduced, as could much of the environmental damage in our production of food. Whats more, the sheer variety of tastes accessible to the average person would become almost unlimited.

Moto began to gain momentum in 2004, when it appeared on the Chicago restaurant review show Check, Please! All three reviewers a used car salesman, a public school teacher and a lawyer described it as the best dining experience of their life. After the show aired, the bookings surged in. The following year, the New York Times ran a feature on Cantu, presenting him as a futurist wunderkind hellbent on revolutionising the dining experience with inventions such as inside-out bread cooked with laser beams or ion-particle guns used to levitate food. Although none of these innovations ever made it onto the menu or even far beyond the conversation with the journalist in question the article helped confirm Cantus image. He was, in the words of a 2006 profile in the magazine Fast Company, the Edison of the Edible.

Cantus approach did not always lead to excellent food; the ratio, according to a couple of former chefs I spoke to, was three brilliant, four good, three bad. Bad could be an idea that sounded great in the morning meeting but didnt make it past its first night of service. One of the restaurants less successful creations was the dynamite stick, a raspberry-flavoured white chocolate tube, filled with three different-coloured purees, and finished with a candied vanilla bean wick. The waiter would drop the stick onto the guests plate, whereupon the dynamite would explode, splattering the multicoloured purees across the plate. When done perfectly, Roche told me, it was a very beautiful and surprising technique. When the waiters got the timing wrong, it meant that Moto would have to cover a guests dry-cleaning bill.

Cantu pushed his team hard, and they, in turn, helped shape the creative development of the restaurant. Both Trevor Rose-Hamblin, the general manager at Moto and the second Cantu restaurant, iNG, which opened in 2011 in Chicago, and another former collaborator, Rocco Laudizio, remembered with fondness Cantus signature method of getting your attention while you were off the clock: texting you his message letter-by-letter until you responded, whatever the hour. Working with Cantu meant being told that today you were going to work out how to grow vegetables in space, said Rose-Hamblin. He meant this literally: one of Cantus side project was consulting with Nasa and Elon Musks company SpaceX on 3D-printing food for astronauts, and growing crops aboard spaceships.

In 2010, Cantu and Roche were given a cable television series, Future Food, and a laboratory to explore their wildest ideas. One idea that Cantu pushed on the show, which has since become a holy grail of the food industry, was the possibility of artificially creating a vegetarian burger patty that tasted and behaved like ground beef. Cantu milled beetroot through a meat grinder to imitate the coarse texture of mince and bound the patty with glycerides to give it fattiness. The patty even bled while cooking on the grill.

The meatless burger was one element of what Cantu called zero food-mile gastronomy, where every element of your meal could be produced in-house. He also embraced aeroponic farming, where plants are grown without soil through constant aeration and the roots are sprayed with nutrient mist. To Cantu, meatless meat and plants grown from little more than light, air and mist were the first tentative steps towards a world where restaurants beginning with his own could engineer steaks, eggs, vegetables and all manner of kitchen produce in-house, from natural ingredients, and at low ethical, financial and ecological costs. His hope was for these techniques to become available to everyone, with aeroponic farms eventually becoming as much a part of every normal home as central heating.


Nothing better embodied Cantus utopianism than the miracle berry. This small west-African fruit contains miraculin, a complex molecule that temporarily disrupts the sour and bitter receptors on the human tongue. The miracle berry was one way to rewrite the rules of what food could be. It was capable, Cantu would often say, of making a lemon taste like the sweetest lemonade youve ever tasted and of giving bitter foods a savoury, meaty quality. The miracle berry first came to international prominence in the 1960s, thanks to Robert Harvey, an entrepreneur who managed to synthesise miraculin, attracting tens of millions of dollars in investment as he challenged the sugar and artificial sweetener industries. Miralin as his synthesised sweetener was called was on the cusp of launching before the FDA, in 1974, ruled it to be an additive and prohibited its use in the US.

Cantu first came across the miracle berry in 2005, when a chef at Moto introduced him to its flavour-tripping capabilities. Shortly after, he received a message from a friend, asking if he knew of any way to alleviate her friends difficulty with eating during chemotherapy. Discovering that such patients experienced a rubbery, metallic taste while eating, Cantu and Roche worked in Cantus garage late at night after Moto had closed, chewing on aluminium foil and rubber, before dosing with the berry and trying them again. They developed miracle berry strips, designed to easily dissolve on the tongue. It worked, and the 86-year-old chemo patient was able to enjoy her first meal in months. For years, Cantu kept and treasured the voicemail from his friend that told him his idea had worked.

The miracle berrys potential captivated Cantu. If you could take abundant, local plants that still had nutritional value, and make them delicious without lathering them with fat and sugar, you would be opening up a whole new palette of consumable foods. Taking the idea even further, if you could replace refined sugar with natural alternatives without sacrificing flavour, the effect on public health would be seismic. Rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease could potentially plummet.

Road
Road Kill. Photograph: Amy Stallard

On Future Food in 2010, Cantu performed a startling proof-of-concept dinner for the miracle berry, demonstrating to diners how unpalatable-yet-edible plants could, through the tricking of their tastebuds, be used to mimic familiar flavours in dishes. In one dish, he took crabapples, cactus and hay from his own backyard, and had his chefs turn those ingredients into barbecued steak, astounding the restaurants guests.

There was, however, a problem with the miracle berry: it didnt work on everyone. For some, the miraculin would have little-to-no impact, and so the unsweetened, bitter, acidic foods would taste every bit as bad as their original ingredients would suggest. It was also a very expensive crop to grow, and one that can be difficult to grow domestically because of its intolerance to cold. The culinary use of the berry, as opposed to the medicinal use for chemotherapy patients, drew scepticism. In nature, theres a reason some things taste good and some things dont, and a lot of times things dont taste good because theyre not good for you, Grant Achatz, chef-proprietor of the three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Alinea, told the Chicago Tribune in 2012.

Nonetheless, Cantu persisted with the idea, walking into iNG one day and ordering his head chef Nate Park to get all of the white fucking sugar out of this restaurant by the end of the day and find natural substitutes to replace it. In 2013, he wrote and published The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook with more than 150 painstakingly composed dishes suited to the miracle berry, from teriyaki chicken to lemon and cream cheese eclairs all made with zero sugar. The thorough testing for the dishes used so much lemon juice and vinegar that Chris Jones, Motos chef de cuisine, lost some enamel from his teeth.

Cantus obsession with the idea reached its height with the opening of the Chicago cafe Berrista in 2014. Berrista allowed Cantu to reach an audience beyond the world of fine-dining, offering, in a more commercial form, some of the innovations hed developed at Moto, such as carbonated fruit. The food was, in Rose-Hamblins words, stupendous the best cafe food in the city, but the central purpose of the cafe a space to promote the miracle berry was rendered defunct fairly quickly. The idea of changing flavours in your mouth in a coffee shop was just a difficult reach, Merges, chef de cuisine at Trotters, told me.

By the beginning of 2015, Cantu was working on Moto: the Cookbook, and preparing for the opening of a new brewery and restaurant, Crooked Fork. But things were also unravelling. Cantus second restaurant, iNG, closed in May 2014. An ambitious plan for a state-of-the-art green lab a dedicated space for Cantus experiments fell through. Moto was mired in financial disputes. An investor, Alexander Espalin, was suing Cantu for allegedly moving funds around his businesses too freely, using the money from Moto to shore up his other ventures, as well as failing to pay him due profits. The lawsuit, which Cantus wife Katie dismissed on Facebook as another case of someone trying to make a buck off of him, sought to oust Cantu from the restaurant he had built from nothing.

Meanwhile, Cantu was bouncing from Moto to Berrista, to his research company Cantu Designs, to the new brewery, to a nonprofit mentoring programme he ran in honour of Charlie Trotter, trying to keep each of his projects going. Despite these pressures, his friends and colleagues did not notice that Cantu was suffering more than normal. At the start of 2015, when Cantu visited him in California, Roche recalled him as in good spirits, with lots of stories to tell of the latest project he was working on. Cantu also travelled to Scotland and Vancouver with Rose-Hamblin, hoping to learn about the craft of brewing ahead of Crooked Forks opening. To Rose-Hamblin, Cantu also seemed happy and excited about the future, although he was apprehensive about the upcoming departure of Motos chef de cuisine, Richie Farina, who was leaving after seven years.

Then, on the morning of 14 April, Rose-Hamblin walked into the large warehouse space where the brewery was supposed to open later that year. Cantu had hanged himself.

Roche was at work when he heard the news. I didnt know how to process that right away, it was as if someone had just taken the wind out of me, he said. In a commemoration of his passing, Farina led a memorial dinner service in Moto on the Saturday after Cantus death, supported by past and present staff, and offering a tribute menu of Moto classics from the previous decade. Moto would survive another year under a new chef, Chris Anderson, retaining its Michelin star. It would, however, serve its final service on Valentines Day 2016, after being sold to the Alinea Group, which now owns the entire block on Fulton Market where Cantus two restaurants stood.

Every friend of Cantus that I spoke to referred to his frenetic drive and energy. When he had an idea, and he believed in something, he put 100,000% into it. It was 24/7 the man was superhuman, Cantus former communications director, Derrek J Hull, told me. I dont know of any other human being who would be willing, or physically able, or mentally able, to do that. His chefs would be used to him greeting them first thing in the morning with a new contraption, if he hadnt texted them with ideas to wake them up; his wife already adjusted to his poor sleeping patterns would see him stop sleeping completely in times of high stress, or sleeping all through his Sundays off out of total exhaustion. With each day, he strived to bring the world closer to his vision. He was a rescuer, said Brett A Schwartz, who spent two-and-a-half years filming Cantu for his documentary Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story, but he couldnt rescue himself.


In his lifetime, Cantu was not able to see his most radical aims become reality. But that doesnt mean that they wont. Although the miracle berry still seems a long way from solving world hunger, it does appear to have a future in palliative care, as pilot studies have been conducted on its effectiveness in restoring the sense of flavour to chemotherapy patients. The training Cantu gave his chefs has also translated well to Silicon Valley. Chris Jones, who was Motos chef de cuisine until 2011, was the first of Cantus team to head to the coast and join the food manufacturer Just, Inc. He has been joined by half a dozen former Cantu employees, including Roche and Farina, and they have moulded the companys approach along the lines of Moto.

Cantu performed R&D work for Just, Incs CEO, Josh Tetrick, a young venture capitalist who hopes to displace the egg and meat markets with animal-free, vegan versions of these products. Tetrick told me that Cantu was the person who introduced him to the intersection between the culinary world and science. He was astounded when Cantu was able to reel off stacks of obscure academic information about the protein composition of albumen and the formation of egg shells in different species. Still, Cantu rebuffed Tetricks offers of a full-time job out in San Francisco. He had Moto, and Cantu Designs, and believed that he could produce the same innovations as Tetrick in the manner he had always done task by task, day by day, however he fancied.

Homaro
Homaro Cantu in 2012. Photograph: Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Cantu was proud to see his team moving on to new ventures, taking delight in raising wolves and not sheep, as he told a handful of them upon their departure. But Rose-Hamblin also recalled Cantus attachment to the chefs he had lost to San Francisco, and mentioned his dream for everyone to live on his block at Old Irving Park to have a thinktank and a laboratory, and to build an empire of innovation with them all.

Later this year, Just intends to release its first clean meat products to the market, including a burger patty. It is also working on a foie gras, which will be cruelty-free and markedly cheaper, while maintaining the same flavour and texture. Technology is finally catching up with Omars ideology, one of Cantus former chefs, Thomas Bowman, told me.

But Cantus vision was wider than the work of a single company. It was all-encompassing. He understood that we are heading towards disaster, with the folly of our consumptive habits already reshaping the planet. He thought it was obscene to have food so inaccessible to those who need it. But through this stark analysis shone a belief in the transformative power of scientific advancement, and an urgent desire to make an impact now. Few individuals, never mind chefs, have acted on such ambitions. Its neither easy nor convenient to want to change the world, Cantu wrote, in the final lines of the introduction to his cookbook, but we must stretch our imaginations, and never forget that we have gone from cave-dwellers to space explorers in the blink of an eye.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/apr/06/homaro-cantu-moto-chef-change-the-world