Homaro Cantu and the hunger for wholeness

When Charlie Trotter brought California cuisine to the cold, tough Midwest, no one could have guessed that the new style would put Chicago on the map as a fine dining destination city. Before Trotter, the city was known as a town where you eat to stay warm, fill up, or cure a hangover. Dozens of chefs filed in and out of Trotter’s kitchen over the years, and his friends and fellow line cooks went on to open places like Alinea, Grace, and Homaro Cantu’s famed Moto. As Charlie Trotter’s iconic restaurant closed, the reigns were officially passed to Trotter’s now-famous alumni to rule the Chicago restaurant scene, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or that’s how it was supposed to be. Chef Homaro Cantu’s legacy of groundbreaking innovation was bound to become the stuff of legends and heavy-hitters like his mentor and former boss, like his fellow Trotterites Giuseppe Tentori, Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy. He was one of the first chefs in America who dared diners to play with their food, setting off not only trends but conversations about what the perfect dining experience is really supposed to be.

But unlike most of his fellow chef/scientists, who approached their food from a place of lightness and play, Cantu seemed to approach his dishes with a pathological drive for refinement. Ultimately, there was nothing playful about Cantu’s desire to change the world by way of food.

Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story Trailer from StoryScreen (Brett A. Schwartz) on Vimeo.

Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story delicately unfolds the turbulent, heartbreaking beginning of his pursuit of culinary perfection. The young chef fell through the Plinko machine of parental addiction, family abandonment, homelessness, taking more hard knocks before 18 than whole streets of sheltered suburbanites will see in a lifetime.

As a teenager, he found himself slinging fast food and falling in love with the process of food prep and the science and artistry required to turn ingredients into meals. From an early age, Cantu got a charge out of the kitchen, “where things were happening.” Watching a small-town fried chicken joint reinvent itself by way of a tandoori oven altered the chef’s trajectory forever, and he landed in a culinary program hell-bent on changing the entire food industry. Other restaurants were still just serving food, but Cantu saw the kitchen and the garden as an R&D lab that could improve lives by the millions.

Though he made himself famous in high-end dining rooms and the national reviews that drive them there, Cantu really wanted to use his knowledge of food and tech innovation to alter the American diet. He was trying to hit every bird with every stone, all at once: obesity, hunger, urban decay, and everything in between.

Molecular gastronomy became the vehicle by which he planned to change it. He dazzled the magazine writers and the diners alike with everything from edible menus to using the first smoking guns to doing some of the first indoor greens farming in restaurants. While a sushi-flavored, edible printed picture of a maki roll makes for a dazzling dining experience, what he was really interested in was using that same technology to repair America’s broken relationship with food. He was most interested in getting good, nutritionally dense foods into the hands of low-income and homeless people.

It would be easy to chalk up Cantu’s ability to charge forward despite all obstacles as a kind of relentless positivity — an inspiration, even — but as the film picks up intensity and speed, you begin to feel as maniacally possessed as the chef seems to be. Starting with the wreckage of his childhood, it’s clear that Cantu saw the white linens and low lights of the dining room as his chapel, the place where his past didn’t matter as long as he continued to shape the future of food. As long as he could cook, he could redeem that kid that everyone had abandoned.

Experimentation in his restaurants would lead him to a peculiar berry that binds and blocks the sour receptors on the tongue, turning tart food sweet. Cantu latched onto the berry as the key to eliminating sugar from the American diet — an enormous leap forward that would no doubt lower obesity and disease rates. Not only did the Miracle Berry eliminate the need for sugar, it allowed chemotherapy patients to taste food they hadn’t been able to, some for years. Cantu even mass-produced these Miracle Fruit tablets that he distributed to cancer patients free of charge. There was not a problem with food that Homaro Cantu did not imagine himself fixing. There was nothing that hadn’t been invented that he couldn’t reinvent — as long as he had the time and the money.

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Throughout the documentary, the chef becomes increasingly obsessed with funding a research lab where he could finally have the space and machinery he needed to produce and test his technology on a commercial scale. It becomes his McGuffin, his Ark of the Covenant, and his One Ring all wrapped into one goal. In his mind, it was the missing piece between making great food and saving the world with food.

His energy morphs from driven to phrenetic, as he scrambles to open both a Miracle Berry-centric coffee shop and smoothie bar (with indoor farm, and Miracle Berry pastries, and…) and a brewery at the same time. His employees joke that he is a robot that plugs himself in for an hour every night, because his big wet eyes never seem to register the stress. Knowing how his story ends makes you watch with the eye of a forensic psychologist searching for the moment when the light goes out behind his eyes. But you never see it, and maybe it was never there. Homaro Cantu seemed like the bunny born in the briar patch of instability, addiction and homelessness. By comparison, running a Michelin-starred restaurant was cake. Opening a couple of casual spots should’ve been no sweat.

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However, his single-minded pursuit of his food lab and breakneck promotional schedule for the Miracle Berry book proved to be his undoing. An investor sued Cantu for misuse of funds, accusing Cantu of spending his restaurant investment dollars on building some of his experimental technology. All of his projects came to a grinding halt pending litigation, and that stagnation following a string of previous business setbacks and Trotter’s unexpected death was more than he could handle.

The brilliant chef shocked the culinary world by taking his own life a little over a a year ago, inside the building that was to become his brewery. He left behind a wife and two children, a lifetime of invention, a legacy of innovation, and a lot of chefs who owe him their careers.

The film does not dwell upon his death, but focuses on just how groundbreaking his life’s work was, and leaves you wondering what he might have invented, the world he might have changed. There’s no sense of judgement or blame, but an opportunity for the people who cared about him to share everything they gained from knowing him, and what they lost when he was gone.

As the title implies, Cantu seemed to be throwing more ideas into an ever-growing hole inside of himself. He was not satisfied with just running a handful of good restaurants, making a living and slowly growing. It seemed to be a part of his nature to bite off more than he could chew, but the movie documents how that same drive unraveled him from the inside. Compared to the noise of his childhood, the sound of a tiny Chicago kitchen mid-service must have felt as peaceful as an empty hall.  And if reinvention was the way to success, then standing still must have felt like the ultimate failure.

Though there will be plenty of up and coming, bright-eyed chefs with their gadgets and cool ideas, Cantu leaves a large void in the two circles he kept a foot in: as a groundbreaking chef and a humanitarian trying to change the world by changing what they eat.

If heaven really is full of those who pray by way of hard work, as St. Benedict says, there will be great tasting menus beyond the pearly gates, with Trotter in his whites and Cantu on the line.

Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story screens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Toby Theater Sunday, July 17 at 3:30 and Friday, July 22 at 1:00 pm as part of the Indy Film Fest.

 

 

 

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