Homaro Cantu at Moto

Tragic news from the food world: one of the city’s most endlessly intriguing and visionary chefs, Homaro Cantu of Moto, Berrista, and other restaurants, is suspected to have committed suicide yesterday at the site of one of his planned future businesses, a brewery called Crooked Fork, at 4419 W. Montrose. He leaves behind a wife, Katie, and two young daughters.

I met Cantu several times over the years, including filming him for one of my Sky Full of Bacon videos—in which he told the story of how some leftover raccoon meat from a Wisconsin American Legion post event inspired one of Moto’s signature dishes. (The story is here, starting at about 12:22.) That aside, I would not say I knew him well. There have been news stories that suggest trouble in his business empire—including a lawsuit from an investor and the departure of Moto executive chef Richie Farina, who had worked for Cantu for seven years—it seems appropriate humility to say that I don’t know any better than anyone else what led to yesterday’s tragedy.

Cantu left copious writings of his own, offering glimpses of who he was, notably a burst of memoir essays on Facebook in 2012 (this one links the others). His real name was Omar (adopting the fancier Homaru was an in-joke, it being the Latin term for lobster) and he grew up with an abusive, substance-abusing mother. Cooking offered him a creative outlet—at least when they weren’t homeless with no kitchen:

While the adults were getting stoned and drunk, I decided to put a cast iron pan on the stove and turned on the electric burner. I don’t know why I did it. I just did it.

I left to play for a while and came back to the pan that was now black and blue with heat. I had seen my mom fry hot dogs. Seemed simple, put some butter in the pan, put the hot dogs in and cook it up. I had a little apprehension at first but I was getting hungry. I knew if I asked mom, she would just tell me to go to my room. Fuck it, let’s do this! I see a stick of room temperature butter on the counter and some frozen hot dogs in the freezer. I put the butter in, followed by the hot dogs and then it turns into an instant inferno. I stare at it for a second without asking for help. I was in awe of this thing I created.

He got his first cooking job at 12 while living with his father in the Bay Area (Hayward, California), cooking for a run-down chicken joint. He also lost it by stealing from the owner. But eventually he found his way to culinary school and wound up getting a job at Charlie Trotter’s:

At 10, the am sous chef, 46 year old Reginald Watkins would be wrestling with live king crabs in the stock pot all morning long. “I gotta get on and off the boards Boss Dogg!” That was Reggie’s name for me – Boss Dogg. Two g’s for a double dose of this low dirty boss dogg. (Dont ask) Somehow he could tell I was from the ghetto. Reggie came from the ghettos on the south side of Chicago. He and I got along perfectly. We practically had telepathic communication when he wasn’t telling me to sweep and mop all day long.

“Hey Carl, do you know where I can get some heer schmeer schmeer schmeer?” David LeFevre called me Carl, it was like a pet name. Why Carl? Ever see Caddyshack?

Saying Trotter’s kitchen was formative, or reformative, for this street kid would be an absurd understatement:

I needed to go through this merciless boot camp that rivaled the special forces. My best friend from Portland, Andrew Stern, stayed with me for a week and worked at Charlie Trotters during that time. He was in the Airborne Rangers during the Panama Canal Crisis. After he worked at Charlie Trotters for a week, he told me it was harder than going through Ranger School. No shit. It was that tough. I was in the right company.

I needed a guy to show me how to kick ass in a no hold holds barred kitchen with nothing but hall of fucking famers on every station. That’s what it was. A hall of fame crew. We all learned from each other and this team had some serious skills. Lets see, in the 4 years I was fortunate to work there, there was Matthias Merges as Chef De Cuisine, David Lefevre as Executive Sous Chef, Giuseppe Tentori as Sous Chef, Leslie Tellez as Sous Chef, Jeff Yankellow as Sous Chef, Sven Mede on Meat, James Diprospero on meat, Curtis Duffy on Fish, Jeff Mauro on Fish, Michelle Gayer as pastry Chef, Darren McGraw as Pastry Chef, Della Gosset as Pastry Chef, Elliot Bowels [sic] on Garde Manger, Brian Ogden in Pastries, Adam Sobel on Garde Manger, Megan Malony on Pastries, Christine McCabe on the hot line and Volundur Volundarson on Garde Manger. The list was massive and I am sure I forgot at least 50 other chefs running their own restaurants today.

Like many who passed through that famously tough kitchen, he would eventually be fired in what Mark Caro’s lengthy Trotter exposé in the Tribune (unfindable via Google, alas) described as an agonizing meeting in which Trotter tried to goad Cantu into quitting (if he quit he wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment) and Cantu mulishly refused to play Trotter’s game. After Trotter’s death, no one took on the role of designated mourner more eagerly than Cantu.

Moto opened in 2004, part of the first wave of Ferran Adria-influenced molecular cuisine that would include two of Cantu’s fellow travelers through Trotter’s kitchen: Grant Achatz of Alinea, still at Trio in Evanston at that point, and Graham Elliott Bowles, shortly to join Avenues at the Peninsula. Moto was arguably the most conceptual of them all, less about what was cooked than the showbizzy, magic-trick-like way it was prepared, using unlikely kitchen tools like a class IV industrial laser and an ink-jet printer. I ate there in 2005 and, frankly, didn’t get it; the restaurant seemed too solemn and full of itself when its food was actually very funny and playful. I wound up putting it at the number one spot for both my best and worst dining experiences of that year, for some beautifully smoked meat (cooked in some weird way I forget) and for the awful taste of the inkjet-printed menu on rice paper, which I just should have known better than to really eat. I ran into him a year later—at Menard’s, I think, or somewhere like that—and tried to apologize for my denseness while he watched me warily to see if the guy who didn’t find Moto funny was about to come unhinged.

Cantu was well positioned to achieve the same level of acclaim as Grant Achatz has as a restaurant pioneer, but where Achatz is microfocused (my main memory of the first Key Ingredient shoot is Achatz taking every moment the camera was on Craig Schoettler to clean something just out of the frame), Cantu proved to be incapable of that, spouting and sprouting new ideas constantly and introducing them with a modest claim that they were going to transform everything about food. Like Orson Welles, the genius spun off notions faster than the mere man could see them through successfully to their end. His electronic kitchen ticketing system was going to change the world, and so was his system for growing greens vertically in the kitchen, and so was the Miracle Berry (which spawned a cookbook and a coffee shop, Berrista), and so was his in-house video series Future Food.

They came so quickly (and a little half-bakedly) that they went unappreciated by a food scene that was fascinated every time Achatz or Stephanie Izard sneezed. I don’t know the last time anyone I know actually went to Moto; it seems to live on tourist traffic. Ing, Moto’s less expensive neighbor with a series of inventively playful meals devoted to themes like heavy metal (which I went to with my then-13-year-old son, its perfect audience), closed for lack of a tenth of the traffic going nutzoid to get Next tickets a couple of doors over.

Yet even if it proves that those were signs of an impending financial collapse, which would have been felt most keenly by someone who had been so poor in his life, yesterday’s news was more shocking and dismaying than anything I can remember in the Chicago food scene. Trotter died at the end of his great first act, but Cantu’s death came abruptly in what seemed the middle of his, and most tragically for his wife and children. One of his essays from 2012, too painful to read today, starts out with the chef’s parlor game of picking a last meal and turns into a loving tribute to the skills of Katie, his widow:

About a month after we started dating she would cook me the best red wine risotto with a bottle of Italian red that would easily be the best meal of my life. The irony of being a chef is that you work so much and earn so little, that you don’t really get to eat at that many restaurants. But even if I had, this meal would have surpassed them all…

Over the next few months I saw a pattern develop. She would always try to outdo her last meal. I was the lucky recipient. Well, one of them. She loves to cook for her family and her many friends. We married a year and a half later, and have two kids. She works full time, and balances our craziness, and she is seriously the best cook I know.

One thing that is really similar about me and Katie is that she goes through phases while cooking at home and gets bored with recipes fairly quickly. She is always looking for that next great dish, but she has developed an arsenal of favorites. Her current obsession is making a yeasty, chewy pizza that is better than my favorite, Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove. She uses tomatoes and basil from our garden, good provolone, an ancient black sheet pan that she has had for 20 years, and a crazy secret method of proofing her dough.

That’s what I would want for my last meal.