Remembering Homaro Cantu

Food Features

Until January, I carried around, from one apartment to another, across four states and two time zones, a ten-year-old issue of Chicago magazine that contained an article marking Chicago, with the rise of Alinea and Moto, as the country’s capital of molecular gastronomy.

Now, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of that magazine. I would have liked to reread about Homaro Cantu, the celebrated Chicago chef who died earlier this week. I would have liked to remember a time before I was a foodie, a time when I was falling in love with a new way of eating. I was just-turned twenty, living in a drafty one-bedroom in rural Illinois, where the busiest restaurant was Applebee’s. Homaro Cantu and Grant Achatz: for a couple years, they became my idols—artists whose work I could consume, a short train-ride away.

I was not a foodie before reading about molecular gastronomy. In fact, my relationship with food was fraught. I always loved baking, sometimes loved eating, usually hated myself for wanting sweets. But reading about—and then eating—at Alinea, where a plate was set down on a perforated pillow to release a rush of lavender, and Moto, where a short-stack of ice-cold pancakes were flipped on Cantu’s patented “anti-griddle,” showed me how to revere culinary arts, how to challenge my palate, how to taste joy.

You couldn’t begin to guess at the calories, for instance, in a signature dish at Moto, like the Cuban sandwich served in an ashtray—and, anyhow, what would be the point?

Joy. “Joy is such a human madness,” writes Zadie Smith in her essay, “Joy.” And, in the wake of Homaro Cantu’s death this week, unexpectedly joy is a word that comes up again and again.

Louisa Chu, cohost of WBEZ’s Chewing the Fat podcast, recalls that joy was one of the main qualities Cantu brought to the culinary world, along with “curiosity. And generosity.” Though in his early Chicago days, after he worked at Charlie Trotter’s and opened Moto, Cantu was “one of the so-called mad scientist chefs,” Chu echoed something felt by many of us who ate not only at Moto, but at OTOM (where Cantu served Swanson-esque “TV dinners”), Berrista or iNG: “As much I heard about his cool, high-tech techniques, no one mentioned how delicious and fun his food and restaurant experiences were.”

“Better than Alinea,” I whispered to my boyfriend, feeling sacrilegious.

The yellow cab rumbled down Fulton Market through the cold November night.

“The food was incredible,” my boyfriend agreed. We had eaten twelve courses at Alinea several months before, and we thought that had been something. It was, it had been—Moto was just something more. “Everything—not one thing went unconsidered. Everything was unreal.”

Our meal—twenty courses paired with wine, begun with cocktails and a soy-potato starch menu—had culminated in a visit to the kitchen. We were the youngest couple in the dining room—and the longest table. After pleasant rapport with the servers, one of them offered a tour.

In heels and a black dress, I tottered down a narrow staircase. I had never been offered this perspective, this backstage pass, this peek.

There must have been bodies in the kitchen but I don’t remember them: only the smallness of the space, the sterile stainless steel, the coruscating red light that belonged on an ambulance.

Chu staged in Moto for an evening. I wish I had been in her nonslip shoes. “I was so used to the classic old school rigorous rigid forms. And Cantu so much encouraged not just fun for the diners but also his cooks too … Not to say he ran a lucy-goosey kitchen, but there was no temper tantrum, no walking on eggshells, no ego. He really earned the respect of his cooks and inspired creativity by example.”

His visual flair did not go unnoticed, and it never seemed to wane. When Chicago artist Andrew Christen ate at Moto in October, he recalled not only Cantu’s excellence as a chef, but as a visual genius. Christen notes that, “[Cantu’s] food was delicious, but what struck me was his platings. They were fun and whimsical presentations … cigars in an ash tray or your mother’s ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter. Dinner at Moto … provoked conversations about life. He was a true artist on par with Warhol and Oldenburg.”

That talent corresponds with how Chu remembers Cantu’s extra-kitchen demeanor. “His brain and his mouth were constantly going at a thousand miles per hour … with an incredible amount of thought. Even as much he talked and had a million ideas, he was always incredibly thoughtful about what he said. And never said anything hurtful about anybody. Even when he had lots of reason and right to do so.”

Monica Eng, Chu’s cohost on Chewing the Fat, thinks Cantu’s legacy will be complex. “He will be remembered as the mad scientist who was always pushing the boundaries and coming up with new high ways to experience food,” says Eng. But she points to Cantu’s other accomplishments, those that reflect his curiosity, his generosity, his spirit. “I certainly hope people will also remember the goals behind a lot of his inventions and innovations, to save energy, reduce pollution, preserve resources, improve agricultural sustainability, reduce chemical usage and create more delicious foods in the process. I hope they will also appreciate all his research and development on the miracle berry in hopes of helping chemo patients and diabetics eat better and helping others reduce their dependence on sugar. I certainly hope final weeks and days are not what define him.”

I am just one eater of Cantu’s food, but the news of his passing hit me hard. I live far from Chicago these days, and the time when Fulton Market was a dark, shady, meatpacking street is long past. The last few times I found myself on the street, I was waiting to eat at Next or drink wondrous cocktails at The Aviary and The Office, Achatz’s latest ventures. I’ll admit: love my meal as I did, I didn’t return to Moto.

Still, I will always remember that night and that kitchen, that time in my own life that taught me how to love food. Molecular gastronomy, despite its price tag, thanks to Cantu’s delight and joy, invited me to the wider world of eating.

Ever since I ate at Alinea and Moto, for the past ten years, I’ve collected menus. Imagine my sadness when I realized the same housecleaning that sent my old Chicago to the recycling ushered out those keepsakes, too. Talking to people about Cantu’s death, I started regretting that decision. I would love to revisit that Moto menu. Then, I realized, I couldn’t. After all, I’d eaten it—edible paper, natch—at the beginning of a perfect meal.

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