Rising Star Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto - Biography

Chicago, IL

November 2011

Chef Homaro Cantu was the son of an engineer, and a scientist at heart. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a desire to discover the endless possibilities of invention, Cantu's enthusiasm drove him to dismantle his father’s lawnmower multiple times and chomp on $5, $10, and $20 dollar bills as a young boy. Frequently described as a “techno chef” or a “real life Willy Wonka,” he brushed off these labels and merely called himself a cook. But Cantu's aim was to shatter the rules of the dining table by introducing new technologies to the kitchen. He enticed 21st century diners to embrace unimaginable edible creations.

While some guests may have been shell shocked by his cuisine at Moto, Cantu never lost sight of what brings us all to the table—great tasting food. Having grown-up in Portland, Oregon, Cantu graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. He then worked his way up the ranks in nearly 50 kitchens on the West Coast before moving to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter’s. Cantu spent four years there, becoming sous chef before leaving to open Moto.

To dine at Michelin-starred Moto was to gain a glimpse of the inner-workings of this culinary prodigy’s mind and the future of gastronomy. Offering tasting menus of sometimes more than 20 courses, Cantu stretched the imagination and took diners on an adventure. Menus were printed on edible paper using organic-based inks, all his own concoctions, which were conveniently compatible with his Canon Pixma ip3000 printer. These functional and delicious menus assumed many final forms on the plate, including as garnishes for risotto and alphabet soup.

This out-of-the-box thinking touched the entire dining experience—sometimes literally. One of his many inventions is the polymer box. A perfectly self-contained oven, the three-inch transparent box made of super insulating polymer, is brought to 350 degrees before a raw piece of fish is placed inside and the box delivered to the table where the fish cooks right before the guest’s eyes.

While the experience at Moto expanded minds and palates, Cantu didn't blaze new culinary trails for shock value alone, but to change the way people perceive and eat food. He viewed Moto as his laboratory and tested new technologies in the kitchen daily. Scientific elements such as liquid nitrogen and helium and devices such as a centrifuge and a hand-held ion particle gun made regular appearances in the Moto kitchen. And Cantu was the first chef to zap food with a class IV laser, a cooking technique he unveiled in Spain in February 2006. Cantu modestly explained, “Gastronomy has to catch up to the evolution in technology, and I’m just helping that process along.”

Cantu attracted much attention with his interpretation of Postmodern Cuisine. It may have roots in Spain, but Cantu reintroduced traditional or classical elements, typically carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes. Or as he simply described it, “The human race has been eating the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years. At Moto, we strip away the rules, stretch the imagination, and entice guests with never-before seen dishes. It’s about being open-minded and having a lot of fun with food.”

While multi-sensory enjoyment, including a sense of humor, was important to Cantu, whimsy was not Cantu’s top priority. He was a dedicated food scientist who viewed his kitchen as his personal laboratory. He worked closely with DeepLabs, a team of Chicago-based product developers with backgrounds in aerospace, mechanical engineering, and animation. Cantu met with DeepLabs on a weekly basis to strategize on what he calls his “Star War’s stuff” to make his dreams a reality. (Cantu held at least two patents.)

He also dreamed of using edible paper (flavored and nutrient fortified) and the miracle berry (which makes unpalatable foods edible, an experience Cantu called “flavor tripping” and the organizing concept for his restaurant iNG) to fight world hunger. It was a cause close to his heart, having been homeless for some years as a child. Cantu, who he never said “no” in the kitchen, never said no to charitable requests either. In 2014, after the death of his mentor, Chef Charlie Trotter, he was instrumental in setting up the Trotter Project, a nonprofit for which he was president of the board. The Trotter Project aims to inspire, educate, and mentor at-risk youth through cooking. Cantu's most recent projects include Berrista, a coffeehouse and cafe where the sugar is swapped out for the miracle berry, and Crooked Fork, an Cantu-style brewery. He was also working on his second cookbook.

Tragically, Cantu took his own life in April 2015. He is survived by his wife Katie McGowan, a cook Cantu met in the kitchen, and their two daughters. Gone too soon, Cantu transformed the notion of what a chef can be in the 21st century and forever altered the Chicago dining scene. He will continue to have an impact through the countless men and women who trained and cooked in his visionary kitchens.