Homaro Cantu was more than a showman

Chef Homaro Cantu at Moto with kitchen staff and Anthony Bourdain
Chef Homaro Cantu at Moto with kitchen staff and Anthony Bourdain
Chef Homaro Cantu at Moto with kitchen staff and Anthony Bourdain
Chef Homaro Cantu at Moto with kitchen staff and Anthony Bourdain

Homaro Cantu was more than a showman

To a lot of people, the late chef Homaro Cantu was all about showmanship, gadgets and tricks of molecular gastronomy.

He was famous for edible menus, a fish that would cook itself on your table and fruit that became a carbonated juice box.

But what a lot of people didn’t understand was that this mad scientist chef was about something even bigger: Homaru Cantu wanted to save the world.

When WBEZ reporters visited his Moto kitchens last year, we were greeted by typical Cantu. He was playful, warm, articulate and bursting with ideas to make the world a cleaner, healthier more delicious place.

He showed us his digitally monitored indoor farm that he said could grow produce with astonishing efficiency.

“All of these products are grown to such a precise degree that this stuff will grow 50 percent faster than their genetically modified counterparts in their best season,” he said. “And it will all be composted by stuff that comes right from the kitchen.”

He told us about plans to put a beehive on the roof with a path down to the indoor farm, “So bees can come down here, then pollinate and leave.”

He explained his strategy for “smart composting” that would customize the raw composting materials to the plants they’d nourish.

“Plants are like humans,” he said. “They don’t want the same diet…. When we start analyzing what plants really want and giving it to them, that’s going to get us a more flavorful product, that’s going to grow more efficiently without chemicals and genetic modification.” 

He told us about his many ideas for saving energy and reducing food miles. And he shared his enthusiasm for the potential of the miracle berry (which makes sour things taste sweet) to help diabetics and cancer patients while improving overall public health.

“It’s been such a long road,” he said. “But I think we are at a point where we can educate people about what they should be eating rather than what big companies want them to eat.”

I realized I’d had Cantu all wrong. Sure he was great at putting on a show. But his wild restaurants seemed to be just one way to showcase his plans to tackle some of the biggest problems our planet faces today.

Cantu stressed that, although he was patenting the research, he wanted it to be available to everyone.

“[After we file the initial patent] we want people to steal from us,” he said. “Food should not be owned. Food should be a collective effort for everyone, like open source software.”

Like a lot of people in Chicago, I knew Cantu was facing a lawsuit from a former investor. But the news of his death Tuesday came as a great shock--and the suspected suicide even more so. Of all the chefs I’ve known, few have had such ambitious technological plans, such a profound stake in the future and such visionary ideas for making the world a better place. 

His cooking will be missed by diners. His heart and humor missed by his family and friends. But it’s almost impossible to say what society will miss with the loss of Cantu’s ideas and innovations, which he aimed at helping all of us. 


Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org