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Chef Homaro Cantu Changed Dining in Chicago

The Moto chef tragically died yesterday. Chicago’s dining editor reflects on her Cantu experiences.

Chef Homaro Cantu   Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

I had my first dinner at Moto on January 30, 2004, when foam platings and dégustation menus were at their height. I had already been wowed by Grant Achatz’s liquid black truffle ravioli, the first tasting on his 2002 Trio prix fixe menu—a menu that came with instructions. I expected a super creative dining experience at Moto, but little did I know that Homaru Cantu was about to re-invent the still nascent idea of kitchen as laboratory.

Cantu, who tragically died yesterday, was first covered in-depth in this magazine for a 2005 article on “Techno-Chefs.” Since then, he’s been a regular source of fascination in the dining community, and only four months ago was pushing boundaries again with his latest spot, Berrista Coffee. In light of the news of the 38-year-old’s passing, I reflected this morning on my first time experiencing a Homaro Cantu meal.

An early menu from Moto, which opened January 19, 2004.

So, back to that dinner in 2004. I excitedly ordered Cantu’s seven-course tasting menu (above), and noted the solemn tone of the minimalistic dining room set by waiters who looked like doctors dressed in black lab coats instead of white.

Dinner started with a dish called Amusing Flatware. This from my notes:

The plate itself is a metal platform and the spoon is resting one way and the fork the other way.  Each utensil is slanted and leans against a toothpick-high and toothpick-skinny metal rod and each utensil stays firmly in place because there’s a magnet on the tip of the rod. It’s very clever looking. The utensils have coiled handles filled with rosemary stalks, which are supposed to add to your “olfactory experience” says the waiter. 

Next came watermelon soup and frozen mustard powder with explicit instructions to “eat the mustard first. Not in the soup!” Later in the meal, I did the unthinkable in fine dining: I used my hands to break the long skinny won ton–esque roll (“looked like a fat straw”) and spill the spicy sauces within over duck confit. Luscious.

An even more amusing presentation than the white truffle ice cream spaghetti for dessert was the wooden box from which you could choose the pen best suited to you to sign the bill. My first “pen flight,” commented by dinner companion.

In the fall of 2004, Graham Elliot burst on the scene at Avenues (at the Peninsula Hotel), and the techno-chef revolution was in full swing.

Of this original class of envelope-pushing kitchen prodigies, Cantu might have pushed the very furthest: By 2004, the very menus at Moto were made of edible paper and he was having a field day with techniques such as dehydration, rehydration, and sous vide—"to lock in vapors.” Kitchen toys included centrifuges, aroma boxes, and nitrous oxide dispensers.

The years rolled by and Cantu’s drive and ambition, fueled by his playful and serious genius, never stopped. He designed custom-made “herbaceous” utensils used on magnetized dishware to perfectly match his meals; he had fresh fish flown in from all over the globe by sonic jet; and perhaps best of all, Cantu eschewed a dress code for his forward-thinking, molecularly engineered feats and feasts.

Cantu launched Ing in 2011 (it closed in 2014). Right next door to Moto, Ing offered a less expensive pop-culture approach to dining than Moto—consider six-course, $80 tasting menus inspired by Martin Scorsese and The Nightmare Before Christmas—but the place never gained the following or stature of Moto. It was here that Cantu introduced his Miracle Berry menu, in which the fruit was used to make sour food taste sweet without using sugar, an innovation that he focused on at Berrista Coffee (opened this past December).

A Chicago dining critic visited Moto a little over a year ago, and while he did not feel as star-struck by the restaurant as he did in its younger days, he couldn’t help but appreciate Cantu’s sense of humor—a “Picnic” dish served on a patch of artificial grass, for instance, or “Tree Trunk," in which you tap into a tree trunk for Michigan maple syrup for your tiny buckwheat pancakes—and ability to delight with new flavor combinations (white gazpacho studded with dried grapes).

In the aftermath of Cantu’s tragic death, we don’t know the fate of Moto or Berrista or his planned brewery. We do know that his wife and two children will never recover from losing their loving, congenial, and unpredictable husband and father. And neither will the Chicago food community, which was uplifted and inspired by his culinary genius.  

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