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Remembering Chef Homaro Cantu

April 15 2015 - 10:40 AM

I met Homaro Cantu in 2008 at the Museum of Natural History. He was setting fire to a baked Alaska with a flamethrower. Actually his pastry chef, at that time Ben Roche, was setting the fire and Omar was mugging for the crowd as they chanted – “Fire! It’s BURNING!” Needless to say he made an impression.

If there’s one thing you can say about the man or his restaurants, Moto/ING/Berrista, it is that they made an impression. He had a whimsical way of looking at food that was always pushing a concept or a new technique. He was at the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement, incorporating technology and science not only into his menu but also into his restaurant supply chain and management.

The first time I had a conversation with Omar was shortly after I came up with The Unique Dinner Series. The goal of the series was to give chefs a night to do something really different. The first chef I called on was Cantu. He’s already doing something really different. I wanted to push him. My idea was to do a Wednesday night tasting menu of dishes that went too far. Thinking that after several years of pushing boundaries, Cantu might really have some out-there courses. He looked at me like I was crazy and said that there weren’t that many dishes he could think of that turned off diners. I realized how foolish that question must have seemed.

But he didn’t shut me down. He considered it and mentioned one dish where everything was dyed black. He said the color confused people, that they didn’t know what something was going to taste like, and it wasn’t pleasant to watch someone chew mouthfuls of black food. I jumped at that, “How about we do a tasting menu of all black food?” He looked at me like I was crazy again and cautioned, “We don’t do discounts.”  I reassured him, “We don’t either.”

That’s how 16-Courses of Black started. I was really inspired by his accessibility, indulgence and willingness to do something different. He was so positive and interested. Most importantly, he was collaborative. I spent one afternoon ideating with his staff on possible courses and saw how well they all worked together. This left an impression.

Over the following years I’ve had the pleasure of working with Cantu on a reprise of the Black dinner, with 13 Courses of White last year with Richie Farina at the helm, and at ING working with Trevor Rose Hamblin and David McGowan on new cocktails and Nate Park on his Lifetime of Guilty Pleasures. Trevor, Richie and Nate are examples of many people that share Cantu’s enthusiasm and understanding of the need for a sense of earnestness and humor, both in the process and on the plate. I can see his influence very clearly.

We’ve worked with Moto on a collaboration dinner with Chef Aduriz from Mugaritz. I watched Cantu engaging people at the launch of his Future Food TV show and even attended his staff holiday party one year where he had a pile of pizza and a gigantic black truffle that he would shave over everything. His curiosity, excitement and intensity had an infectious affect on everyone: his audience, his peers and his employees.

Most importantly, Cantu was always a big-picture guy. He’s lauded for his enthusiasm around miracle berries (they trick your tongue into tasting bitter as sweet). He once handed me a doughnut and said, “Taste that. We’re going to eliminate diabetes.”

He’ll be missed.