My times with Omar Cantu

Homaro Cantu

News of Chef Homaro Cantu’s untimely death is rocking the restaurant industry. Since the announcement hit last night, Twitter has been full of condolences and messages of how much the visionary will be missed. Aside from winning and maintaining a Michelin star for his Moto, he’s been working for years to develop and promote new foods and technologies that he hoped would help bring an end to hunger—an effort motivated by his own experience with homelessness as a child. For sure, his death will leave a huge hole in forward-thinking culinary developments.

But on a personal level, the news shook and saddened me. Omar, as he insisted I call him, was one of the first chefs with whom I formed a relationship beyond just asking interview questions for upcoming articles. What I thought was going to be a 30-minute interview in the downstairs of Moto before the restaurant opened one afternoon turned into an hours-long chat, followed by a drive over to his still-under-construction Berrista coffeeshop and then a trip to Starbucks. In that one day, I got a picture of who he really was. And more importantly, what he stood for.

He was known for his whacky, out-there preparation styles. Diners would leave Moto and iNG baffled that they’d just eaten—and enjoyed—what looked more like a science experiment than food. But to him, cooking was about more than just the entertainment value behind molecular gastronomy.

He wanted to improve people’s lives through food. His interest in the Miracle Berry (a natural berry in tablet form that temporarily makes bitter foods taste sweet) was spurred by an effort to help a friend of a friend who had cancer and couldn’t eat anything, since chemotherapy made all food taste like metal. He spent months searching for an answer to improve this woman’s quality of life, and he felt gratified once he was able to help. In fact, he played me the voicemail from his friend who was ecstatic that her friend was enjoying food again—he’d saved it.

From there, he couldn’t contain his excitement when telling me about the possibilities of the Miracle Berry, from helping diabetics to overall improving the healthfulness of what we eat. He’d said he was doing the legwork so that a McDonald’s, for example, could use what he’d already figured out to improve food quality for the masses while still maintaining a low price. He thought of himself as a researcher who would gladly share information if it meant bettering what people eat. He had passion dripping from every word. And talking a mile a minute, I knew that he truly believed he was on a mission to improve food quality across the globe.

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a little showboat-y in his revelations. For example, he’d found a way to make better-for-you lemonade (Miracle Berry+lemon+water, no sugar or additives necessary). He told me that whenever his young daughters had friends over, they did the Miracle Berry test. He’d have them taste the lemon water, convincing these little girls that they didn’t need sugary drinks in their diets. And then he ran with this idea as a way to promote the capabilities of the Miracle Berry in anticipation of Berrista. As we sat on the Starbucks patio, he pointed across the street, telling me that was where he and his daughters set up a lemonade stand, stealing Starbucks customers and convincing them to try his healthy lemonade instead.

This was the way the future was heading, he said. This, and a reliance on machines. The jump from improved diets to robots was so quick it gave me a bit of whiplash, but it was yet another topic he was surprisingly passionate about and knowledgeable of. We had a pretty raw debate about the potential merger of machines and humanity, him saying that conscious decision making in the not-to-distant future would one day be all robot-controlled. He talked about The Transcendent Man, a documentary on the topic, and then began forwarding me articles to read and videos to watch that supported what he thought. Who’d have thought this chef was such a futurist beyond just food developments?

As the sun started to go down on that Starbucks patio, we concluded our conversation and went our separate ways. I headed back to the office with more than I ever thought I’d get, going into the interview just hoping to learn a little more about his plans for Berrista.

The very next time I saw him, I wasn’t just some reporter. He greeted me with a hug and asked if I’d watched some of the videos he’d forwarded along. There were plenty of admiring fans at the event waiting to greet him, yet while shaking their hands, he was still turned to me, talking about The Transcendent Man.


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