Homaro Cantu: A Driving Force of Innovation in the Culinary World

Editor’s Note: Despite the sudden unfortunate events, Foodable has decided to move forward in sharing this Homaro Cantu piece with you. Foodable’s Chicago contributor, Suzanne Deveney, sat down with Cantu in March for this interview, in which he tells his story. Those who knew him were aware of his creative genius. Cantu’s innovative spirit will forever live on in the culinary world, and our thoughts are with his friends and family during this difficult time.

By Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor

Search the web for Chef Homaro Cantu, and the word “inventor” appears first under his photo. A bit unusual for a world-renowned chef, but after speaking with Cantu, it actually makes perfect sense.

Cantu was perhaps most recognized as the Executive Chef and creative force behind Chicago’s highly acclaimed restaurant, Moto. Drawing on his science and food background, Cantu introduced the concept of molecular gastronomy to diners, providing a multi-sensory dining experience unlike anything they had before. 

Aside from Moto, Cantu’s list of accomplishments is long. He appeared on – and won – Iron Chef America and was a TED Talk presenter. He was on Rolling Stone’s Hot List and has been his own category on Jeopardy!. His restaurants have been reviewed in thousands of publications around the world, and through his company, Cantu Designs, he consulted with NASA, pharmaceutical companies and Fortune 500 companies.  

And most recently, he added “coffee shop owner” to the list. But as you can imagine, this is no ordinary coffee shop. At Berrista, Cantu wanted to change the way we think about typical coffee shop food – high sugar, fat-laden fare – and created foods with no sugar or chemicals so you can “enjoy your vices.”

The Beginning

No stranger to hard work, Cantu showed his intense curiosity and drive at a young age. Growing up with few resources and in one of the toughest neighborhoods just outside of Oakland, he started mowing lawns at age 9. When the mower would break, he would fix it – learning about internal combustion engines along the way. And when he earned a bit of money, he would take it and start another side business. 

“If you don’t hustle, if you don’t keep pushing what you believe to be a sustainable and viable business, nobody’s going to do it,” said Cantu. 

Learning to Hustle

Cantu credited his eighth grade science teacher for making an impact on his life by sparking his lifelong fascination with science. “He saw something in me and said that if I didn’t apply myself, I wasn’t going anywhere. It’s the first time anyone had confidence in me.” 

Cantu also applied himself in future science classes and got a job working in a kitchen after school. “I would talk to my science teachers about my after school job. About the science behind the techniques. Science made me question why,” said Cantu. 

Fast forward to age 17, when Cantu found himself with no money and homeless. This was the second time Cantu dealt with homelessness; between the ages of 6 and 9, he and his mother and sister spent time in and out of shelters. Cantu spoke of those years with frankness: “Hey, those were hard times. You just have to deal with it.”

After living in his car for nine months, he met a family who let him sleep on their couch, bought him a car when his died, and helped with culinary school. But just as important, they encouraged him to create his own plan and convinced him he could do whatever he set his mind to – which for Cantu meant getting a job at the best restaurant in Portland. 

For several years, Cantu pushed 80-hour weeks working in kitchens along the West Coast – sometimes for no pay. In 1999, at age 23, he left Portland for Chicago with a few hundred bucks in his pocket and a plan (and apparently a lot of guts). He knocked on Charlie Trotter’s door. 

Trotter, a perfectionist when it came to food preparation, presentation and flavors, was well known in the industry for running a demanding kitchen. Cantu stayed at Trotter’s for four years, and the lessons learned while working with Trotter have stuck with him. He spoke about Trotter with respect, saying, “I came to understand drive and determination.” 

Hungry for Change

Cantu’s early experiences shaped much of his opinion about food and fueled his own junk food addiction. “If you don’t have money, you don’t have good food. This is a big challenge in low-income neighborhoods. We need to have better access to food. Everything is loaded with sugar,” the scientist/chef said, “So we start there.”

For Cantu, “there” means removing sugar and sugar substitutes from the food equation. “Sugar and processed sugar substitutes are new information we’re introducing to our bodies. You can’t put a fuel from the future into an internal combustion engine. It doesn’t work. I don’t think the day will come when we’re going to alter our DNA, so we need to dial the food back and look at organic, plant-based solutions in order to maintain what I call ‘good food.’” That means innovation and experimentation.

“Technology has shaped our entire world outside of food. Just look at your phone: it gets smarter every two years. We need to take that same thinking and available technology and apply it to good food.”

So what should we do? “Things like growing the miracle berry,” said Cantu.

What Is a Miracle Berry? 

Cantu first learned about the miracle berry and its ability to mask unpleasant taste when creating recipes to help someone who was undergoing chemotherapy and lost her appetite. She would experience a metallic and sometimes rubbery taste in her mouth from the treatments. While researching many different flavor-altering foods, Cantu and the Moto pastry chef spent weeks “chewing on tin foil and tasting all kinds of foods, including miracle berries,” which eliminated the metallic taste. How? The miracle berry has a naturally occurring glycoprotein molecule, that when eaten, binds with the tongue’s taste buds to make sour or tart foods taste sweet.

He started experimenting further with the miracle berry, which led to Cantu’s latest cookbook, “The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook,” a collection of carefully crafted recipes that eliminate sugar and reduce the calories that come from it. 

If you think this wasn’t something he believed in passionately, think again. The book took eight years to make. “Sugar provides everything: texture, color, browning, flavor,” said Cantu. “When you remove it, there’s nothing left.” 

Cantu thinks the miracle berry can help to change the way we think about food. “You're about to eat a lemon, and now it tastes like lemonade. Let's just stop and think about the economic benefits of something like that. We could eliminate sugar across the board for all confectionary products and sodas, and we can replace it with all-natural fresh fruit.” Now, kids assume that dessert should be a lemon with yogurt instead of something filled with sugar. For Cantu, that’s inspiring. “We need to give our kids an alternative to sugar.”


Eliminating Sugar

One place that Cantu won’t compromise is taste. You don’t need the miracle berry to enjoy what they serve at Berrista, and for him, the miracle berry is just part of the story of starting to look at food differently. 

“Fast food and beverage companies get lumped into being the bad guys. I don’t blame them. I blame the fact that we’re not embracing technology enough in food. Just as we use 3D modeling in product design, we need to use that level of intelligence to explore more plant-based solutions. We need something that starts from a left-field creative idea.”

For Cantu, the coffee shop is a start. “What we’re trying to do is introduce the idea of no sugar. I don’t think that every scone needs to be the same from location to location. But the fast food model won’t work. You need to go to local sources whenever possible and that will be different wherever you are.”

At Berrista, that means using local Chicago coffee roasters, including Bowtruss and Intelligentsia. Berrista is using a Steampunk Coffee Brewer so they can make single cups that appeal to even the most finicky coffee aficionado.  

Berrista is also putting leading-edge thinking to its environment – ideas that others can emulate. Herbs and other plants are growing under the counter, facing out into the coffee shop, in specially lit and temperature-controlled cases. “In Chicago, the outdoor growing season is incredibly short. To remain local, indoor farming is going to step up our game: no chemicals and you don’t have to worry about the weather. And using lighting and sensor technology throughout. These are things that we embrace at Berrista.”

An Innovative Spirit

Cantu has no shortage of ideas. He thinks the health benefit implications for the miracle berry are enormous: “Think about those with diabetes,” he said. But it goes beyond eliminating sugar. 

When talking about the future of food, he often spoke of innovations that we now take for granted. “Just like it took 1200 prototypes to create a light bulb that worked, we have to do the same with food. It takes a community effort to change the way we look at food, and it takes a long time.”

“Our recipes don’t happen overnight. Some take years. It’s painstaking trial and error. It took a month and half to come up with a good tasting doughnut. We always go back to these questions: Are these real ingredients? Are they wholesome ingredients? We just have to keep an eye on that."

“At the end of the day when you’re done experimenting, you have to ask, is it good food or bad?” Because to Cantu, that’s what mattered. 

He also mentioned wanting to open a Berrista in one of those underserved areas like the one where he grew up.

“If no one competes, you get the same old thing. If you want something better, you need to get their attention.”