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Famed chef Homaro Cantu dies: He ‘was more than a chef. He was a scientist’

In awe of famed chef Charlie Trotter, Homaro Cantu took a chance.

“He knocked on Charlie’s door and begged him for a job,” said Michael Taus, chef at Taus Authentic and a Trotter alum.

That was the beginning of Cantu’s innovative culinary creations, which combined science and whimsy at his West Loop restaurant, Moto.

Cantu, 38, was found dead Tuesday afternoon on the Northwest Side, in the 4400 block of West Montrose Ave., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

An autopsy Wednesday ruled Cantu committed suicide by hanging, a spokesman for the medical examiner’s office said.

News of Cantu’s death sent shockwaves throughout Chicago’s dining scene as chefs remembered his playful food.

Who else but Cantu could have created an edible menu that became part of the meal?

“Homaro was more than a chef. He was a scientist,” said Giuseppe Tentori, the chef at GT Fish & Oyster and also an alum of Trotter, who died in 2013. “That’s why he always came up with goofy and funny ways to eat food.”

Cantu was always a scientist, using his creative ways not only to invent new dishes, but problem-solve, said Matthias Merges, owner and executive chef at Yusho who spent four years working with Cantu in Trotter’s kitchen.

“It was really inspiring to see someone who would come up with an idea that’s so wacky and he would be like, ‘I need to go with it,’ and that’s how Moto was born and all his other projects. . . . I think it was a testament to his creative drive and passion that so inspired myself and a generation of chefs.”

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Cantu grew up in Portland, Oregon, and worked in kitchens on the West Coast before that fateful knock on the back door of Trotter’s eponymous restaurant in Lincoln Park, according to Cantu’s biography.

Then he opened Moto, where he wowed not only with the edible paper, but also with carbonated fruit and “flavor tripping” with a berry that tricks the tongue into sensing sweetness in almost anything.

“He just cared so much about our art,” Taus said. “What we do. Not a lot of people are like him.”

Cantu’s ascent to the top of Chicago’s restaurant scene was a result of a lot of hard work and talent, friends said.

EL Ideas Chef Phillip Foss said Cantu had been homeless and an addict before working in Trotter’s kitchen.

“I hear a lot of stories about a top chef coming up from nothing and going on to great things, but his nothing is a much deeper place than almost anybody I ever knew as a chef,” Foss said. “To go and to have success that he did. It’s just sad that it has to end like this, and we’re just pretty broken up tonight.”

Besides Moto, Cantu owned coffeehouse Berrista. And he served as president of the Trotter Project, which focuses on mentorships and internship access to inspire the next generation of culinary minds.

He was planning to open a brewery with his friend Trevor Rose-Hamblin. Cantu was found dead inside what was to be Crooked Fork Brewing, Rose-Hamblin said.

Another restaurant owned by Cantu, iNG, had closed.

And last month, Cantu was sued by an investor in Moto and iNG claiming, among other things, that Cantu was using Moto’s business bank account for personal expenses.

Friends were shocked Tuesday to learn that Cantu’s death was under investigation as a suicide.

“A guy who came off the streets, who came from being homeless to working at Charlie Trotter’s to owning one of the best restaurants in Chicago and for someone to have accomplished all that, to have this overwhelm him, it just doesn’t make sense,” Foss said.

Rose-Hamblin said the focus now is Cantu’s two daughters and his wife, Katie McGowan.

Like a lot of the important things that happened in Cantu’s life, friends said, he met McGowan in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s.

Services will be held Friday at St. Viator Parish, 4140 W. Addison, Rose-Hamblin said. Visitation will start at 11 a.m. and the funeral will follow at 1 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be mailed to:

Cantu Children’s Trust
1555 Sherman Ave.
Box 177
Evanston, IL 60201