Chef Homaro (Omar) Cantu said yes to everything. He was a believer in possibilities, in people, in change. An inventor, a creative genius and a leader in molecular gastronomy, as well as a Michelin-starred chef, Cantu believed that one person with one idea could change the world, and he moved through the world spreading his determined passion to everyone he met. This is why his death this week at 38, declared suicide by hanging, makes no sense. Cantu was a fighter. Cantu was a champion. Cantu was an optimist. He gave so much, and helped so many. How is this tragedy possible?
But even Atlas could only carry so much. With a lawsuit on his shoulders, the exiting of Executive Chef Richie Farina from Cantu's prized Moto Restaurant, along with the building of his new Berrista Café and the pending opening of his brew-pub, Crooked Fork, Cantu certainly had more than his fair share on his plate. Still, this question lingers: how could a man who touched so many lives and lent a hand to so many feel so alone that he perceives his only option is to take his own life?
This question lingers and gnaws at me and cripples my heart because I was one of the people that Chef Omar Cantu helped.
In early 2010, as a no-name, new-to-journalism, one-woman production company, I asked Cantu, a complete stranger to me then, if he would be my first TV interview for my new show, Fear No ART Chicago, which I hoped would appear on WTTW, but I wasn't certain. He said yes without hesitation and cleared an entire afternoon for the shoot in the "lab" downstairs at Moto. In addition, he was dedicated to getting his team in front of the camera so that their skills and talents could be highlighted.
In the show segment below, you see Cantu as cool as ever despite my nervous and novice nature. He was my first on-camera interview.
Fast forward to the end of 2011. I wanted to launch a new show that would be both a live event and a live stream, filmed for later airing. It would be a celebrity, roundtable talk show over food cooked by a prominent chef. The live audience of 150 would be eating and joining in the conversation via Twitter, so it was also sort of a flashmob dinner party. I told Cantu that I hadn't worked out all the details yet, but I asked if he would be my first guest chef.
Just as he had done before, Chef Cantu said yes without a moment's hesitation and became the first chef, along with Richie Farina, on The Dinner Party. In fact, I don't even know if The Dinner Party would have come so far so fast if Chef Cantu hadn't been the first chef on the show, jump-starting it into high gear by granting it his creative and culinary stamp of approval. To boot, he even introduced me to The Dinner Party's first sponsor.
Chef Homaro Cantu on the first The Dinner Party, making his classic Cigar Sandwich, January 2012.
Our paths continued to cross over the years and we became friendly through business. I interviewed him for this publication when his Miracle Berry Cookbook came out, and I worked with him briefly on The Trotter Project. We saw each other on the red carpet for the screening of The Hundred Foot Journey and at the opening of Berrista. We would exchange emails from time to time. The most quintessential Omar email came last fall and went something like this: 'Hey, let's do that thing we were talking about doing the last time we met.' Omar had so many ideas I don't think even he could keep track of them all.
He reached out in late February 2015 and talked about doing something fun with Berrista on The Dinner Party. But when news hit of a lawsuit in March, I made the classic mistake of someone who is not in the inner circle or even in the medium circle. I thought it best not to reach out because he had too much going on in his world, too much noise and too much headache, and surely he would have a team of family, friends, lawyers and chefs all at his side.
While he most likely did have that large team around him because I know he was loved, in hindsight I can see that this was THE time to reach out, THE time to say, 'There are probably people much better equipped to help you than I, but I am here to lend a helping hand in any way I can, as you have so often done for me.'
Oh, how I wish I could say that now.
Instead, I say this and hope it can be heard: It may have felt like it, Chef, but you were not alone. There are so many people, including myself, who believe in you still. You touched the lives of so many, and your creative shoes will never be filled. Your pain is our loss, and our sadness. Rest in peace, creative genius and giver of gifts, you will forever be missed.
In lieu of flowers, the Cantu family asks that donations be mailed to:
Cantu Children's Trust
1555 Sherman Avenue
P.O. Box 177
Evanston, IL 60201
Services for Chef Cantu will take place Friday at St. Viator Parish, 4170 W. Addison St., with visitation from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with Mass beginning at 1 p.m.
For the full history of Chef Homaro Cantu's life and career, click here.