ARUN RATH, HOST:
This past week, the culinary world lost a visionary.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDX TALK)
HOMARO CANTU: This could actually be the end of world hunger. I mean, if you look at developing countries and, you know, things like that - if you could just open up maybe two or three ingredients that are hyper-local so we don't have to distribute products, you're knocking down food miles. You're just opening up this whole new world.
RATH: That's the voice of Chef Homaro Cantu from a Ted Talk a few years ago. Cantu took his own life this past week in Chicago. He was 38. Homaro Cantu's specialty was the avant-garde approach to cooking known as molecular gastronomy. And every visit to his flagship restaurant, the Michelin-starred Mot, was a trip down the rabbit hole.
MONICA ENG: He was one of those people who you expected sparks to be flying out of their heads because they're so full of ideas.
RATH: Monica Eng covers the food scene in Chicago for member station WBEZ.
ENG: He would make menus that you could eat that tasted like filet mignon. He could take wine and turn it into a powder. He could take fruit and carbonate it and turn it into a handheld juice box.
RATH: Cantu's scientific approach to cooking started quite traditionally, as an apprentice to the father of the American tasting menu, Charlie Trotter. And right beside Cantu was a future judge on Fox TV's "MasterChef," Graham Elliot.
GRAHAM ELLIOT: We actually started work at Charlie Trotter's together, probably a week apart from each other, back in January of 1999.
RATH: In the foxhole of that demanding kitchen, Graham Elliot became close friends with Cantu. Later, they both ran their own restaurants. But where Elliot remained classical, Cantu went postmodern. And Graham Elliot loved it.
ELLIOT: He was showing me materials that NASA used to coat the outside of the Space Shuttle, which allowed it to heat to a billion degrees - and what if we made a pan like that? Imagine the sear we would get on a piece of meat.
RATH: Elliot says that Homaro Cantu's ideas began to turn from creative cooking into creative problem-solving for issues like world hunger and helping people avoid processed sugar - for example, his work with something called the miracle berry. Again, Monica Eng.
ENG: The miracle berry is a berry from West Africa that when you eat it, it makes sour things like lemons taste like they're sweet. He saw this as a way to get those who crave sweet flavors to eat less sugar. He also saw it as a way to make food more attractive to chemo patients who are having a hard time eating. He really thought it was going to be the key to helping solve some of the biggest public health problems in the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDX TALK)
CANTU: There's food on the sidewalk, OK? We don't think of it as food because it tastes bad. It has nutritional value. I was out in my backyard one day, and I popped a miracle berry, and then I just started eating blades of grass. And I isolated 13 different types of grass. Kentucky Bluegrass actually tastes like basil when you're flavor-tripping. We call this flavor-tripping.
CANTU: And so let's just stop and think about it - hyper-local cuisine would be just that. You walk out your door and then, you know, you don't look at it as weeds; it's now a new page in gastronomy.
ELLIOT: No other chef anywhere is thinking of those same kind of things.
RATH: Graham Elliot is among those in the culinary world mourning the loss of this inspirational thinker and trying to make sense of Homaro Cantu's decision to end his life. "There's no way to know what motivated him. We do know he was under a lot of pressure." Monica Eng says Cantu was in the process of opening new establishments around Chicago, an already stressful situation.
ENG: He also had this lawsuit that had recently been introduced from a former investor hanging over him.
RATH: The suit alleged that Cantu had funneled money from the successful Moto restaurant to prop up his other ventures, including personal projects. Graham Elliot hopes the world can focus less on that and more on Cantu's spirit. And he wants the next generation of cooks to be inspired by his legacy.
ELLIOT: It's one thing, just to kind of cook in the restaurant and excite 50 guests a night, but how do we do it for, you know, 5 billion people the world over? To limit it just to cooking in a restaurant isn't enough. And I think that's going to be the big message.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDX TALK)
CANTU: So in the future, you're going to see these things coming out. And it's not really for the money; it's just to watch something cool happen. And I think it's time, so thank you very much. Cheers.
RATH: Homaro Cantu hanged himself this past Tuesday.
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