Homaro Cantu, whose creative blending of science and fine dining garnered international attention for his West Loop restaurant Moto, was found dead Tuesday afternoon on the Northwest Side, according to authorities and a business partner.
The 38-year-old chef appeared to die of hanging, and his death was being investigated as a suicide, police sources said.
Cantu was found about 1 p.m. in a building in the 4400 block of West Montrose Avenue where he had planned to open a brewery, according to investigators. The Cook County medical examiner's office said an autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday.
"I'm saddened, I'm broken up," said Trevor Rose-Hamblin, Cantu's brewer and former Moto general manager. "This guy was my best friend. He was going to be my business partner."
Cantu wowed diners with his edible menus, carbonated fruit and a fish preparation that cooked before your eyes in a tabletop polymer box, but his ambitions went beyond culinary pleasures. Citing as inspiration his family's homelessness while growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Cantu presented food and science as a way to solve the world's problems, particularly hunger.
His now-shuttered restaurant iNG and recently opened coffee shop Berrista emphasized the miracle berry, a fruit that makes sour foods taste sweet and could, in his mind, eliminate the need for sugar while making previously unpalatable ingredients palatable. He started an aeroponic farm in Moto's basement and attempted lab work that might lead to the creation of synthetic meat and a vegan egg.
"I was just taught very early that if I didn't solve problems, I was headed for a very dark path," Cantu told the Tribune in 2012. "Problems were everywhere. Now even if there are no problems, I look for problems. I'm like, you know what? I don't like the way this spoon works. I want to design a new spoon. Or I don't like the way my phone integrates with my desktop. ... I want to come in and talk to my computer."
Cantu, whose friends called him “Omar,” worked in acclaimed chef
He met his wife, Katie McGowan, when she was a guest chef in Trotter's kitchen. They were married in 2003.
Cantu spoke with the enthusiasm of a geeky evangelist, often exclaiming "boom" to punctuate his descriptions of such visions as creating hangover-free beer or liquefying citrus from the inside to create packageless juice.
"I think (I'm) a product developer first and foremost now," he told the Tribune in 2012.
After Trotter died in November 2013, Cantu worked with the late chef's family members and fellow alumni of the famed restaurant to launch The Trotter Project last June. This effort aimed to provide culinary and nutritional education particularly to students and neighborhoods in need, to create an as-yet-unlaunched restaurant online ratings system and to host culinary events in the tradition of its namesake. Its website currently seeks donations for "a three-year capital campaign to carry on the vision and values of Chef Charlie Trotter."
In August he announced that his long-gestating brewery/brewpub had a name, Crooked Fork, but it has yet to open.
"I'm devastated," Jeff Linnemeyer, a business partner with Cantu, said outside the planned brewery Tuesday afternoon.
Phillip Foss, chef of the renowned
"It showed a great character that he even showed up, given what happened that day. He told me, 'What are you gonna do? I'm going to work through it,' " Foss said. "But he definitely wasn't in the happiest spirit. There was a somber note to him for sure."
Last month, Cantu was sued by an investor in Moto and another restaurant, iNG, that has closed. Alexander Espalin claimed Cantu used Moto's business bank account for personal use, including trips, meals and personal business such as the development of patented products.
In the lawsuit filed in Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County on March 19, Espalin said Cantu failed to pay him profits owed him for his investment in iNG and Moto.
Espalin said he invested $100,000 in iNG at the start of the operation and later an additional $50,000 to help what he said was a failing restaurant, and that he had a 15 percent ownership stake in Moto.
But Espalin said in the lawsuit that Cantu commingled the accounts for the restaurants, using Moto's profits to prop up iNG, which he said was failing and which he urged Cantu to close.
Espalin said that Cantu cut off contact with him in September 2012, after which he said in the lawsuit that he learned Cantu was using a "business bank account for personal matters," including trips, meals, legal fees, and Cantu's cookbook and personal ventures.
Espalin also alleged in the suit that Cantu's cookbook, "The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook," used a featured item on iNG's menu, but that Cantu kept all profits from the cookbook for himself, and used restaurant funds to pay for the promotion of the book.