Indy Film Fest: Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story
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I did not know who Homaro Cantu is when I watched the documentary about his life, so that colored my experience. If you are familiar with the famous chef and “molecular gastronomist,” then you are surely aware of the shock I felt near the end of “Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story.”
If you are viewing this fine film with someone who was innocent of knowledge as I, I urge you not to enlighten them beforehand. That said, this makes writing this review a challenge — for reasons you shall see.
Homaro, known as Omar to friends, was a nobody kid, a Mexican-American who literally spent years of his life homeless and abused and went on to become one of the most famous chefs in America before he was 30 years old.
Directed by Brett A. Schwartz, the documentary follows Homaro over the course of a couple of years as he opens and closes restaurants, appears on TV shows like “Iron Chef” and spews forth a seemingly unending series of ideas of how to literally transform the way we eat. As Richie Farina, an executive chef at his signature Moto eatery and close friend puts it, Homaro’s real goal was nothing less than saving the world.
Schwartz does a good job of mixing in the biographical stuff with the contemperanous footage, so we discover Homaro’s past simultaneously as we witness him strive toward the next big idea. We get the crystal-clear picture of a man bored by his own achievements, always looking to move on to the next thing.
He became sous chef at Charlie Trotter’s famed Chicago restaurant at a young age, literally packing everything he owned into a car and showing up on the man’s doorstep, begging for an unpaid job. But after four years, he was fired; actually, Trotter gave him a choice of continuing to work in his to-go operation or going away, and he chose to go away.
Homaro’s work and reputation were not suffering; indeed, within days he was inundated with offers to start his own place. But both men recognized that there was nothing more for him to learn. His termination was essentially Trotter’s kicking the now full-grown bird out of the nest.
His style of cuisine falls into what people like me would call “precious” — overtly modern food that relies on science-based alterations to change the taste. He embraced quirkiness for its own sake, such as meal made to resemble roadkill on a plate. Or wrapping food around special corkscrew forks and then heating it, so the utensils themselves affect the flavor of the food they’re spearing.
He advocates the use of a “miracle berry” with a protein that blocks the tongue’s ability to sense sourness. After eating a berry (or pill version), you can literally lick a lemon and it will taste like the sweetest lemonade.
Calling refined sugar “poison,” Homaro is determined to eliminate it from his dishes. He even starts another restaurant, iNG, based around berry-based dishes, and later makes plans for Berrista, a coffee shop with the same theme.
And herein we witness the man’s tragic flaw: Gifted with prodigious drive and inventiveness — he owns two patents — Cantu is often incapable of seeing them through to full fruition. He spread himself so thin, accepting every offer for media appearances or charity work, that most of his ideas remain on the back burner.
He talks repeatedly about opening a food laboratory where he can experiment and play, leaving the mundane cooking-for-people work to others. By the end of the film it still lingers in the “almost” realm.
I do wish the documentary had more overtly explored Cantu’s shortcomings along with his titanic achievements. It’s left to Chicago Tribune food writer Mark Caro to offer the sole note of critical thought expressed in the film. Cantu’s employees and friends wind up seeming sycophantic in that they can never offer him pushback.
But perhaps that is inevitable. Homaro Cantu comes across as a force of nature, a man whose passion for food and creativity knew no bounds.