We vaguely knew that Homaro Cantu was a self-made mad scientist, a kid who had spent at least part of his childhood homeless who wound up cooking in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen before willing his way to one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants (Moto) with his own unique blend of fine dining and weird science (and a fair degree of savvy salesmanship for the things he does there being unique and transformative). As we say, we vaguely knew all that, but we know it a lot better after the last week. On Tuesday Cantu started posting stories of his life— first, how Matthias Merges taught him how to break down fish at Charlie Trotter’s:
Chef Matt started out by breaking down one of two 30 pound halibuts. “Breaking down seafood is the most elegant thing you can do in a kitchen” he said. “You have to take your time, forget about all of the noise in the kitchen. Nothing else matters once you start and you cannot become distracted in any way.” Yes Sensei.
But inspiration quickly took a more gothic turn.
The next one explained how Cantu got into cooking in the first place. He was 17 and living out of his car in 1996, working in a high volume fish and steak house:
I was working the fry station and really doing a horrific job of it. To my right this guy named Charlie Harisson started to talk to me. I was a quiet kid, 17 years old, no parental guidance, didn’t know what I really wanted to do in life, didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink. I mean, I should have been shooting up heroin and drinking myself silly considering what had happened over the past 17 years of my life. I really had no self esteem, felt like I could disappear and nobody would notice. So I could have met anyone at that point and would have been game to rob a bank, do drugs, whatever. Had Charlie been one of those guys that was handing out crack like candy, I probably would have done it, because life was getting shittier by the day. But he wasn’t.
What Charlie was, was the kind of Pentecostal Christian that sophisticates who dine at fancy restaurants would instinctively make fun of. (Talking in tongues is involved.) Also the kind who takes in all kinds of losers and inspires them with the message that God has a better plan for them than living in a car and working a fryer, if they’ll seize it. This one, after all, began “Did I ever tell you why I went to culinary school?”
We’re still waiting for what happened in culinary school, but what’s followed are two tales of Cantu’s peripatetic childhood between a drug addicted mom, an absent father and, at one point, hostile stepmother, abuse by a babysitter and, as it turns out, the discovery at age 6 that cooking can get a neglected child attention:
The only thing that got my mom’s attention was the time I lit the hot dogs on fire.
That’s it. Fire.
I was obsessed with it now. I’ll show her who’s boss someday.
I was on my way to becoming an arsonist.
It’s almost too easy as a Freudian explanation for the chef he is today (someday I’ll own my own laser!), but sometimes Life really is that obvious an artist.
The most recent is about Charlie Trotter’s, the boot camp that, it turns out, Cantu had been dreaming of. Cantu is one of the reasons we felt the Tribune’s recent three part piece on Trotter was one-sided; he plainly got screwed over in some ways, yet no one will more enthusiastically tell you what he gained there, as he does in this piece (which, for some typically unfathomable Facebook reason, seems to be unlinkable at the moment; if we figure out, we’ll update). People who were names in that Tribune piece come to life here:
At 10, the am sous chef, 46 year old Reginald Watkins would be wrestling with live king crabs in the stock pot all morning long. “I gotta get on and off the boards Boss Dogg!” That was Reggie’s name for me - Boss Dogg. Two g’s for a double dose of this low dirty boss dogg. (Dont ask) Somehow he could tell I was from the ghetto. Reggie came from the ghettos on the south side of Chicago. He and I got along perfectly. We practically had telepathic communication when he wasn’t telling me to sweep and mop all day long.
Will it ever be a chef memoir in book form like, oh, Grant Achatz’s? Maybe, maybe not; the difference between the two of them is captured exactly in the fact that Achatz released a precisely told tale between two covers which is now on its way to Hollywood, while Cantu’s is exploding in a real time mad rush on Facebook for any poor screwed-up kid to read and learn from. But for right now, it’s the best thing to read about fine dining in Chicago— and the best memorial piece on Charlie Trotter’s to date, too.