Before there was Moto, inG, and the morning-show circuit phenomenon that was the innovative “miracle berry,” Homaro Cantu was just a fry cook living out of his car.
After being abandoned by his father and abused by his mother, who stayed in touch with his father “to get the child support checks, which she would spend on drugs,” he set out on his own and “roughed it” for several years, until he encountered a kind couple who took him in.
A new documentary by filmmaker and educator Brett Schwartz (who, incidentally, was my 9th grade Global Studies teacher, imagine my surprise when I got the screener email) follows the late Chef Cantu over the course of three years, up until the sudden end that shocked everyone, including the man behind the camera.
“After spending so much time, it took me a few weeks to gather up the energy and ability to press on,” Schwartz said. “Suicide is so complicated and has so much stigma attached.”
Early trauma can cause extensive psychological damage, especially when left untreated, both immediately and as life progresses. It’s impossible to know exactly what led the late chef him to hang himself in that brewery, but until that time, Schwartz believes, he saw himself as a “rescuer.”
“The more damaged people were around him, the more Omar felt he could help save them. His kitchen was like a pirate ship of colorful mavericks. The chefs called themselves ‘the island of misfit toys,’” Schwartz observed. “Many of the chefs were broken, like Omar, and they pushed each other and built each other up. A couple of Moto chefs would credit Omar with not only their careers, but basically saving them from destruction and believing in them.”
Since the film isn’t on the mainstream market yet, here’s a glance at some of its most memorable takeaways.
Chef Cantu left more than a legacy of creativity. He left behind the notion that one “miracle berry” could possibly change the world, with its ability to make sour taste sweet. Because it is derived from a tropical plant and cursed with a short shelf life, Cantu had to partner with a company in Florida called MBerry to produce it. He saw it as something that could help solve world hunger, using it directly to help produce food and make the taste of other “inedible” tasting foods pleasant. Because of its ability to make everything taste sweet, he also saw it as a way to concur obesity, as a supplement for sugar.
Before the end came, Cantu gifted batches of that miracle berry to 10,000 chemotherapy patients who could barely stomach the taste of food, as their cancer treatment made everything they ate taste like rust.
He was also a budding philanthropist, aspiring to bring a special brand of beer to his forthcoming brewery that would go to “cancer solutions,” he says deliberately into the camera.
But we never got to find out exactly what he meant by that, as the brewery never came to be.
Before Cantu’s death, Schwartz said, the late chef was a true visionary and a committed altruist, always considering the broad impact his innovation could have on people.
“It was easier for him to rescue others,” he said. “But it's as if he didn't have enough faith to rescue himself when he met the greatest challenge of his adult life.”
For more info, check out the website, which also has a schedule of film festival screenings.