Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A tribute to Chef Homaro Cantu

Hello friends, my name is Jessica Berson and I have been the voice of Bunny and Brandy for four years now.  The original concept of this blog was to keep behind a semi-anonymous facade, but something happened yesterday that for once requires my own words, and not that of my whimsical, fictional creations, so I hope you will forgive this (hopefully) one time only breaking of the fourth wall.
In the fall of 2009, a friend and I were looking for something to do on a Wednesday night.  Somehow, we landed on the idea of going for a drink at Moto (at the time, there was a small lounge space at the front of the restaurant), just to check out all the crazy mad food science happening there, like edible paper and cocktails in test tubes.  The guy behind the bar must have been amused to find two rubes like us sitting in front of him on an otherwise slow weekday night, and although we had only ordered one drink each, he chatted with us, fixed us up with some absinthe shots (in a test tube!), gave us a taste of some European gin, and even insisted we try a dessert before we left, a chocolate sphere in the shape of a tiny cartoon bomb with a light-able marshmallow wick and a liquefied graham cracker center.  It was an amazing night for two girls who were barely making ends meat while working at a famous Chicago comedy theater.

So elated was I that we had been treated so well that I went home and tweeted Moto's chef, Homaro Cantu, that although I could never hope to afford dinner at his restaurant, I thoroughly enjoyed my brief time there, where his staff were second to none.  Almost right away, I got a DM back from him offering me something extraordinary: a dinner at Moto on his dime in exchange for writing about the experience on social media.  I broke into tears and called my mother.  I felt so lucky that I actually went out and bought a lottery ticket that day.

A few months later, my friend and I were treated to the dining experience of a life time.  We were presented with thirteen courses in total as well as wine pairings and a tour of the kitchen by Moto's future executive chef, Richie Farina.  I wore a dress I'd bought for about $25 from Target especially for the occasion and had lived for a week on egg noodles and frozen vegetables so that I could afford to leave a tip.  As I had told the Chef, at that time in my life, I never thought there was a chance of me being able to have a night like that, a meal like that, and I wouldn't have without the generosity of a man who knew what it was like to be living on the edge while yearning for much more.

That night in June of 2010, a seed was planted and took hold, which would eventually bloom into the founding of this blog in October of that year.  Along with my photographer friend, we decided on brunch as a way to sample Chicago's culinary scene without breaking the bank, as brunch tends to be cheaper than dinner.  When we set up our rating system, we decided to judge every meal on a curve, as compared to the single greatest meal of our lives, which is why we have always used a scale of 1-5 M's to define our idea of perfection (M for "Moto" of course).

As my blog blossomed and grew with my changing life style, Chef Cantu was still there helping me and inspiring me.  I was there with friends for one of the very first dinners at ING, returning again when the miracle berry dinners started, and then being invited once more when the theme dinners entered the space.  My day job circumstances changed and I was able to take my mother to dinner at ING for Christmas for a few years, a tradition she came to look to as the greatest culinary experiences of her life.  I was even invited to guest chef at ING one afternoon, where a staff of patient and polite professional chefs smiled on as I mangled some hard boiled duck eggs and desperately tried to learn how to plate with a pair of tweezers.  Chef Cantu allowed me to reprint two recipes from his amazing Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook on this blog.  He even personally promoted my blog, posting links to it on his social media accounts, which was an amazing boost for me in the eternal battle of getting one's content noticed in the haystack that is the internet.

Yesterday, Chef Homaro Cantu passed away.  I cannot adequately express my devastation at this news.  Although I only met Chef Cantu a few times in person, I always felt as if he was the guardian angel of this blog, a silly little website which gave me the creative outlet I needed to stay sane while working a necessary but not unpleasant day job.  In fact, I have kept the paper version of the menu from my dinner at Moto on my desk since that day so that  I could always remember what had inspired this unexpected, yet joyful and fulfilling part of my life.  I will never forget all of the kindnesses extended to me by Homaro Cantu, a virtual stranger who changed the course of my life in ways he will never know.  Thank you Chef, thank you for the greatest meal of my life, for showing me how food can truly be elevated to art, and for inspiring me to do what makes me happy.  Your spirit of kindness and generosity will never be forgotten and the legacy of talent you leave behind will continue to inspire Chicago and the world for countless decades to come.

My thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.  I encourage all of Chicago's food community to join me in contributing a donation in his honor to The Trotter Project.

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