While I would consider myself far from a cooking show devotee, the truth is I was familiar with the story of Homaro Cantu prior to watching Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story, a feature documentary directed by Brett Schwartz currently screening at the 2016 Indy Film Festival at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
A compelling man with a compelling story, Cantu helped put Chicago on the culinary map when he helped open the acclaimed Moto and became, depending upon who you talk to, either a "celebrity chef" or a "culinary fad" in 2004 after having spent some time working under his idol, Charlie Trotter. A scientist at heart, Cantu became known for both his experimental cuisine and his social entrepreneurship. Cantu tackled huge societal concerns ranging from the American obsession with refined sugar to developing new methods for space cuisine. Cantu, throughout his career, became obsessed with using his culinary gifts to make the world a better place.
Insatiable was filmed over a period of three years and presents an emotionally complex and layered portrait of Cantu, whose background as a survivor of childhood abuse and trauma, including extended periods of homelessness, undoubtedly informed the man he would become. The film is riveting. The film is, at times, emotionally exhausting. The film takes a journey from redemption and inspiration to tragedy and back again.
Insatiable may very well be most effective with those less familiar with Cantu's story. In fact, if you're not I'd encourage you to not look up his story and allow Schwartz to bring it to life. Even if you're familiar with Cantu, whose embrace of media was well known with appearances on Iron Chef America, Dinner: Impossible, the documentary series Unwrapped, Good Morning America, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Hell's Kitchen and others. An inventor with two patents, Cantu wasn't content to simply cook - he wanted to change the way that people eat.
Cantu will, perhaps, always be most associated with what he called the miracle berry, which he believed could end hunger by allowing people to eat normally unpalatable food and end dependence on processed sugar. He explained "If you look at developing countries and things like that, if you could just open up maybe two or three ingredients that are hyper-local, so we don't have to distribute products, you're knocking down food miles ... I was out in my backyard one day, and I popped a miracle berry, and then I just started eating blades of grass ... And so, let's just stop and think about it: hyper-local cuisine would be just that: you walk out your door, and you don't look at it as weeds; it's now a new page in gastronomy."
To prove his point, Cantu spent a week on a diet of miracle berries and common weeds, grass, and leaves he found in his backyard. He would also regularly donate the berries to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to make food more palatable to them. In 2013, Cantu founded the Trotter Project, a non-profit aimed at providing culinary education to students in poor neighborhoods and he gave away up to 250 lunches a day to kids in the Old Irving Park neighborhood who picked them up at Berrista, one of his many projects.
The story of Homaro Cantu is one of the most deeply felt stories to be experienced at the 2016 Indy Film Fest. Schwartz's film is, much like Cantu himself, an intelligent exploration of the subject that doesn't apologize for its intelligence. For more information on the film, visit the Indy Film Fest website.
Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story is screening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Toby Theatre on July 17th at 3:30pm and on July 22nd at 1pm.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic