'Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival
Too frequently gets lost in the details.

Brett A. Schwartz’s documentary explores the unusual career and cuisine of the renowned Chicago chef.

If Charlie Trotter and his eponymous restaurants are to be credited for making Chicago a truly formidable contemporary dining destination, then a small group of Trotter collaborators could also be acknowledged for diversifying that worldwide reputation, including former chefs Graham Elliot and Homaro Cantu, who went on to helm their own noteworthy dining establishments. Brett A. Schwartz’s DIY film profiles the latter’s unusual culinary career in Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story, an admiring documentary that spends more time considering the chef’s personal history than his culinary legacy, which may not make it the best fit for foodies and industry pros, the two most natural audiences for the film.

Cantu, who grew up in a broken home and began his cooking career in fast-food joints, made the leap to fine dining after culinary school when he showed up unannounced at Trotter’s original restaurant location and offered to work for free if his idol would train him. Cantu eventually rose to sous chef under Trotter, leaving in his 20s to head up the kitchen at Moto, a restaurant where he introduced his own version of molecular gastronomy, a style of cuisine that emphasizes scientific techniques and equipment to craft unusual dining experiences by manipulating the physical characteristics of ingredients and presentation. As an inventor, Cantu energized food preparation by designing his own culinary devices and introducing innovations like “printed food,” edible paper appetizers made from corn and soy, as well as menu selections prepared with liquid nitrogen or laser cooking.

By the time that Cantu’s reputation earned Moto a coveted Michelin star, he was already looking beyond the kitchen to address food-related social issues, including reducing hunger and obesity. His advocacy efforts latched onto the possibilities of a West African fruit known as “miracle berry” to replace sweeteners in food preparation. He went on to base his short-lived second restaurant iNG on dishes incorporating the berry, as well as his succeeding venue Berrista, which reconfigured the menu options for a coffeehouse-style menu. At the same time he was authoring cookbooks and making numerous media appearances, as well as collaborating with partners including SpaceX to revolutionize food science. His whirlwind career came to an abrupt end, however, after business problems proliferated and he mysteriously killed himself in 2015.  

The opinions of subjects profiled for the documentary differ between those who consider Cantu a chef first or primarily an inventor, but either way it’s clear that his introduction of refined scientific techniques led to some remarkably creative culinary advancements. Schwartz, however, chooses to overemphasize Cantu’s personal life in the film, dwelling on his troubled youth in interviews with the chef and his surviving sister, as well as his subsequent marriage to another Chicago cook in his early 30s.

Although Cantu refers to himself as a “molecular gastronomist,” Insatiable never really delves very deeply into his interpretation of a movement that has revolutionized high-end dining, from restaurants as famous as Chicago’s Alinea to El Bulli, subject of the 2010 documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. Cantu’s scientific expertise also receives short shrift, with Schwartz neglecting to adequately describe how the chef developed his skills as an inventor or applied them in the kitchen.

Although there’s plenty of interview footage with Cantu and an abundance of clips from his many media appearances, the documentary includes scant footage of him actually cooking his signature dishes or explaining his methods of menu development and ingredient pairing. Technical credits are adequate for VOD, but the mixed selection of media formats may tend to show greater variability in theatrical presentation.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production company: StoryScreen
Director-producer-executive producer-director of photography-editor: Brett A. Schwartz

Not rated, 98 minutes