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Homaro Cantu Found Dead at His Planned Brewery; Suicide Probed

By  Heather Cherone Janet Rausa Fuller and Linze Rice | April 14, 2015 6:39pm | Updated on April 15, 2015 9:28am

 Chef Homaro Cantu was found dead Tuesday.
Homaro Cantu Dies
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IRVING PARK — Homaro Cantu, the famed chef of the West Loop restaurant moto, was found dead Tuesday at the brewery he was planning to open on the Northwest Side, and his death is being probed as a suicide.

Cantu, 38, was found dead around 1:27 p.m. Tuesday at his planned Crooked Fork Brewery at 4419 W. Montrose Ave., authorities said.

A rose in the padlocked door of the Crooked Fork brewery mourns the death of chef Homaro Cantu. (DNAinfo/Heather Cherone)

Chicago Police said the death was being investigated as a suicide. The Tribune, which first reported the story, said Cantu appeared to have died by hanging.

Fellow chef Graham Elliot tweeted out condolences to his friend, calling it a "horrible loss."

Cantu was known for his experimentation — The New York Times called him "Chicago's other cutting-edge chef" alongside Grant Achatz at Alinea. He was one part scientist and one part cook.

Cantu, who also opened iNG in the West Loop, once worked for the late Charlie Trotter. He could instantly recall the exact dates of his tenure at Trotter's — Feb. 1, 1999 to Feb. 1, 2003.

"I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be married to my wife if it hadn't been for Charlie Trotter," said Cantu, who was a cook when his future wife did a one-day guest chef stint at Charlie Trotter's, a gift from a friend.

Janet Fuller discusses Cantu's contributions to the culinary scene:

In December, Cantu opened his Berrista Coffee shop, not far from the brewery site.

Ald. John Arena (45th), whose ward included the coffee shop, said he respected Cantu's "vision and passion."

"[Cantu] was an alchemist," Arena said. "Always experimenting and blurring the lines, a true visionary that is all too rare in this world."

Cantu recently had closed iNG, and he was facing a lawsuit from an investor in moto seeking to oust him because of financial issues.

Matthias Merges, chef and owner of Yusho, A10 and Billy Sunday, said he saw Cantu four days ago. They live a few houses apart in Old Irving Park, and their kids attend the same public school.

They chatted — small talk, school stuff, a little business.

"We talked about Berrista a little bit. He was asking for some advice," Merges said.

"He definitely had a strain, from all publicity going around [from the lawsuit]. As we all know, it's tough. He talked about it. He just said, 'It's a difficult situation. I told him just hang in there and power through it.

"I don't even know what to think. I see his girls almost every day."

At the start of Cantu's culinary career, he worked under Merges at Charlie Trotter's. Merges said Cantu's boundless creativity was apparent back then.

"That's where the whole thing was born. We were just talking about how Omar was the one guy in the kitchen who'd be late by five minutes because he'd stopped at Home Depot and spent $150 on tools and pipes to put together some contraption for the kitchen, to make his life easier. He had a streak of brilliance, of thinking outside of the box and not discounting the impossible.

"That should be his legacy. He was the guy who went for it."

Chef Phillip Foss of EL Ideas said he was shocked and didn't see this coming.

"Obviously, it was dark times for him with iNG closing, with this lawsuit with moto and his partner. It seemed like he'd been through so much in his career, from homelessness to addiction to finally getting in at Trotter's. I mean, his whole life story was about overcoming."

Foss said he last saw Cantu on March 25. Cantu was one of the guest chefs at Foss' 1990s-themed dinner series at EL Ideas.

Foss said that was the same day the food blog Eater posted news of the lawsuit filed against Cantu by his business partner.

"I almost expected him to have to withdraw or not show up, but he still came. I think that showed his character," Foss said.

"He was definitely a little bit bummed-out. But I didn't get the impression that it was going to defeat him. But I guess you get to a certain age and a certain time, and I guess the idea of picking up the pieces and starting over again could be intimidating. But I did not see this coming. I'm just very shocked and extremely saddened by it all," said Foss.

Like Cantu, Foss has two daughters.

"That's the saddest part of it to me," Foss said. "The kids are not going to be able to know their dad for the rest of their lives."

Cantu's neighbors also expressed shock and sadness Tuesday night.

Diane Boisvert and her mother, Jean Boisvert, who live near Cantu and his family, both said they were in "complete shock" and noted he'd recently returned home from a vacation with his wife and daughters.

Diane Boisvert said she found out about Cantu's death when she received a media text alert. However, she said when she initially read his name in the headline, she assumed he had won an award or it was in reference to a restaurant accomplishment.

"They're just a natural, young family," Jean Boisvert said. "I feel horrible for his two young, beautiful daughters."

That sentiment was echoed by another neighbor who wished to remain anonymous because of her closeness to the family. 

"It's horrific," she said as her eyes welled with tears. "My granddaughter plays with his two daughters, and my heart just goes out to the family."

She said she remembered Cantu as "a great guy, a very funny guy," who appeared to enjoy life with his family. Another neighbor and close friend of the family similarly described Cantu as a "great chef, a great guy."

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