I heard some sad news last night: Chef Homaro Cantu was found dead earlier in the day at a site where he had planned to open a brewpub, which, it turns out, is not far from where I live now.
He’s renowned for the remarkable things he did at his flagship restaurant, Moto — edible menus, sammies that looked and “smoked” like cigars, deconstructions of things that were indestructible.
I’ve yet to experience Moto; I’m sure it’s all well and good, but to me, Homaro is Berrista, the little coffee shop he opened down the street from where I live.
Berrista is worth stopping into for its range of tasty local coffees, some creative breakfast and lunch fare (carbonated fruit, anybody?) and an aeroponic herb garden. It has a sleek, modern feel, and is a wonderful place to read the newspaper or write a blog post about candy bars.
What you’ll leave Berrista remembering, though, is its Miracle Berry experience. Oft presented as a small tablet, but also sometimes in berry or sorbet form, the Miracle Berry dissolves in your mouth, then alters the tongue’s very perception of taste: Sour things become fantastically sweet. Lemons like candy, goat cheese like frosting, vinegar like vinegar (that one didn’t work).
The experience is signature Cantu, and is something I’d planned to experiment with in this very space. I secretly held onto a dream scenario that I would tell him about this blog and he’d have an idea for a Miracle Berry-enhanced candy bar I could write about. He seemed a kind enough guy that he would consider it, which was enough to keep on hoping.
Berrista’s significance goes beyond what it sells, though. Its mere existence in Old Irving Park is a pillar of legitimacy and prosperity for a little-known neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a “hey, there are fun things to do here, too!” among an otherwise quiet part of town. Homaro had hoped that the calorie-saving aspect of the Miracle Berry (there is less sugar necessary when you can sweeten things with sour) could help tackle America’s obesity epidemic. He prepared lunches for students to take to school every Thursday. [Ed. note: According to the New York Times, he was homeless from ages 6 to 9, which is where he traced the origins of his philanthropy.]
Berrista is Homaro’s ode to the Old Irving, where he also lived. He was my neighbor.
I remember the day Berrista opened, when Abby Bar and I got up early to be among their first customers. Homaro was working the room, as he would during every one of my subsequent visits. His children were there, oblivious to the hullaballoo, just being kids before they had to run off to school.
He remembered Abby, whom he’d met in a chance encounter years before. He had never met me, but nonetheless smiled, introduced himself and shook my hand.
He gave us both aprons.
It was a happy day.
Thank you, Chef. Rest in peace.
[Ed. note: For the a deeper look at his experiences in his own words, check out this link from the Chicago Reader.]