When you watch a documentary about a subject who committed suicide, the film usually has an energy that propels the story to its unfortunate conclusion. But “Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story” doesn’t move with that same thrust. It ambles, moving back and forth in time to piece together the parts between the beginning and end of the great Chicago chef’s life. And while the impending doom doesn’t send many portentous alarms throughout the movie, a darkness lingers over the story of a man who rose from punishing lows to brilliant heights.
The film, which made its world premiere at South by Southwest, opens with tight shots of molecular gastronomy wizardry from the chef and talking heads placing Cantu not just in the context of the culinary world, but the world at large. People talk about how he wanted to improve people’s lives, revolutionize the food system and change the world. Heady ideas for a man born into poverty and abuse.
The film shows the former Moto (and Ing) chef at the precipice of his greatest success in 2004 before jumping back in time to give some understanding of where the chef came from and his motivations for improving the world. Through archival photos and some minor recreations, director Brett Schwartz tells the story of a troubled young man abused and abandoned by his mother, only to land in the home of a mercurial alcoholic father. The neglect at home pushed Cantu to find his own path, and, though he was an indifferent student, he discovered an aptitude for shop and woodwork classes and his teenage jobs in the food world.
Those twin passions would wed to inform his innovative style of cooking. The chef, who earned a Michelin star for his flagship restaurant, always used his impoverished and traumatic upbringing at motivation. Having come from nothing, he always felt he had nothing to lose, and he proved an indefatigable and hungry student in the culinary world.
The movie has a very handmade quality, using shaky archival video and a few too many shots of messages on computer screens to tell its story, and some sloppy editing takes some of the tension out of the narrative, as we bounce from his past to the almost present. But the amateurism lends an intimacy to the film and makes it feel like a patchwork put together after the chef’s death to make sense of what went wrong.
The specifics of those details can be vague at times, but what is clear is that Cantu, who spent four years learning at the foot of Chicago legend Charlie Trotter, was a man of singular vision and one who wanted to bring a change to the food world. We see him discuss his desire to make organic food accessible to poor communities, while he also attempts to revolutionize fast food by cutting calories through the use of miracle berries,but the details of his vision aren’t always that clear.
It makes sense that a film about a man who took on myriad projects and seemed to prioritize dreams over details would feel weighted with disparate information and lack some narrative cohesion. By the time his death arrives suddenly at the end of the film, the audience may not quite understand the depth of the troubles that led Cantu to such a decision, but the weight of his loss is obvious.