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Chef Homaro Cantu and the appeal of the ‘miracle berry’

Chef Homaro Cantu | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Chef Homaro Cantu | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 16, 2012 5:48PM

About eight years ago I got a phone call that changed my life. My friend Paula Perlis, an experienced chef and food professional, asked me to help her with a problem: Paula had a friend who was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, and like many cancer patients, had lost the will to eat as the chemo made things taste like metal or rubber. She was hoping I knew of some food product or combination of foods that would help block out the metallic taste.

At the time, my restaurant, Moto, had just been featured on “Check, Please” and was was kicking into high gear, and my wife was about to give birth to our first child. I remember thinking, “How can I possibly do this now?”

But I also couldn’t say no to this very personal challenge. So I went to work, chewing on tin foil and bike tires. I enlisted the help of my friend and co-worker, Ben Roche, and we tasted everything we could think of, from salts to rare Amazonian leaves to pharmaceuticals. It wasn’t the smartest move; I don’t recommend trying this at home, kids.

Finally, we tried the miracle berry, which is sourced from a West African plant, and it worked. We figured out a way to transfer the dehydrated fruit powder into some edible paper strips that melt on your tongue, no chewing necessary. We shared it with Paula’s friend, and she enjoyed her first meal in years.

In healthy people, the miracle berry has a little protein that binds to the sour taste receptor on your tongue to block sour flavors. When we ate lemons, they tasted like lemonade, but it was sugar-free lemonade. I was hooked immediately, and voracious for more information about this truly miraculous food. How could this berry offer so much natural sweet flavor, and yet be undiscovered?

Many chefs set out to write a cookbook, but the idea had never interested me. My wife, who works in publishing, wasn’t even able to convince me to write one. I had just never thought it would be very exciting to tell someone what we do on paper — a 3-D pop-up book, maybe, but not a traditional cookbook. But writing a book about how to utilize this amazing little berry and eliminate sugar from your diet?

Now that could be huge.

Months turned into years as I tweaked recipes without sugar. We substituted vinegars and fruit acids to simulate sweetness in our desserts.

As a chef who has missed many family dinners over the years, I never underestimate how important sharing a meal with someone you love can be. This project truly has been a labor of love, and Paula and I gladly send miracle berries to anyone who asks for them. Through word of mouth and Paula’s generosity, we’ve helped thousands of people suffering from cancer enjoy food again, and hopefully feel a little bit better.

Two kids and another restaurant later, I am still plugging away at making recipes with the miracle berry and evangelizing their unique powers to anyone who’ll listen.

Everyone can benefit from cutting the amount of sugar they eat. Everyone can use a little miracle.

Homaro donated his fee for writing this column to Share our Strength. Homaro Cantu is the author of The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook, which will be released on Jan. 1, 2013.

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