The fates of acclaimed avant garde chef Homaro Cantu's restaurants are in jeopardy. Alex Espalin, an investor in Cantu's Michelin-starred Moto and the shuttered iNG, wants to force Cantu out of Moto — in addition to financial damages — for allegedly keeping money from him, according to a lawsuit filed on March 19 in Cook County court. A judgment in favor of Espalin would seemingly cripple both the molecular gastronomy landmark Moto and Cantu's new sugar-free coffee and pastry shop, Berrista.
The lawsuit claims Cantu spent money from his restaurant's accounts to support personal endeavors and that he reneged on an agreement to repay Espalin. Espalin wants the court to remove Cantu from Moto's ownership and operations, plus a share of Berrista's profits, as the lawsuit alleges that Espalin originally came up for the idea for the North Side cafe that Cantu opened last year. There's also claims over the Miracle Berry, the ingredient that turns items sweet without sugar, of what much of the Berrista concept is based. Since much of iNG's concept was also based on the berry, the lawsuit claims it's an asset co-owned by Espalin. Espalin wants a licensing fee for the berry's use.
Espalin's lawsuit also mentions a sexual harassment case filed against Cantu by a former Moto employee. Espalin was made aware of this in late 2012, and alleges Cantu "quietly settled" the case with "a large sum of money."
When reached on Monday, Cantu said the lawsuit was without merit and declined further comment. Espalin's attorney, Leon Teichner, also declined comment. Cantu, a former Charlie Trotter protege who is no stranger to publicity and is known for his playful, scientific takes on food, is also president of the board of The Trotter Project and is working towards opening an organic brewery.
Espalin is a 15-percent shareholder in Moto and held a 1/3rd ownership stake at iNG, with Cantu owning the rest of both. They came together in 2010 to reconcept Otom into iNG, joining a third investor, Joseph DeVito. Espalin would invest a total of $150,750 in the restaurant, becoming increasingly unhappy with the restaurant that "continued to lose money" and repeatedly asked Cantu to shutter it, according to the suit, while Cantu and DeVito promised to repay Espalin $100,000 over a 12-month period. But when iNG eventually failed, the partnership soured further, leaving ownership with unspecified operating losses and DeVito's departure. The lawsuit claims that's when Cantu began ignoring phone calls and emails from Espalin.
This is not the first time that Moto has been on the brink of catastrophe, as the 11-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant was close to shuttering multiple times in the early years. Now its future is in the hands of the Cook County court.
The next court date is July 17, according to Cook County circuit court records. Here's a rundown of the more prominent claims:
- Cantu used Moto's bank account to pay for personal trips, meals, to support his personal business ventures and to pay for legal fees, including a sexual harassment lawsuit involving Cantu and a former Moto employee.
- Cantu barred Espalin from viewing fiscal documents and didn't allow him to be part of the decision-making process made by the corporate board.
- Espalin is entitled to money from sales of Cantu's The Miracle Berry Diet Cookbook, as the Miracle Berry was a featured ingredient at iNG. Cantu was legally bound to tender an opportunity to Espalin to be part of Berrista.
- Espalin didn't receive any profits from Moto from 2010-2014, while the restaurant made $2.5 million to $3.5 million in annual sales. Cantu personally retained all income.
- Cantu didn't keep proper books, co-mingling funds from restaurants.