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Life, on the Line

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Written by Carolyn Jung   
Tuesday, 22 February 2011

When Chef Grant Achatz opened his acclaimed restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago, he named it for the paragraph mark to symbolize how his cuisine there would represent a “new train of thought’’ never before experienced in fine-dining.

Little did he know that exact same philosophy also would help save his life a few years later, when he battled stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma. There is no stage 5.

No doubt you’re familiar with Achatz’s stunning story, which has been chronicled in newspapers and magazines such as the New Yorker. But in his new book, ΄Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Penguin), Achatz tells the full story for the first time in his own words about the shock of being diagnosed with tongue cancer at the peak of his career at age 32.

Doctor after doctor told him he would die a painful death in mere months if he didn’t undergo radical surgery to remove his tongue and part of his jaw, which would leave him disfigured, unable to talk and without the ability to taste. For anyone, such a diagnosis would be devastating. But for a chef, it was beyond tragic. And for Achatz, a James Beard Award-winning chef whose restaurant already had been named ΄Best Restaurant in America’’ by Gourmet magazine and ΄Best Restaurant in North America’’ by Restaurant magazine, it was truly unimaginable.

Despite conventional thinking, Achatz decided to gamble on an alternative, experimental treatment that would spare him the horrific surgery. Perhaps that’s not surprising for a chef who has gained fame for his ΄molecular gastronomy’’ cuisine, which pushes the envelope with its foams, vapors, spheres and uncanny flavor combinations. Even so, the treatment of intensive, targeted chemotherapy and radiation was agonizing to endure. It essentially burned him from the inside out to try to annihilate the cancer.

The treatment was successful, but Achatz lost his ability to taste for awhile. Fortunately, it has since returned, though he still has a hard time with spicy and super sweet foods. His frame remains slight and his voice raspy. But he is as driven as ever — perhaps even more so now.

His ordeal with cancer, undeniably dramatic, takes up only a small portion of the book. The rest is devoted to all that led up to his life to that point — his love of being in restaurants since he was a toddler, helping out in his grandmother’s popular café in Michigan, and at his parents’ bustling eatery nearby. There are his early days learning the basics at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY; his grueling time at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant under what he describes as the tyranny of an egocentric, bullying celeb chef; and his determination to get a tryout at the French Laundry in Yountville by sending Chef Thomas Keller a resume every day for 14 days straight until he called Achatz; and his stage at El Bulli in Spain — arranged by Keller — which totally transformed the way he approached cooking.

Keller became a mentor to Achtaz, who even named his second son after him. Achatz, who rose to sous chef at the French Laundry, also credits the discipline, drive and tenacity instilled in him during his four years at that landmark restaurant, as giving him the strength to survive.

The book was written with Nick Kokonas, his business partner and good friend, who was instrumental in helping Achatz navigate the ups and downs of his illness. It’s a mesmerizing read that you won’t be able to put down. At times, it will make you laugh out loud and at others, leave you nearly sobbing. Most of all, it will leave you with the utmost respect for a young chef and all that he endured on his journey to be the best.

For more on Grant Achatz, read the Q&A with him on FoodGal.

See the Alinea Hot Potato Cold Potato recipe here.

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.


Last Updated ( Friday, 18 February 2011 )
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