In 2007, at just 33 years-old, it looked like Grant Achatz had everything. When he was only 28, Achatz was named one of the best new chefs in America by Food and Wine. At 29, he received the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year Award.
When he was 31, he and his business partner Nick Kokonas opened the restaurant Alinea, which Gourmet magazine named the Best Restaurant in America within a year.
That’s when Achatz got the call from the doctor’s office. His tongue had been hurting for months, and his biopsy results had just arrived. His doctor urged Achatz to come in first thing in the morning, and when he did, he was told it was squamous cell carcinoma — Achatz had stage IV tongue cancer. There was no stage V.
Grant Achatz grew up cooking in the family restaurant; at the age of 14 he was already working shifts on the ‘line’ — the kitchen space, usually arranged in a straight line, where the cooking is done. When he was 19, Achatz was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America, where he polished his basics.
After he graduated, Achatz found a job at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant, The French Laundry, in Napa Valley, California. Under chef Keller’s mentorship, Achatz honed his love for cooking into a pure pursuit for excellence.
But while he was learning from Keller, Achatz always knew in the back of his mind that he wanted more. There was something beyond the traditional notions of cooking that was calling him. Achatz wasn’t sure what the outlines of this new gastronomy was yet, but he wouldn’t find it — it would find him in 1999, in a Spanish restaurant headed by Ferran Adrià; the legendary elBulli.
Cooking, as a rule, had been handed down from generation to generation, family to family, friend to friend, and chef to chef, without much question or investigation. Recipes might be tweaked, new dishes created, but the basics of transforming raw materials into food remained the same.
Science in the 20th century, however, had begun to change the foods we ate through the application of technology. New foods were invented; like puffy rings made of corn and rice which tasted like cheese, while looking nothing like cheese.
Ferran Adrià was part of a movement of chefs who noticed the disconnect — food science had propelled commercial food for the mass market forward, while chefs in homes and restaurants had been left behind. Why shouldn’t today’s chefs apply the same advances in technology to cooking in the kitchen?
As a result of this new thinking, Adrià’s food became unlike anything the world, or Achatz, had seen before. When Achatz first arrived, Adrià invited him to have dinner at elBulli. Achatz was astounded, amazed, and blown away. Roe was served deep-fried, but remained cold and uncooked. Pea soup changed temperature as he ate it. Ravioli made from cuttlefish burst open with liquid coconut.
While he only spent three days in elBulli’s kitchen, the experience changed Achatz forever. He returned to The French Laundry, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the uncommon inventions being cooked up in Spain. Achatz now knew what he wanted to do, and to do it he would have to move on.
I was so excited to explore and push new boundaries with food that I was in danger of compromising the vision that chef Keller had crafted over many years in his kitchen. I wanted to experiment and take risks, and I would need to risk failure and imperfection to move forward.Grant Achatz, Life, On the Line
Achatz got his chance, when he saw an opening for the position of head chef at Trio, in Chicago. He impressed Trio’s owner with a seven-course interview menu, which finished with an unusual dessert: a dollop of creamy foie gras wrapped in crispy chocolate. It was unorthodox, ingenious, delicious, and landed him the job.
At Trio, Achatz began to define his own cuisine and pushing the boundaries. He and his team created dishes like olive-oil ice-cream served between Parmesan cookies, a half-inch square of edible paper that tasted exactly like pizza, and Black Truffle Explosion — ravioli that enclosed an intense hit of liquid black truffle.
Trio got off to a rocky start in 2001, and the restaurant barely broke even. But a year after Achatz became its head chef, Trio won four-star accolades from both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago magazine.
In 2004, Nick Kokonas, a retired derivatives trader and a frequent diner at Trio, approached Achatz with an offer he couldn’t refuse: an invitation to build Achatz’s very own restaurant. As much as Achatz relished Trio, he’d always wanted a place of his own, and this was his chance.
Achatz left Trio, and a year later, Alinea was open for business. The restaurant’s name derived from the Latin a linea, referring to the paragraph mark that indicates the beginning of a new paragraph. For Achatz, “Alinea means a new beginning and a new train of thought.”
Like Trio, Alinea got off to a bumpy start. Achatz was pushing the boundaries even further than he had at Trio, serving original creations like bacon wrapped by apple ribbons glued with butterscotch, thin baguette slices that clothed grapes dipped in peanut butter, and brined Japanese baby mackerel with candied turmeric. And the menu didn’t stay fixed, but kept evolving as Achatz did.
While the restaurant was still trying to get up to speed, it got hit with a negative review by the New York Times. But it wasn’t long before Achatz began to earn the accolades he’d reaped at Trio.
In 1997, Ruth Reichl, of Gourmet, the bible of the culinary world, had called Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, “the most exciting place to eat in the United States.” In 2006, she coined Alinea the best restaurant in America — claiming that Achatz had even surpassed his mentor Thomas Keller.
By now, Achatz was having problems with his tongue. It had begun bothering him when he was working at Trio; a white, painful spot had appeared on his tongue, but the dentist he saw told him that he was just biting his tongue while asleep. A biopsy done at this time came back with a clean result.
By 2007 however, his tongue had worsened. Achatz was in constant pain and he couldn’t talk, eat or sleep without great difficulty. This time, the biopsy returned positive — Achatz had Stage IV tongue cancer.
The doctors told him that to try to save his life, they would have to cut out most of his tongue, the lymph nodes in both sides of his neck, and a portion of his lower jaw. They would replace his tongue with a muscle from his arm, and he might recover some limited speech and the ability to eat.
The survival rate wasn’t high, but even if the surgery was a success, Achatz would never taste anything again.
And if he didn’t get the surgery, the cancer would kill Achatz within the year.
All his life, Achatz had worked to become the best chef he could be, and to create the best restaurant in the country. Now, at 33, he’d done it — but it looked like it was all going to be taken away from him. Even if he went survived the surgery, he could never taste again, and he would no longer be Grant Achatz, chef. And if he couldn’t do that, he didn’t feel like he had a purpose to keep on going.
My whole life has been chasing this one goal. I have invested everything I have into it. I have dismissed relationships for it. I have sacrificed many aspects of what other people consider a normal life. I can’t let that go. It’s who I am. That is my identity, and if the surgeons rip that from me, then my spirit is done and I’m no good to anyone.Grant Achatz, Life, On the Line
By a stroke of fate, Achatz was introduced to doctors at the University of Chicago. By now, Achatz had visited with some of the most prominent physicians in the field; they had all said that he would die without immediate surgery, and he had no wish to visit yet another doctor. But his business partner Kokonas insisted, and Achatz went.
After a physical exam, Drs. Vokes and Blair explained to Achatz that the clinical trial treated head-and-neck cancer patients with chemotherapy and radiation, instead of surgery first. If Achatz responded well to the treatment, he could keep his tongue.
Achatz was in. He started chemotherapy immediately, and soon, the tumour on his tongue began to shrink. Achatz’s hair fell out, but he started feeling better than before. After two months of chemotherapy, the radiation treatment began.
On the third week of radiation, Achatz walked into the kitchen at Alinea, grabbed a spoon for tasting, and … it tasted like nothing.
Achatz remained composed on the outside, but inside he was panicking. He randomly spooned other sauces in the kitchen and realised that he couldn’t taste anything. The doctors had warned him that the radiation might affect his sense of taste, and they were right. His sense of taste had gone.
Achatz called his chefs together, and told them that he would have to rely more on them to taste the food. They knew what he meant.
But even as Achatz was being treated, even as he could barely eat and couldn’t taste, Achatz continued working 14-hour days at Alinea, relying on his taste memories and team to get the food right. Alinea introduced new dishes and creations, which were as good as they had ever been before. When Kokonas asked him to rest more, Achatz told him that cooking was what kept him fighting.
By late October of 2007, Achatz’s radiation sessions had doubled. He was burned badly, his skin was bright red from his lips to his lower neck. He couldn’t move his head too quickly, or his dry skin would crack and bleed.
By the end of the year, five months after learning he had tongue cancer, the doctors removed some of Achatz’s lymph nodes from his neck. An examination revealed no trace of cancer: Achatz was cured. Three days later, he was back at work.
Six months later, Grant Achatz flew to New York to attend the James Beard Foundation Awards, where he was nominated for the Outstanding Chef award, the ultimate recognition for an American chef. He was in remission; he still looked ill and could barely talk.
Achatz was certain he wouldn’t win, so he was stunned when they announced his victory. Since then, his sense of taste has returned in waves. Alinea has gone on to receive three Michelin Stars, as well as multiple awards that rank it among the world’s best restaurants.
The Push and the Grind
In his autobiography, Life, On the Line, Achatz writes about the difference between “the push” and “the grind.” The Grind is the work you have to put in everyday, just to keep on going.
But The Push? The push “ … is the exact opposite force of the grind. You have to push to overcome the tendency to grind to a halt. It is a wilful act.”
We all grind, day in and day out, to make the days, weeks, months and years work. But when we bump up against those problems that loom larger than life, the darkness that threatens to engulf our light, then we have to push. We have to find the strength within us to push with all our might. It is an act of will, it is an act of transformation, from raw materials into an act of creation.
In 1996, I started at The French Laundry as a commis. I was twenty-two years old, and I was in awe … What struck me about this restaurant was ‘the push.’ I had never seen it before in my life. I had never experienced the discipline, the dedication, the intensity, the tenacity, and the drive that both the chef and all of the cooks possessed. I pulled that in, thinking it was going to make me a good cook and ultimately, a great chef. What I didn’t know was that it was actually going to save my life. That drive, the tenacity, that dedication that I took in at that restaurant … it became a part of who I am, ten years later, twelve years later. It helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle.Grant Achatz, Life, On the Line
Portrait of Grant Achatz from the Alinea restaurant.
- Achatz, Grant, and Nick Kokonas. Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. New York, NY: Gotham, 2011.
- Max, D.T. “A Man of Taste – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker.
- Achatz, Grant, and Nick Kokonas. Alinea. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2008.