Life, On the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness,
Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat
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In 2007, chef Grant Achatz seemingly had it made. He had been named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine in 2002, received the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2005 he and Nick Kokonas opened the conceptually radical restaurant Alinea, which was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. Then, positioned firmly in the world's culinary spotlight, Achatz was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma--tongue cancer.
The prognosis was grim, and doctors agreed the only course of action was to remove the cancerous tissue, more...
"What is amazing to me, a writer who's been covering this industry since about the time Grant arrived at The French Laundry, is the honesty and jarring frankness with which Grant and Nick write, from every angle--personal, emotional, even financial. Grant's career, the opening of Alinea, his beating cancer--it's a hell of a story." --Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio and The Soul of a Chef
An Excerpt from the Preface
(Left) photo of the author and his girlfriend Heather at the James Beard Awards is available courtesy of Patrick McMullan.com
On June 8, 2008, I flew to New York to attend the James Beard Foundation Awards. I was nominated for the Outstanding Chef Award. It is the ultimate recognition a chef can get at the Beard Foundation, and arguably the ultimate recognition for an American Chef, period. I wanted to win.
I just didn't want to be there when I won.
Five months earlier I had finished a brutal course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for stage IVb squamous cell carcinoma. There is no stage V or even a IVc. The cancer was located primarily in tongue and was a tumor that took up more than 50 percent of the visible part. According to the scans, it had also metastasized to my lymph system, located primarily on the left side of my neck. Everyone certainly hoped it had not spread below my collarbones. If it had, well--time to "get your affairs in order."
...I couldn't taste a thing. Nothing. Food was cardboard and salt was just sand in my mouth, dissolving oddly and slowly with no purpose. Eating was a horrific and painful ordeal to be tolerated three or four times a day. Cooking at Alinea became a gauntlet to run every night: wonderful smells that you can't taste, food you used to love that you can’t eat.
By the time the Beard Awards arrived, I had begun to recover from the treatment. I was in remission and apparently cancer-free. But the healing process would take time, and now I had to show up at Lincoln Center in New York, greet the other chefs, the restaurateurs, and the press.
I wanted to run away. I looked terrible....
...But what really concerned me was that I could barely talk. My tongue was half the size it used to be... My lips didn't always go where I intended them to, and my speech sounded slurred and distorted. Like eating, speaking was arduous...
...The only good news at this point was that I was reasonably certain I would not win. Nick Kokonas, my business partner, put my chances as only a good friend could: "You have no chance of winning. Dan Barber is going to kick your scrawny ass. He is a great chef, he’s been at it longer, and he is from New York. That is a killer combo. And he cooks real food. You're screwed." We had a good laugh at that, but it was exactly what we both thought.
...These ceremonies tend to drag on, and Outstanding Chef was the very last award to be given...
...Then the announcement: "The Outstanding Chef in America for 2008 is... Grant Achatz." I was stunned. Suddenly I was onstage and the crowd stood, cheering. The words, unprepared, tumbled out of me:
"Rather than thank specific people who obviously I need to, but in fact, probably know who they are, I want to tell a quick story instead, if I could. In 1996, I started at The French Laundry as a commis. I was twenty-two years old, and I was in awe. I walked into that restaurant, and I saw a gentleman that ultimately would become my mentor and, at this point, even though it feels a little awkward to say, a great friend. What struck me about the 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, that 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.
"I think that everybody in the room can be proud of that, because everybody can relate to how cooking, in one way or another, has not only influenced their professional career, but also their lives. Also, I need to thank everybody in this room for the tremendous amount of support that I received in this last year. I had e-mails, countless phone calls, letters, packages, offers from chefs that I consider mentors, friends, colleagues, and visionaries to help in any way that they possibly could at a time when I needed it. I didn't let any of them come to the restaurant and cook like they suggested. I couldn't do that to the [Alinea] cooks. But the support that I received was critical at a time when I needed it and again, I think we can all be very proud of that. I know that it really helped me push through. That's really it. I'm kind of in awe. I think that it's an amazing honor, and I really appreciate it, and I thank you all. Thank you."
The award is fantastic for any chef to win, but for me it was a beginning.
The news of my cancer was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and covered prominently by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but the news of my recovery was less publicized. Business at Alinea, for the first time ever, began to wane--patrons thought I was still sick, or worse--dead--and I was worried that while I beaten cancer, I had not won the fight for the restaurant I loved. But that award made all the difference. Customers came back. I saw things more clearly and became more focused.
I returned to Alinea the next day, stepped into the kitchen, and worked with a vigor I had never felt before.
Copyright © 2011 by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. Reprinted from Life, on the Line with permission from Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The author with
About the Authors
Grant Achatz is the multiple award-winning chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago. He has written for Gourmet and The New York Times, Diner's Journal and is a columnist for The Atlantic's Food Channel. He lives in Chicago with his girlfriend and two sons, Kaden and Keller.
Nick Kokonas partnered with Grant Achatz in 2005 to develop Alinea, where he remains actively engaged in its strategy, marketing, and planning. He lives with his wife and two sons in Chicago.
Author photo by Lara Kastner
Also by Grant Achatz:
Alinea Web Page