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Rhoda Recommends Reading: Life, On The Line by Grant Achatz

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

In the culinary world when you hear the name Grant Achatz, immediately you are hit with his trail-blazing accomplishments: Named one of the best American chefs, master of modernist, avant-garde cuisine, winner of four James Beard awards, and Alinea; named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. All were accomplished under the age of 40.

Life, on the Line is Grant Achatz's memoir, along with business partner Nick Kokonas. It is "A chef's story of chasing greatness, facing death, and redefining the way we eat." Yes, death. In the midst of achieving great success, Achatz was diagnosed with cancer: Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma; tongue cancer.

Published in 2011 by Gotham Books, Life, on the Line is the story of a small-town boy living in rural Michigan and working at the family business; the towns diner, the Achatz Depot. Since he was a child, Achatz worked at the diner helping out any way he could. At 14 years old Grant graduated from dish washer to line cook. The Achatz Depot was all about razor-thin profit margins and high volume. This compact, farming community wanted a huge mound of comfort food piled onto their plates at a cheap price: The result was a success.

In 93, when his graduating classmates were contemplating college, Achatz opted for The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Highly ambitious, with a touch of naivete, Achatz scrutinized issues of Food and Wine and Gourmet Magazine. For the first time, he became conscious of the gastronomic world and was intrigued.

After graduation he continued to work at his externship, until he got the call from Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago. His perseverance finally paid off. Yet Achatz only lasted eight weeks at Trotter's. He felt the sterile atmosphere was making him "worse, not better." He despised the competitive nature of the kitchen where the cooks would sabotage each other; they wanted to see you fail. It clearly was not for him. When Achatz confronted Chef Trotter, Trotter told him point blank : "... If you do not stay at this restaurant for a full year, you will not exist to me. Period. That means don't ever call me. Don't ever use me as a reference." Working at Charlie Trotter's for such a short amount of time only managed to drain Achatz of his self-confidence and ambition. He began to second guess himself.

Achatz felt that "somewhere fine dining must meet with a genuinely passionate chef." He would find that exact essence in Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. After reading an article in Wine Spectator, Achatz wrote 14 letters to Keller in two weeks. Chef Thomas Keller would go on to become Achatz's mentor. He was dedicated to learning to cook like Keller, but The French Laundry was always meant to be a stepping stone; Achatz's dream was to have a place to call his own. After a few years, he would leave The French Laundry (with chef Keller's blessing) to head his own kitchen. A small restaurant outside of Chicago, named Trio, gave Achatz carte blanche to re-vamp the menu. Trio already had a reputation, but with Achatz's arrival and fresh ideas, it would become a complete re-conception of its old self . Reviews began to trickle in and everyone wanted to check out the new kid in the kitchen who was blowing up Chicago with his manipulations of ingredients, and unusual flavor combinations.

At Trio, Achatz established his style. It was at Trio where he would meet his future business partner Nick Kokonas. Kokonas came in for lunch one day and was blown away by the kid from The French Laundry. He came back for dinner with his wife and shortly after invoked a standing reservation for the first Wednesday of every month. The food was nothing like he'd ever seen or experienced. Kokonas, who never spent a day in the restaurant industry, would become partners with Achatz. Kokonas had the money and connections, Achatz had the talent. Together they would open Alinea in the heart of Chicago in 2005: It was victorious. Critics called it "sci-fi cooking," a "Surreal dining experience." The goal of Alinea was to turn the meal into an emotional experience. Achatz saw himself as an artist wherein the canvas is the tablecloth and the centerpiece becomes part of the meal; there were no rules. Achatz was pushing the envelope and setting it on fire. The accolades for Alinea were endless.

Throughout this time, Achatz was working ninety to one hundred hours per week. He began to notice a white dot on his tongue that started to cause him pain when eating and talking. Dentists chalked it up to over exertion from his busy schedule. Finally, he was referred to an oral surgeon who suggested a biopsy be taken. He was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. The prognosis was bleak. Achatz was told they would have to remove 75% of his tongue along with his left mandible, and that death was imminent. The University of Chicago offered an alternative treatment that could possibly preserve his life. Achatz underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He rarely missed a day of work and tried to lead by example.

The brutal treatment would cause him to lose his sense of taste. How can I be a chef and not taste, he wondered. This is where Achatz triumphed. He couldn't taste, he couldn't talk, he couldn't swallow, yet he learned how to cook with his other senses and trained his cooks how to imitate his palate. The chef with cancer who couldn't taste, was determined to survive and show the culinary world he wasn't out of the game, that in-fact, he was at his best. And he was. His food was never better.

Life, on the Line is the stirring chronicle of a culinary maestro who saw his childhood dream come true, and triumph over stage IV cancer. This inspiring memoir is filled with honesty, as well as business savvy when pertaining to the step by step development of Alinea; perfect for the burgeoning restauranteur. This fascinating look into one of the most innovative kitchens in America is invigorating, and teaches us to nurture our creativity at all costs.



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