Before his 35th birthday, Grant Achatz had won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the United States for his inventive, theatrical Chicago restaurant Alinea—and, in a Shakespearean twist, lost his sense of taste after developing stage 4 mouth cancer. Thanks to an experimental treatment, he was able to avoid having his tongue amputated, and is in full remission. He recounts that saga, along with his entire kitchen education, in a new memoir, Life, on the Line (Gotham Books), that is already being developed into a feature film. Achatz spoke to Details about his illness and recovery, American food culture, and a bold new venture that, he hopes, will transform our ideas about what a restaurant can be.
DETAILS: So how are you doing? Has your sense of taste returned completely?
Grant Achatz: I think so. It's impossible to measure. Unlike sight where you can go to the the ophthalmologist and have him say, "Tell me if you see X, Y, and Z." But yeah, I think it has.
DETAILS: Do you worry about perceving flavors differently than you did before?
Grant Achatz: No. I think my anxiousness comes from an awareness of mortality and the probability of a reccurrence of stage IV cancer, almost regardless of what type it is.
DETAILS: Life, On the Line could have been entirely your memoir, but there are sections written by your partner, Nick Kokonas, that provide an outside perspective. How'd you decide to approach the book that way?
Grant Achatz: Nick has been a part of my life since 2002, as a customer, as a business partner, as a best friend. He was right there the whole way. And there are some things I simply wouldn't feel comfortable saying, that he can say.
DETAILS: How have you seen American food culture evolve in the 15 years since you started doing this professionally?
Grant Achatz: It's almost unfathomable. I mean, think about the fact that I—me, a chef—just wrote a memoir, and people, hopefully, will buy it. Fifteen years ago, could any chef write a memoir and have it be widely accepted and anticipated? Now you have Bill Buford writing about Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain doing his thing. The definition of chef has changed so much in that exact time period you're talking about—15 years—because of the Internet and food blogs, and most importantly TV: Top Chef, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, even Rachael Ray. What she does is way different than what I do but it doesn't really matter, because that awareness and that culture kind of seeps into American society, and chefs are now put on a different plane. You can actually be a celebrity.
DETAILS: Are there dangers that come with that rock-star status?
Grant Achatz: There can be if you start reading your own press. Let's just put it that way. Then the thing that got you to where you thought you wanted to be is now eroding you and diluting you. You can be flying around from L.A. to New York and doing your TV shows, but who's in your restaurant? It can become counterproductive.
DETAILS: You started at French Laundry. What role has Thomas Keller played in that shift in culinary consciousness in America?
Grant Achatz: Thomas is the poster boy for the true artisan. The true artist, basically. This guy never had his own TV show. He was comparatively slow with his growth. And always his No. 1 priority was excellence and integrity. That has raised the level of cuisine in this country. It becomes like the European model where the chef has a reputation of working really hard, but doing it his own way, on his own terms. So many people that have come through have gone on to do important, significant things in the culinary world because of his mentoring.
DETAILS: What kind of chef would you have been without the four years you spent with him?
Grant Achatz: I remember there were times when we would leave at 2:30, 3 in the morning, and I would come in at 10 o'clock the next morning thinking, "Jesus, I went home and got five-and-a-half hours of sleep," and he would already be there when I walked in, and his eyes were all squinted and you could tell he probably got three-and-a-half hours of sleep—and you could tell it hurt. He's 20 years older than me. There were times his knees were so sore, like a football player grinding it out on the Astroturf, that he could barely bend over to open the oven. But there he was, doing it. You see that and you go, "Wow, that's endurance. That's tenacity. That's the fight."
DETAILS: In the book, you talk about how wowed you were by your first trip to El Bulli. How much impact did that visit have compared to your years at French Laundry?
Grant Achatz: Within me somewhere, there was always a streak of creativity and innovation. When I got to the French Laundry, Thomas nurtured it, but because he was the chef and that restaurant had its concept and philosophy, there was a lid on that can. I was growing inside there and really flourishing, but I hit the top and I couldn't move. When I went to El Bulli it was like a can opener ripping the top right off. It wasn't about learning techniques, it was about realizing that it's okay to take immense risks and it's okay to be highly expressive. El Bulli let me in.
DETAILS: So how do you approach a dish?
Grant Achatz: Usually, when a chef comes up with spring menu, he'll ask, What ingredients do I have available that are highly seasonal in April? I have morels, I have English peas, I have spring lamb—et cetera. He starts gathering the nuts and bolts to put the menu together. I go, Okay, what does spring mean to me? So I start writing a list of things that are personal and indicative of spring. I'll be writing my spring menu and want to incorporate the smell of spring flowers as I remember them. We do one where we burn oak leaves. To me, growing up in Michigan, that smell is very indicative of Halloween. My dad came in for the first time during fall and started to cry a bit when he got it, because he knew I was telling the story of my childhood. It was a pheasant dish, because he and I would go pheasant hunting, with a gelee of apple cider, because we would go on hay rides and drink mulled cider with cinnamon donuts. It was covered with a cinnamon salt, and served on a smoldering oak leaf branch. Literally, every component was out of my childhood.