ed. note: With this review, I would like to introduce and welcome my good friend, fellow food enthusiast, superb home cook and avid reader, Amy Persons, who will be posting periodic reviews on books of interest to people who enjoy good food and life. Today also happens to be Amy’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Amy!
That Grant Achatz is the book’s narrator, the reader is assured he has survived his battle with cancer and has gotten on with his life. If the end is already known, one might ask, why read this book? Perhaps because Life on the Line is four hundred pages of compelling, wry, and and most importantly, honest writing.
Grant Achatz grew up in family kitchens. His grandmother owned The Achatz Cafe in Michigan, where various family members worked, and he cracked eggs for the breakfast rush. When his parents opened the Achatz Depot, Grant was there daily, working along side more family members. The Achatz name was closely linked with food in these communities, and it was only natural that he would attend The Culinary Institute of America and pursue a career as a chef.
The memoir is told in two voices, of Chef Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas. After an unpleasant stint with Charlie Trotter, a life-transforming turn at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, Grant Achatz returned to the Chicago area as executive chef at Trio. Nick Kokonas and his wife were patrons of Trio, and made a standing reservation each month once they experienced Achatz’ food. They developed a friendship and business relationship that would later become more important than they could have guessed at the time.
The author shares many aspects of his life, more than I expected. Achatz writes frankly of his dislike for Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, his brief and contentious marriage,life as a single parent, and the brutal nature of cancer treatment. He describes with enthusiasm, delight almost, the planning of Alinea. Here we learn why the tables are wooden and bare, why the restaurant entrance is designed in a particular way, the search for esoteric service ware, and the punishing hours required to create plates that are as much art as sustenance.
Grant Achatz chronicles his awards, earning the highest honors his industry has to offer. In 2006 Gourmet magazine named Alinea the best restaurant in America, commenting, “Grant Achatz is redefining the American restaurant once again for an entirely new generation”. In 2008, wearing the scars of chemotherapy and radiation from cancer treatment, he is given the James Beard Foundation award of Outstanding Chef. His style of molecular gastronomy has gained acceptance, praise, and attention from almost every corner of the food world, as was his hope all along.
In 2007 Achatz was given the cruelest of diagnoses. A sore spot on his tongue, which previous examination declared benign, was in fact stage IVb tongue cancer. An entire culinary world was mesmerized by the previously unheard and unthought of flavor combinations he created, and now he was facing the loss of taste, and perhaps life. As he wryly notes in his book, “There is no stage V, or even a IVc.
Treatment would be barbaric and dicey. Four physicians recommended the standard procedure of removing his tongue, part of his jaw, and fashioning a tongue out of arm or leg muscles. This “tongue” would not allow him to taste food, would impair his speech, and could offer no more than a fifty percent survival rate.
Achatz gave serious contemplation to letting the disease takes it course. He was hesitant to pursue such radical surgery without a strong likelihood of survival. Nick Kokonas insisted he investigate one more option, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. There doctors offered an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. If they could kill the cancer, he could keep his tongue.
At first glance, this is a story of a life spent in kitchens, important awards, battling cancer while working eighteen hour days, and winning that battle. But it is really a story of Achatz’ ambition. In his acceptance speech for the James Beard award he says of The French Laundry, “What struck me about the restaurant was ‘the push’. 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 is was actually going to save my life…..it became part of who I am….It helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle.”
Life on the Line offers a compelling read for food enthusiasts and anyone who enjoys memoir. Following Achatz’ journey of intense drive, debilitating illness, and achievement of the highest order in his work, the reader is given access to a rarified world and the heart of the man who has succeeded in it.