Grant Achatz — Cancer. Chef’s Table, V.2 E.2
Today’s episode of Chef’s Table features American chef and cancer survivor Grant Achatz.
Yes, you heard me right. Cancer survivor. By the way, check out the previous episode on Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez if you haven’t already. And you can find all entries in this guide in the Chef’s Table archives.
Anyway, back to that cancer survivor bit. I really wish the creators of Chef’s Table had led the episode with this fact. It was the most compelling aspect of Grant Achatz’s story.
Instead, they tucked in lamely in the middle.
In the beginning, when Grant appeared on the screen talking like a pompous ass, I thought he was just a pompous ass. When I found out he’d gone through a fight against Stage 4 cancer one set of doctors had said would kill him, I thought, Well, maybe he deserves to be a pompous ass.
Grant was able to survive mouth cancer and keep his throat through an experimental treatment from the University of Chicago. He went through a dark period in which he lost his taste, but in that time he learned to be a leader in the kitchen — how to delegate the preparation of food, how to relinquish some control.
Okay, but back to the part about him being a pompous ass.
Chefs have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to personality. There’s the hardass who’s always screaming at everyone, the guy stuck on drugs, and the arrogant chef. And in terms of the last category, it seemed that Grant had it as bad as it comes.
Growing up in Michigan…
Grant Achatz (his last name is pronounced “ackets,” by the way, rhyming with “packets”) was born in Michigan. As a child and teenager he worked in his parents’ diners. He went to culinary school before finding a job at the well-known restaurant Charlie Trotter’s, but couldn’t handle the pressure and quit. At a loss for what to do, he eventually wandered his way into The French Laundry and worked under Thomas Keller for four years.
Soon enough, he realized he wanted to find his own way — and wanted to push the limits of fine dining. Today, he’s known as pioneer of molecular gastronomy in American cooking. Then, he still felt saddled by the limits of what everyone thought to be possible. He moved to Chicago and served as head chef at the restaurant Trio, where he remained for three years.
His next step was a solo project, Alinea. He took the name from the Latin character indicating a new paragraph or train of thought, feeling that this meaning fit his vision for the restaurant perfectly.
Opening Alinea in 2005, Grant worked tirelessly for his restaurant’s success.
In the process, he neglected his health. In 2007, feeling and looking weak, he finally went to the doctor. A biopsy was taken from a spot on his tongue which had bothered him for years. The diagnosis came back: cancer. The doctors said it may have spread to his lymph nodes. They gave him two options: a destructive surgery with a seventy-five percent chance of death, or death, one hundred percent chance.
Grant was unwilling to undergo a surgery that would destroy his mouth. So he opted for death. But a call from the University of Chicago changed his situation. They offered him chemotherapy. After radiation, his cancer went into remission — and then disappeared.
But he’d lost his sense of taste. Still, he soldiered on, learning to delegate important duties in the kitchen to other chefs. In the meantime, he created dish after dish, without ever tasting any of them.
A few months after chemotherapy ended, he regained his taste for sweet flavors. A few months after that, saltiness returned. Little by little, he rediscovered the world of taste.
In some ways, it’s a miracle that Grant’s alive. He sort of deserves to have that smug look on his face, because he’s a cancer survivor. He practically cheated death. And he creates some beautiful food. Take a look at the gallery at the top of this page. It’s cutting-edge stuff. And who hasn’t wanted to experience eating without a plate or silverware?
You can read more about Grant in this article from The New Yorker. And you can read more about his restaurant, Alinea, here. Alinea holds three Michelin stars. If you’re curious about one of Grant’s culinary influences, read this entry in the Chef’s Table guide about elBulli and Albert Adrià.
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