Grant Achatz | Restauranteur. Survivor.
THIS STORY IS FROM BOXY ISSUE 3 | CURIOSITY. TO READ the FULL Q&A INTERVIEW, AVAILABLE HERE.
Words | Calvin Godfrey
Before offering a 24-course tasting menu that sometimes ends with an apple taffy helium balloon or a fruit salad painted onto the tablecloth, Grant Achatz evolved from a line cook to a chef at The French Laundry. Along the way, he lost his ability to taste.
Grant Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonos, named their restaurant Alinea, after the symbol ¶, used by typesetters to mark a new paragraph. As Alinea exploded into the culinary consciousness, Achatz learned that the bothersome lesions on his tongue were cancer.
Doctors planned to cut away most of his jaw and neck, but they doubted he would survive the disfigurement. Instead, Achatz worked straight through an experimental treatment that saved his life and his tongue.
The same treatment that saved his life destroyed his taste buds. At the height of his career, Achatz spent months barely able to eat or taste.
A decade later, “Alinea” describes a group of restaurants, including The Aviary, an avante garde cocktail bar with locations in Chicago and New York.
Achatz has become a folk hero to those who follow his story. At a recent ask-me-anything, he told fans that basic head movement, swallowing, and eating spicy or cold foods remain challenging.
Achatz resembles a cartoon Robin Hood and speaks like a well-mannered teenage prodigy. When I met him for this interview, he made it easy, but quickly let me know that it stood between him and the most important meal of his day.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD MADE YOU WANT TO BECOME A SORT OF CULINARY AUTEUR?
It just seemed natural to me. I was really curious as a kid. I did a lot of drawing, painting, and building models. I think that grew into a desire to produce emotional experiences with food.
My grandmother already had a diner by the time I was born, and by the time I was my five, my parents had one, too. Our diners made good, simple, tasty food, but nothing artful.
By age 10, I saw the benefits that owning a restaurant could bring, but I knew I wanted do it my way. Ultimately, that's what led me to The French Laundry and to open Alinea.
WHAT ARE YOU PARTICULARLY CURIOUS ABOUT IN THIS MOMENT?
Travel, art, and music.
Not that I've experienced much of those things. When I do travel now, it's usually business-related, but I’d like to spend time really understanding a different place in the world -- the people, architecture, and how everything comes together to make a culture.
DO YOU BELIEVE FOOD IS ALL ABOUT CULTURE?
I don't see it as a sole definition or identity, but it speaks to a geographic location, generations of tradition, and the personality of the people who live there. All of those things dovetail in what a cuisine becomes. You can go down a rabbit hole if you say that it's really hot in southern Thailand, which creates street activity that shapes their culture and food.
WHAT DO YOU EAT?
On a normal day, I get up and have coffee and maybe eat a piece of whole-wheat toast and an egg.
I don't really eat until the staff meal at the restaurant -- today it's a simple chicken curry -- then after a long, exhausting day at the restaurant, I go home and make something simple and convenient like boiled orzo with a pat of butter and some salt and pepper.
When I’m out, I seek out the flavors that I'm comfortable with and enjoy on a simplistic level. I love going to Prince Street Pizza, grabbing a slice and walking down through Nolita; that's one of my favorite things to do in New York. Or having great pasta at Pasquale Jones.
I also have a responsibility to see what other chefs like me are doing, so that I stay relevant. I have to know what Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, and Josh Skenes are doing.
SOME BELIEVE FREUD'S TERSE APPROACH TO PSYCHOANALYSIS DEVELOPED AS A WAY OF COPING WITH HIS MOUTH CANCER; DID YOUR CANCER CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK?
Not in the way most people think. There wasn't a Beethoven-type of moment. My illness changed the personality of Alinea dramatically.
I opened the restaurant in my early 30’s and it was my way or that's it. I did everything. Waiters brought me questions about service, cooks brought me sauces to see if they needed more salt. When I lost the ability to taste, those roles reversed. I would ask my chefs, “Does this need more salt?” It taught me to trust, and it made others engaged.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOUR PERSONAL BATTLE WITH CANCER HAS BECOME SO PUBLIC?
It's been almost ten years since I was diagnosed and we've come a really long way. Several dentists had previously looked at the lesions on my tongue, but dentists didn’t do cancer screening back then. That changed a lot because other survivors and I held medical professionals accountable to simply look.
The doctors at the University of Chicago approached my illness in much the same way I approach cooking -— constant exploration and innovation.
Doctors told me that some of the newer drugs I took would never work. Today, I continue to talk about this experience because I want people to know they have options when they get sick. I also want the medical community to ask, “What can we do differently? How can we make this better?” That is why I shared my story with The New Yorker and Chef's Table.
AFTER YOU LOST YOUR ABILITY TO TASTE, YOU TOLD A REPORTER YOU HAD BEEN MEMORIZING FLAVORS SINCE YOU WERE TEN. CAN YOU FULLY RECALL A FLAVOR?
Well, I can still remember the flavor of my favorite childhood candy bar. But you have to understand that everything I see and taste and hear passes through a culinary lens. When you cook for so long, the flavors get embedded in your brain. The good flavor combinations and the bad, the good executions and the bad.
YOU WENT FROM TASTING NOTHING TO SUDDENLY TASTING VERY ELEMENTAL FLAVORS—SALT AND SUGAR. WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THOSE TASTES COLLIDED WITH PURE MEMORY?
I had to improvise by relying on sense and intuition. One day, someone brought me a high-quality soy sauce to try. I couldn’t taste it; all I could do was open it up and take a whiff. I detected notes of coffee and chocolate, so I told the cooks to use it in a dessert.
I fell back on my experience balancing something salty with something sweet, something herbaceous and something sour. We ended up seasoning a Mexican dark chocolate panache with the soy sauce and topping it with a passion fruit gel and some lemon verbena.
HOW DID THREE MICHELIN STARS, AN EPISODE OF CHEF'S TABLE AND A PROFILE IN THE NEW YORKER CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK?
I think it made it more stressful.
Customers enter the restaurant with high expectations from the accolades and press we've received. No matter what, they expect me to be in every one of my restaurants all of the time – whether it's Next, Roister, or The Aviary. And they want to take my photo and shake my hand. I don’t always know if that person is a foodie or a cancer survivor, but I feel a certain obligation to try to make all of that happen for them. I also feel an obligation to the team. At the end of the day, we're a business and at Alinea alone we provide 70 people their livelihoods.
YOU'VE FLOATED THE IDEA OF OPENING A PIZZERIA AND RECENTLY COMPLAINED THAT AMERICAN AIRLINES DISCONTINUED ITS IN-FLIGHT PIZZA. WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT THAT PIZZA?
Well, I think when you're hurtling through the sky, you should be able to eat something that's very comforting. Look, it's not the best pizza, but it's fatty and juicy and you sprinkle a bunch of salt on it and it tastes okay. You know?
YOUR PARTNER HAS LAID OUT JUST HOW HARD IT WOULD BE FOR YOU TO DO SOMETHING CHEAP. BUT IF WE COULD DREAM, JUST FOR A SECOND, WHAT WOULD YOU COOK FOR THE PEOPLE?
I'd probably take the whole thing full-circle and open a diner that does breakfast, lunch and dinner. Back to Western omelets, pre-stamped burgers and meatloaf.
AN EXPECTIONALLY GOOD DINER?
I honestly think that's what it would be. It's sentimental to me.