Serious Reads: Life, on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
Few chefs have caught the media's attention as powerfully as Grant Achatz, chef/owner of Alinea restaurant in Chicago. His food is inventive and constantly surprising, and Alinea was titled the Best Restaurant in North America by Gourmet in 2006, the seventh best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2010, and Achatz received the James Beard award for Outstanding Chef in 2008—all before he hit 40. But the onslaught of accolades became near-irrelevant when, in 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with stage-four squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. Achatz, and his partner Nick Kokonas, take us through the roller coaster of Achatz's training, the development and opening of Alinea, and the battle against cancer that nearly took Achatz's life in Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat.
The book begins early in Achatz's "training," as a five-year-old cracking eggs at his parents' diner. He comes from a strong tradition of restaurateurs, and always felt that his ultimate goal was to be chef/owner of his own place. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Achatz began work at The French Laundry—a then-new but well-respected institution owned by chef Thomas Keller. Keller became Achatz's mentor as he worked through the kitchen's stations and adopted the head chef's desire for perfection.
Achatz knew it was time to move on when his own desire for creative freedom led to challenges of Keller's authority in the kitchen and on the menu. He moved out to Chicago and took over as head chef at Trio restaurant in 2001. He brought the restaurant to wide recognition and began showcasing his more inventive dishes. One of his most regular diners was Nick Kokonas, an ex-trader who was looking for a new business investment. After eating Achatz's food for several weeks, Kokonas approached him with the idea of partnering in a new venture.
Kokonas's narrative is included in this book as well, differentiated from Achatz's by a change in font. He provides detail into his own history, and gives an interesting financially-minded perspective to complement Achatz's food-centric visions. The two sometimes clashed when it came to envisioning their perfect restaurant. But their friendship and partnership developed over time, and resulted in the 2005 smash-hit opening of Alinea.
While Alinea grew and Achatz reveled in a space for his own ideas to shine, he began to also notice an odd pain in his mouth. After several months of off-and-on twinges, he went to a doctor who immediately sent him for further tests. The tumorous cancer had spread across his tongue and into his throat. The only proposed option was surgery to remove the tumor—thereby taking his tongue and much of his jaw and neck. To a young man whose vitality and passion stemmed from cooking and leading others in his vision, the idea of a life without speech or taste was unthinkable.
Soon, however, Kokonas found doctors who were using an experimental treatment, based purely on chemotherapy and radiation, to address this aggressive cancer. Achatz signed up and went through a hellish several months of weight loss, painful mouth sores, and eventually a loss of the ability to taste. His description of this harrowing time, as well as Kokonas's simultaneous narrative, is poignant and touching. Achatz ultimately emerged cancer-free and began recovery. Through it all, he had worked full days in the Alinea kitchen and completed his first cookbook.
Achatz's story is far from complete, and his memoir ends at what is probably the half-way point of his career. It provides a insight into the chef's personal development, emotional turmoil, and incredible passion for his own restaurant and food. The alternation between Achatz and Kokonas feels a tad sloppy—the narrator changes at random; a chapter-by-chapter separation might have read more smoothly. Neither author adopts a particularly literary tone. However, their frank, tell-all approach draws the reader deep into their struggles with Achatz's cancer, and leaves you with the feeling that you know the chef in a more intimate way than any interview can allow. These days, Achatz is working on his new venture—Next Restaurant—and slowly regaining his sense of taste. Achatz sees hope, success, and innovation in his future—a future that everyone, including Achatz, once feared would not exist.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.