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Cancer Stricken Chef Fights to Regain Taste

Grant Achatz was named the nation's top chef Sunday by the James Beard Foundation -- a huge culinary accomplishment.

But the story doesn't end there. The 34-year-old Chicago chef won top honors despite the fact that he can't even taste his own food.

Last summer Achatz was diagnosed with advanced tongue cancer. But, instead of the standard therapy - removing the tumor surgically, followed by radiation and chemotherapy - doctors would reverse the order.

Aggressive chemotherapy, using promising new drugs, followed by radiation to shrink and kill the tumor. Surgery might still be necessary later, but it would be less radical. For now, they would focus on saving his tongue.

They warned Achatz that it would not be easy. His tongue would feel torn to shreds by radiation and he would probably lose his taste for a year. His face would turn into a hot red rash and he would have to wear a burn mask. He would temporarily lose his hair and his appetite. To be safe they would remove his lymph nodes.

"We were offering him six months of pure misery," Haraf said. "But we were also telling him that there was a 70 percent chance that he would be cured."

Achatz has now been cancer-free for five months and doctors say they are "incredibly hopeful" about his long term chances. Medically, he is considered in remission. Doctors won't declare Achatz "cured" until he is cancer-free for two years.

His sense of taste is returning slowly. Sweetness came first and then saltiness. Some days he has more sensation than others. And some days it simply doesn't matter.