Published June 09, 2008
CHICAGO – The dining room at Alinea is a rare and special place where waiters in dark designer suits glide past tables, carrying trays laden with fantastical creations:
Steelhead roe in coconut suspended from vanilla pods. Granola encrusted bison with oatmeal foam. Persimmon and red curry. Jelled apple cider floating in walnut milk and vegetable ash. Sweet potato and bourbon tempura pierced by a smoking cinnamon stick.
Some courses look like miniature Kandinsky paintings. Others arrive floating on pillows of lavender air, or suspended on bouncing antennas — one-bite explosions of flavor at times so startling diners cry out in delight.
Dining as performance art. It is one reason people flock to this 3-year-old restaurant named the best in the country by Gourmet Magazine and considered by many to be among the best in the world.
They come for the experience and the mystery. They come for the sheer joy of sampling what the genius young chef with the magical touch has dreamed up next.
"Alinea" means "new train of thought," and that is precisely what 34-year-old Grant Achatz is all about. Achatz was named the nation's top chef Sunday by the James Beard Foundation.
Achatz wants diners to be dazzled by his daring (slivers of bacon, drizzled with butterscotch dangling from a miniature trapeze) to chuckle at his whimsy (pb & j involves a single grape dipped in homemade peanut butter and encased in a film of brioche) and even to weep at the memories some dishes evoke.
After sitting four to six hours at his table, tasting up to 24 courses and spending several hundred dollars, "I want guests to feel like they have just experienced the performance of a lifetime," he says.
But what few diners know is that the most startling aspect of that performance is not the food. It is that the man who spends 17 hours a day orchestrating it has never tasted some of his most exotic creations.
Last summer Achatz was diagnosed with advanced tongue cancer.
His latest dishes were conceived in a bland little booth at a local chemotherapy clinic as poison dripped into his body, killing not just his malignant cells but also his sense of taste.
A 'Taste' for Food
All his life, Achatz has pondered food and its relation to the senses. The season's first daffodils make him wonder how to capture the essence of spring. A walk in the woods brings to mind the gnarly root of salsify. Pizza night with his boys wafts around in his brain until eventually he figures out a way to concentrate the flavors into a wafer-thin amuse-bouche the size of a quarter.
Taste, Achatz says, is more than what happens on the tongue. "It is about emotion, translating a feeling, a memory, an experience."
He is sitting in his whites at a sleek black mahogany table in Alinea's upstairs dining room, an hour and half before the night's service begins.
He is thoughtful and deliberate and soft-spoken, his thin, freckled face radiating youth and vigor, though he acknowledges the toll cancer has taken. Gone is the once ever-present can of Diet Coke — carbonation hurts his mouth. These days he downs protein drinks, trying to build back some of the 30 pounds he lost. He carries a little bottle of Lidocaine, which he sips to numb the pain.
But illness is not something he focuses on at Alinea, where everything is about creativity and emotion.
"We want to reset your mind," Achatz says, grinning.
This is the boy who once cooked meatloaf and omelets at his parents' restaurant in St. Clair, Mich. His father recalls how, even as an 11-year-old, Achatz thrived on the intensity, the teamwork, the drama of the kitchen. And how he always pushed the plates to be a little more.
"We just needed the food to be good and hot," the elder Grant Achatz says. "He wanted to garnish it with orange rinds."
Just out of the Culinary Institute of America and just 23, he was determined to get a job at Thomas Keller's renowned Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry. He wrote letter after letter to Keller, every day for weeks; Keller jokes that he hired Achatz just to stop reading them.
The night before Achatz started work, he was treated to a Keller classic — Malpeque oysters nestled on a bed of tapioca topped with the biggest mound of oestra caviar that Achatz had ever seen on one plate.
Oysters and Pearls. To this day, Achatz calls it the perfect dish.
Under Keller, Achatz learned how to prepare dishes like Oysters and Pearls. But he also learned a philosophy of discipline and humility — a reverence for every task, whether chopping shallots, shaving truffles or sweeping the floor. He learned the sheer force of will it takes to work in a top kitchen where pressure is absolute and dishes must be perfect every time.
"It's a battle every day just to do the job and meet the expectations," says Mark Hopper, another Keller protege and now head chef at Bouchon in Las Vegas. "It changes you, humbles you, makes you a different person."
Achatz reveres Keller; his youngest son is named for him. But he was restless to find his own culinary voice, to run his own kitchen.
He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for. Then, in 2000, Achatz spent a week in Spain with chef Ferran Adria at the El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia.
Adria is at the forefront of a cuisine called molecular gastronomy — a kind of fusion of kitchen and science lab. Ingredients like agar agar and sodium alginate and carrageenan are used to thicken and mold food in unconventional ways. Foams and warm jellies and liquid nitrogen all play their parts.
Mesmerized by the manipulations of texture and taste, Achatz returned to California with a new sense of inventiveness — one that would find expression the following year when he tried out for top chef at Trio in Chicago.
"His food wasn't just out there," owner Henry Adaniya said. "It was from Mars!"
It was also the best Adaniya had ever tasted. The black truffle explosion — a single ravioli that burst with warm truffle broth when Adaniya bit into it — eventually became a signature dish. But Adaniya was just as impressed by porkbelly.
"This kid wants to be head chef in a Mobil four-star restaurant and he's serving what basically amounts to a slice of bacon!" Adaniya said. "And it was delicious."
Trio became a sensation under Achatz. Chicagoans swooned over his vaporized shrimp cocktail spritzed into the mouths of diners, frozen vinegar digestif with marigolds, puffed lobster with grapefruit and lemongrass. When Achatz won the James Beard Foundation's rising star award in 2003 Adaniya was as proud as if the chef was his own son.
Yet he couldn't help but wonder about the toll on Achatz's health. Even by the grueling industry standards, Achatz worked harder and with more intensity than anyone Adaniya had ever seen, often spending 17 to 20 hours a day in the kitchen — cooking, creating, thinking, always so serious, so focused.
"There were times I felt afraid for him," Adaniya said. "I thought how can any man run that way."
But Achatz had a vision and he was unstoppable. Especially after he met the man who would become his great friend and champion.
Nick Kokonas, a derivatives trader who retired in his 30s, had been a regular at Trio for years. But Achatz' food amazed him. Soon Kokonas and his wife, Dagmara, were dining at Trio several nights a month.
From the start, Kokonas and Achatz felt an easy kinship — both the only children of loving, hardworking parents, both driven, articulate and ambitious. Kokonas sensed that he was in the presence of a great artist who needed his own platform to truly shine.
In January 2004 Kokonas asked Achatz to create a special meal for Dagmara's birthday. "She's ethnically Latvian, speaks Japanese and loves Thai food," Kokonas said.
"I knew it would screw up his week," he added, "but I couldn't wait to see what he came up with."
That night's 25-course extravaganza — Latvian sorrel soup with smoked ham hocks, frozen Willakenzie verjus with thyme, liquid cake of kaffir lime and banana — became the meal that launched Alinea. Heady with food and wine, Kokonas asked Achatz if he would be interested in a restaurant venture together.
Within three days they had a business plan.
And they had a goal: to build the best restaurant in the country.
Noticing a 'Spot'
Achatz first noticed the little white spot on his tongue in the hectic months leading up to the opening of Alinea. A dentist suggested he was biting it from stress. He fitted Achatz for a night guard and told him not to worry.
Achatz was too busy to worry. After searching various neighborhoods, Achatz and Kokonas had settled on a two-story office building in tony Lincoln Park. They would demolish and rebuild it into a 20-table restaurant with one of the most exotic menus in the world.
They made no secret of their goal, courting publicity and finding plenty on Internet food forums and in culinary magazines.
The buzz just grew after the restaurant opened on May 4, 2005. It exploded after Gourmet named Alinea the best restaurant in America in October 2006.
Achatz was hotter than ever. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to dine at his restaurant or visit the inner sanctuary where serious young cooks pored over their stations with an intensity that bordered on the spiritual.
For the kitchen at Alinea is as rare as the dining room. Nothing seems rushed or loud and there is a startling absence of smoke. Meat and fish are more likely to be vacuum packed and cooked "sous vide" — in pans of warm water — than roasted or fried. And the sizzle is as likely to come from the "anti-griddle" — which instantly freezes a food's surface — as from a searing pan.
Here, every cook is called "chef." Everyone sweeps the floor. And when it is time to peel fava beans everyone bows their heads over the bright green pods, silently working for 15 minutes as though in meditation.
When something is wrong in this kitchen, the whole staff can sense it.
Achatz has a quiet commanding presence and rarely raises his voice. But by the summer of 2007, he was barely able to speak. The painful white sore on his tongue that had dogged him for over a year was also affecting his appetite and his sense of taste.
His dentist diagnosed stress. A biopsy came back negative. Relieved, Achatz wedged a wad of chewing gum between his tooth and his tongue and tried to ignore the pain. The divorced father had enough to juggle — inventing new dishes for Alinea, working on a cook book, raising two small boys, romancing his girlfriend, food writer Heather Sperling.
And then overnight in early July his tongue exploded into a throbbing swollen mass that left him barely able to swallow. Achatz knew it was bad by the look on the doctor's face. But nothing prepared him for the news.
Stage 4 squamous cell cancer. The tumor had infected about 70 percent of his tongue. Doctors needed to operate immediately — to cut out three-quarters of his tongue in order to save his life.
"That's not gonna happen," Achatz muttered, too stunned to say more.
Kokonas sat beside him, head spinning. The best young chef in the country had tongue cancer and doctors were saying the only hope was to remove his tongue. It's Shakespearean, Kokonas thought.
In a daze they stumbled out of the doctors office and into a nearby Mexican restaurant and stared at each other over margaritas. Kokonas fumbled for the right words. Achatz was in too much shock to think.
"Don't tell anyone yet," he said. Then he drove to work.
Kokonas hit the phones. He made an appointment for Achatz at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York the following week.
There is a late afternoon ritual at Alinea when the wait staff, hosts and sommeliers gather in the upstairs dining room for a pre-service briefing with the master. Achatz tells them about menu changes, new ingredients, how to serve certain dishes, and who might be dining that night.
It is a striking tableau — the charismatic young leader in gleaming white surrounded by his dark-suited disciples.
When the ritual was broken last summer, when instead the entire staff was asked to assemble in the downstairs dining room, everyone knew something was terribly wrong.
Nervously, they gathered around a small black phone console. Achatz's voice crackled through. Briefly he talked about the menu. He welcomed new staff. Then he told them he had cancer.
He was in New York with some of the best doctors in the world, he said, and he was confident. He hadn't come this far to be beaten down by disease.
When Achatz hung up, 50 pairs of stunned eyes turned to Kokonas, some in tears. What could Kokonas say? He couldn't tell them what a top oncologist had told Achatz that morning: "We need to operate immediately and remove your tongue or you will be dead in three months."
Sitting beside Achatz, Sperling cringed at the finality of the surgeon's words. His tongue is his life, she thought.
"If we don't take out his tongue," the surgeon had said, "there will be no life."
The headlines were stark: Cancer strikes top chef in his prime. At the University of Chicago Medical Center, oncologist Everett Vokes read the paper and wondered if he would see the stricken chef.
Achatz walked into his office a few days later.
By now, three top cancer specialists from around the country had told Achatz that it was necessary to remove his tongue. But one doctor had also mentioned an alternative approach being practiced at the UC Medical Center.
Even by the standards of a cancer clinic where the random cruelty of disease is witnessed every day, doctors were struck by the irony of Achatz's case. He didn't fit the profile for a tongue cancer patient: He had never smoked, he drank just one glass of champagne a night, he was fit and healthy and young.
"It was just this enormous human tragedy," said Vokes, who heads a team that specializes in trying to save organs, rather than remove them. The team includes Dr. Elizabeth Blair, a head-and-neck surgeon, and Dr. Daniel Haraf, a radiologist.
Instead of the standard therapy — removing the tumor surgically, followed by radiation and chemotherapy — they 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."
"Where do I sign?" Achatz asked.
When the side effects kicked in, Achatz let his boys pull out tufts of hair. He wore a Mohawk to work before it fell out completely. He made cancer jokes in the kitchen.
Most of all, Achatz made it clear to everyone — his staff, Sperling, Kokonas — that he considered cancer an unpleasant interruption, not a death sentence. Illness, he insisted, would not affect his standards or his creativity.
If Beethoven had composed some of his best music after losing his hearing, Achatz could continue to create amazing dishes, even if he couldn't taste.
The fact is most of his dishes are conceived in his head, not on his tongue. Scattered thoughts, ideas, scents. Achatz is continually jotting notes on paper napkins and then sketching great squiggly drawings of what his concoctions will look like.
His understanding of ingredients didn't die with chemo, Achatz pointed out. Nor did his flavor memory. And though he no longer trusted his own palate, he did trust that of sous-chef, Jeff Picus, who had worked with him for years at Trio.
But all the mental fortitude in the world couldn't conceal the horror of being strapped onto a gurney, his head locked into a fiberglass mask, a huge black radiation machine humming as it gunned deadly rays into his tongue.
Achatz's face burned. He couldn't swallow. He couldn't eat. His mouth became a raging, itching mass of pain and even sipping water hurt. He spent some nights throwing up pieces of burnt skin.
"I'm barely hanging on," he text-messaged his friend Hopper at one point. "This is hard, even for people like us."
What Would Become of the Restaurant?
It was torture for Achatz to stay away from his restaurant. Though he often drove to treatment in the morning and then drove straight to work, there were days he simply couldn't let staff or clients see how sick he was.
Achatz's absence changed the kitchen, changed the whole feel of Alinea.
The man who could work longer and harder than anyone else, who could fillet tiny Ayu sweetfish with a precision that no one else could master, who could sprinkle parsley dust on a fava bean puree and transform it into a work of art, was as human and as vulnerable as the rest of them.
With that realization, a strange protective sense took over the restaurant. It was as if chef's battle became the staff's battle, as if by working even harder, setting even higher standards, they could somehow inspire his recovery.
"There was just this sense of responsibility," sommelier Craig Sindelar said. "The man is sick ... let's take care of his house."
Yet even as they poured complimentary glasses of champagne splashed with mead, and dangled applewood ice cream on the end of a wire, and explained to diners how to pull a little pin that dropped a truffle-covered hot potato ball into a cold potato soup, deep down everyone wondered.
Would chef survive? Would Alinea?
In his mind, Kokonas says, he closed the restaurant 10 times.
Not that he cared. He just wanted his friend to get well.
After "one big freakish cry," Kokonas says, he knew there were practical things that had to be dealt with, things Achatz was avoiding.
Gingerly, he started the conversation. Did Achatz have a will? Had he thought about what to tell the boys? Had he thought about the implications for Sperling?
And then, the question Kokonas dreaded. What do you want me to do about Alinea?
Achatz turned to him, shocked. "I am NOT going to die," he said.
Kokonas pressed on. "You have cancer. There is a chance you might not be around in five years. It's a fair question. What do you want me to do about the restaurant?"
"If I'm dead, what do I care?" Achatz said with a shrug.
It was the last time Kokonas broached the subject.
Doctors don't like to single out one patient as more extraordinary than the next. Some of the most determined succumb to disease, no matter how hard they fight. But they marveled at Achatz's stoicism and resilience. He remained an outpatient, even during the worst days of radiation. He refused a feeding tube, forcing himself to try and swallow, no matter what, because doctors said that would speed recovery.
And when treatment ended in early November, he defied all expectations by flying to Washington to spend Thanksgiving with Sperling and her family.
In mid-December, after his lymph nodes were removed, Achatz nervously returned to the hospital for a final checkup. He still couldn't taste and his immune system was spent. He would need physical therapy, speech therapy, swallowing therapy and it would probably be a year before he would feel normal again.
But the scans were clear. The cancer was gone.
"Onward," he told his staff.
Kokonas no longer has doubts about the future of Alinea, though he joked recently that perhaps he and Achatz should be writing a movie script instead of planning another restaurant. "Superstar chef opens restaurant that is named top in America and then gets cancer and — poof — it's all over."
"What if there is a different ending?" Achatz responded. "What if it's 'poof' and the cancer is gone?"
That is not quite the ending yet, but 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.
On Monday nights when Alinea is closed, Achatz sometimes slips into the kitchen with Kaden, 6, and Keller, 4. The boys clamber onto stools at the gleaming, stainless-steel counter and squeal in delight as they stir pots of white smoke. Carefully, they add sugar and milk. They sprinkle in black vanilla beans.
Then, in the best restaurant in America, they sit down with Dad — the super chef who lost his sense of taste — and devour the best homemade ice cream in the world.