Chicago’s Grant Achatz is not the first chef to make me cry. If you are an emotional person (admittedly I am) and you work long enough in the restaurant industry it is guaranteed to happen. But this was not a result of sleep deprivation or a broken heart or a heated argument in a hot and stressful kitchen environment at the end of a dinner rush about how many large parties we can fit in the dining room on a Thursday night in December.
These tears came while reading Life, On the Line, written by Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, and published last year by Gotham. There are a lot of chef memoirs out there right now, and I’m trying to get through as many as I can. But this one has stuck with me in a way that few memoirs of any kind have. It had been recommended to me by countless friends and I am going to do you the same courtesy.
In the book we are introduced to a talented young man with a passion for cooking and an impressive work ethic. We follow his story from his family’s restaurant, through school at CIA, exploring world-renowned restaurants in Europe, and through his enviable years working under Thomas Keller at French Laundry. We follow his discovery of a culinary movement with Ferran Adria in Spain, and we feel his ambition to do something completely new, to start a brand new paragraph in the chapter of new American cuisine with Alinea. This story itself is worth reading.
But it is his storytelling, passion, honesty, and tenaciousness that pull you in. I actually gasped and laughed with joy when reading about his arrival in Spain where he sees his (and my) idols in the airport, and I could feel his excitement (and was thoroughly jealous! throughout that dinner at El Bulli. His excitement and seemingly misguided early ideas when first conceiving of his restaurant in Chicago have you cheering for himn and mourning his lost battles, and you can not wait to hear about more of his successes and evolution.
But every media mention, every award, every new discovery and opportunity comes with dread because even if you haven’t heard this man’s story before, the book warns you early on where the story will take you.
This book transcends audience, encompassing business, restaurants, food, and survivor biography genres. It is a book that touches on the molecular gastronomy movement’s evolution in America, and takes you on the development journey of one of the world’s best restaurants, from the investors to the design to politics to public relations. And, it is a heartbreaking biography of an amazing young man who put his entire life into his work and his dream and suddenly is faced with losing it all. Because in the midst of opening his first new restaurant to accolades from the James Beard Foundation and Food and Wine and Gourmet, and the country’s most revered and feared critics, the young protagonist finds out that he is about to lose his livelihood, and likely his life, to stage IV squamous cell carcinoma: tongue cancer.
And then we get to go through that battle with him while continuing the journey with the restaurant, as he does.
Throughout the story we understand and support this young man’s rise to fame, as a F&W Best New Chef, a JBF Rising Star Chef, and finally, within a year after his diagnosis, the recipient of the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America Award. But what I appreciated most was the honesty both personally and professionally, from both Achatz and Kokonas.
The book is informative, intriguing, and inspiring, and it challenges you to rethink what is possible through discipline, passion, and the will to live. Get the tissues ready.