Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: "Life, on the Line" by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Wow. This book totally blew me away.

Grant Achatz is one of the most acclaimed chefs in the US, if not the world. His Chicago restaurant, Alinea, has been ranked among the best in the world. He mastered his culinary artistry under the tutelage of Chef Thomas Keller, of Bouchon and The French Laundry, but has taken molecular gastronomy and culinary genius to a whole different level. And in 2007, at the height of his and the restaurant's success, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4-b squamous cell carcinoma—tongue cancer. (There is no Stage 5.) While most doctors advised Achatz to have a portion of his tongue surgically removed, thereby ending his career, he underwent an alternative treatment of chemotherapy and radiation first. But there were some sacrifices he would have to make.

Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat is more than a book about Achatz's struggle with cancer and how it affected those around him, including Kokonas, his business partner at Alinea. (In fact, the cancer battle really doesn't come up until the last quarter of the book.) The book traces the genesis of his love of cooking, his struggles in the competitive and harrowing culinary world, and his desire to reinvent the way people approach and eat food. For a foodie like me, I couldn't read the book fast enough—it made me hungry and it made me long to be back in the culinary world myself. Having the opportunity to ride on Achatz's shoulder throughout his journey is an amazing one, and the book (especially when Kokonas begins co-narrating the story, as plans for Alinea start to take shape) doesn't make Achatz out to be a saint. It portrays him accurately, even while he undergoes painfully brutal treatment for cancer.

This is a tremendously well-written, captivating and uplifting book for so many reasons. It is a privilege to understand what shapes Achatz's culinary philosophy and what goes into his culinary creations. And to watch as he approaches cancer with the same strength he faced every other challenge, including not being taken seriously as a chef, is amazing. He may be an incredible chef, but it is clear from this book that Grant Achatz is a pretty incredible man as well.

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