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A CHEF'S STORY OF CHASING GREATNESS, FACING DEATH, AND REDEFINING THE WAY WE EAT
GRANT ACHATZ and NICK KOKONAS
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Chicago Tribune article on pages 376-378 reprinted with special permission of the Chicago Tribune; copyright Chicago Tribune; all rights reserved
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LIFE, ON THE LINE
1 I n June 8, 2008,1 flew to New York to attend the James Beard
\_J Foundation Awards. I was nominated for the Outstanding
Chef Award. It is the ultimate recognition a chef can get at the Beard Foundation, and arguably the ultimate recognition for an American chef, period. I wanted to win.
I just didn't want to be there when I won.
Five months earlier I had finished a brutal course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for stage IVb squamous cell carcinoma. There is no stage V or even a IVc. The cancer was located primarily in my tongue and was a tumor that took up more than 50 percent of the visible part. According to the scans, it had also metastasized to my lymph system, located primarily on the left side of my neck. Everyone certainly hoped it had not spread below my collarbones. If it had, well—time to "get your affairs in order."
The chemotherapy had left me bald, pimpled, scaled, and sore. The radiation had burned my tongue and face from the inside out. The lining of my esophagus would shed like a snakeskin and I was forced to peel it out of my throat while choking and vomiting. I started the treatment at 172 pounds. By the end I weighed 127.
I couldn't taste a thing. Nothing. Food was cardboard and salt was just sand in my mouth, dissolving oddly and slowly with no purpose. Eating was a horrific and painful ordeal to be tolerated three or four times a day. Cooking at Alinea became a gauntlet to run every night: wonderful smells that you can't taste, food you used to love that you can't eat.
By the time the Beard Awards arrived, I had begun to recover
from the treatment. I was in remission and apparently cancer-free. But the healing process would take time, and now I had to show up at Lincoln Center in New York, greet the other chefs, the restaurateurs, and the press.
I wanted to run away. I looked terrible. I had a scraggly goatee because I was unable to shave without peeling away my skin. My hair had started to grow back, but the back of my head was still bald—I looked like a sixteenth-century monk. My legs were sticks and the skin over my rib cage was sunken in. The tuxedo draped over my shoulders like it would on a hanger.
But what really concerned me was that I could barely talk. My tongue was half the size it used to be—it was nearly all tumors, and now those tumors had been vaporized by radiation. It was peeled, red, white, and sore, and the muscles that control it had been atrophied by the radiation. Part of my neck and most of my lymph nodes had been removed, leaving nerve damage under my chin. My lips didn't always go where I intended them to, and my speech sounded slurred and distorted. Like eating, speaking was arduous.
None of this was a good setup for a public appearance. And it got off to an awkward start. When I arrived at Lincoln Center, many of the country's great chefs tried to avoid me. No one approached me to say hello. I walked through the crowd and felt like a leper. At that time it did not occur to me that they were trying to "act normal," to not have to ask, "How are you doing?"
The only good news at this point was that I was reasonably certain I would not win. Nick Kokonas, my business partner, put my chances as only a good friend could: "You have no chance of winning. Dan Barber is going to kick your scrawny ass. He is a great chef, he's been at it longer, and he is from New York. That is a killer combo. And he cooks real food. You're screwed." We had a good laugh at that, but it was exactly what we both thought.
I grabbed a glass of champagne as a prop and stood in a corner with my girlfriend, Heather. Although I considered leaving, she convinced me to go inside and sit down. I slumped down in my seat and
the awards began. These ceremonies tend to drag on, and Outstanding Chef was the very last award to be given.
Finally, Kim Cattrall slinked onstage to announce the last award of the evening. I perked up momentarily, smiled when my name was read as a nominee, and settled back into my chair. Then the announcement: "The Outstanding Chef in America for 2008 is . . . Grant Achatz." I was stunned. Suddenly I was onstage and the crowd stood, cheering. The words, unprepared, tumbled out of me:
"Rather than thank specific people who obviously I need to, but in fact, probably know who they are, I want to tell a quick story instead, if I could. In 1996,1 started at The French Laundry as a com-mis. I was twenty-two years old, and I was in awe. I walked into that restaurant, and I saw a gentleman that ultimately would become my mentor and, at this point, even though it feels a little awkward to say, a great friend. What struck me about the restaurant was 'the push.' I had never seen it before in my life. I had never experienced the discipline, the dedication, the intensity, the tenacity, and the drive that both the chef and all of the cooks possessed. I pulled that in, thinking it was going to make me a good cook and ultimately, a great chef. What I didn't know was that it was actually going to save my life. That drive, that tenacity, that dedication that I took in at that restaurant ... it became a part of who I am, ten years later, twelve years later. It helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle.
"I think that everybody in the room can be proud of that, because everybody can relate to how cooking, in one way or another, has not only influenced their professional career, but also their lives. Also, I need to thank everybody in this room for the tremendous amount of support that I received in this last year. I had e-mails, countless phone calls, letters, packages, offers from chefs that I consider mentors, friends, colleagues, and visionaries to help in any way that they possibly could at a time when I needed it. I didn't let any of them come to the restaurant and cook like they suggested. I couldn't do that to the [Alinea] cooks. But the support that I received was critical at a time when I needed it and again, I think we can all be very proud
of that. I know that it really helped me push through. That's really it. I'm kind of in awe. I think that it's an amazing honor, and I really appreciate it, and I thank you all. Thank you."
The award is fantastic for any chef to win, but for me it was a new beginning.
The news of my cancer was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune and covered prominently by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but the news of my recovery was less publicized. Business at Alinea, for the first time ever, began to wane—patrons thought I was still sick, or worse—dead—and I was worried that while I had beaten cancer, I had not won the fight for the restaurant I loved. But that award made all the difference. Customers came back. I saw things more clearly and became more focused.
I returned to Alinea the next day, stepped into the kitchen, and worked with a vigor I had never felt before.
STANDING ON THE MILK CRATE
My mom pulled a dining room chair over to the stove and turned a milk crate upside down on the seat so I could stir the cherry Jell-0 into the hot water. I watched as the powder dissolved like magic, knowing that when it cooled, it would turn into a strange, jiggly solid. At five years old, it was my introduction to cooking.
My mom worked weekends for Grandma Achatz at her restaurant in the riverside town of Marine City, Michigan. A village of four thousand, Marine City sat just across the border from Ontario, Canada. Mom baked pies and cooked short-order breakfasts while I was given a few dishes to "wash." The Achatz Cafe was tiny. The whole place was basically just eight bar stools and a kitchen, which wasn't much aside from a tabletop griddle for the hash browns, bacon, and sausage links; a few small residential refrigerators; and a beat-up stove. The design was Americana, circa 1965.
My dad's sisters Liz and Patty cooked while Aunt Cathy waited tables. They would do their work while giving me small tasks to keep me occupied and out of the way.
I never got a toy Easy-Bake oven or a play kitchen. I played every day at the Achatz Cafe surrounded by my family and a town full of people who knew my name.
As I grew a bit older I graduated from pot washer to vegetable peeler and eventually to chief egg cracker. The egg station, two portable electric burners with not much more power than a coffee warmer, was situated at the front of the restaurant in front of a few large windows overlooking Main Street.
There was a lot of foot traffic on Main during the warmer months, and people peeked in to see me sitting on the counter next to my grandmother, cracking eggs into the pans for her.
"We got an 'over hard,' Grant, you're up!" she would call out. I would then run over to crack a few eggs. With the over-hards it didn't matter if the yolks broke. But through time I broke fewer and fewer, and one day my grandmother called me over and said, "This one's over easy." I cracked carefully, aware that the customers were watching. A bit of pride welled up in me. I was the little kid who could cook—I was at the top of the egg-station now, doing the over-easies.
In February 1980, when I was seven, my parents borrowed $5,000 from my grandmother to open their own restaurant.
Mickey's Dutch Treat was an ice-cream parlor right next to the train tracks that divided the small community of Richmond, Michigan. My grandmother's sister had heard that the owner wanted out and mentioned it suggestively to my father. Dad was hanging drywall at the time, but he had worked in restaurants off and on since he was sixteen. The dream of self-employment was something he always fostered, and cooking seemed as logical a choice as any other for a business.
The new restaurant was given a quick once-over, and the Achatz Depot was born. It was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week—and my dad didn't skip a day that first year.
From the start the Depot was busy. The Achatz name was syn-<: onymous with food in the area. There was of course my grandmother er's place in Marine City, and ten miles to the east in Armanda, Dave o Achatz—my dad's first cousin—owned a very successful diner. Irene's
v Catering, my great-uncle's business, had been feeding people at weddings, graduations, and funerals for years. The Achatz family fed the Q community, cradle to grave.
Achatz Depot grossed nearly $200,000 its first year, all the while
^ paying the enormous rent of $300 per month. That is good money J now, and in 1980 it was a huge success. Dad worked eighteen hours a day then, but he didn't seem to mind it. Success has a way of making the work seem less like, well, work.
Much like his mother's place, the general hiring strategy was to find the closest family members and put them to work. My mom was there while I was at school. Two of my dad's brothers, a couple of sisters, a cousin, and my mom's brother also worked there. The Achatz Depot was more like the Achatz Family Reunion with a shifting cast of characters, depending on the day and time. And like before, I came in whenever I could during the week and all day on the weekends.
It felt like home.
"Just take the burger blanket, stick three or four fries in the middle, and wrap that sucker up like a taco and eat it." Burger blankets were thin-cut, half-dollar-sized pickles that we put on nearly every sandwich.
Uncle Norm demonstrated the process of eating his creation with exaggerated gusto. He tilted his head to the side and looked like Ozzy biting the head off a bat, complete with growling sound effects. These kinds of things can leave an impression on a young boy.
Norm, my dad's youngest brother, was baby-faced, but big. Tall, thick-boned, and bordering on rotund, he was the archetypal mean uncle. He was the relative who would wrestle a bit too hard and hit you on the shoulder when you weren't looking, leaving a serious mark. A headlock followed by some SNL noogies were standard protocol every chance he got. "This will toughen you up, you spoiled brat."
Norm was my godfather. He was also a surrogate big brother, a sibling that I never had. I loved him a lot despite, or perhaps because of, the tough love. Like most of my extended family, Norm worked at the Depot as a line cook between his own dry walling jobs. He was definitely rough around the edges—he had a raspy voice from years of drinking and cigarettes, callused hands from hanging drywall and cooking most of his life, and a fading, crappy tattoo on his forearm that read simply, norm. Occasionally, when there were a few moments to spare and Norm and my dad shared a beer or two, they would spin tales of pool games and bar fights, and to my eight-year-old ears it
seemed that Norm was indeed a good coach for learning to get tough. He lived alone and spent much of his free time hunting and fishing. Norm basically lived a Hank Williams Jr. song, and whenever possible, I tried to tag along.
"Grant, you just try it. Trust me, it's good," he chuckled in the way that usually meant anything but "trust me."
I was pretty sure this was a mean prank to gross me out. I backed away slowly, out of arm's length, and bought some time to see if he made himself another of these strange concoctions. He did, over and over. He genuinely seemed to be enjoying them. Eventually I got curious enough to try it.
I took the first bite carefully and braced myself for a putrid taste. But somehow it was good. No, it was really, really delicious. I reached for another.
"I told you. See, you should listen to your uncle Norm more often. I have a few things I can teach you." "It's so weird, though, right?" "Not really—you put ketchup on your fries, right?" "Yep."
"Well, what's in ketchup, Grant?" He said this with a swooping voice, emphasizing that he was stating the obvious. "I don't know, tomatoes?"
"Well, yeah, but what else? There's a ton of shit in there, right?" He walked over to the shelf and grabbed a bottle of Heinz. "Here, read o the label, little man."
o "Tomatoes, corn syrup, vinegar, salt, sugar . . ."
v He cut me off, "Right. And what is in pickles?"
He grabbed the five-gallon bucket of "burger blanket-style" Q pickles and put it down on the stainless-steel counter with a wallop for emphasis.
"Okay. Now read these ingredients to me."
I started, "Cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, sugar . . . hey, what is that?" I pointed to the calcium chloride.
"No idea! Come on. See what I'm getting at? All the same stuff
in there. They just swapped out the mashed-up tomatoes for some cucumbers, and bam, you get a pickle. In London they shake vinegar on their fries."
"Really? Gross. But this tastes good!"
"Of course it does!" he bellowed as he flipped his side towel off his shoulder, twirled it up, and snapped me in the thigh.
By the time I was nine the Achatz Depot had settled into a steady and more predictable pace, and my dad put the systems in place that allowed him some free time. He was still working eighty hours a week, but he found time to spend with me outside the restaurant.
He enrolled me in karate, and every Tuesday night we'd go together to the dojo.
We'd strap on our helmets and I'd jump on the back of his Honda V65 Magna, wrap my arms around his torso with a death grip, and we'd shoot down St. Clair Highway. He would yell over the noise from the air whizzing by our heads about how to improve my form or the strategy needed for an upcoming sparring session.
One night he was explaining how you don't have to hit someone hard to take them down.
"Aim for the nose or the solar plexus, and down they go."
He was midsentence when he stopped instantly. In the newfound silence, he pointed out a deer standing in a cornfield. The man noticed everything. He was aware. He had an attention to detail that I marveled at.
I loved the competitive environment of karate, but more than anything I was just trying to find something that I was really good at. Success in karate seemed simple to me—you trained, learned the required forms, and tested for belt advancement. It was clear at a glance who was better than you were because they were wearing the proof around their waist.
On sparring days the goal was even simpler, if a bit more brutal: beat your opponent. Victory provided instant gratification. I was fiercely competitive, accepting challenges from older kids, knowing
that I would get my ass kicked, but knowing too that I would get in a few good blows.
I also knew that my dad was watching.
With the Achatz Depot thriving, my parents tried to buy the building, but the owner refused repeated requests to sell. Minor problems that could be easily fixed turned into bigger problems, and the irritation of having a landlord took a toll, even though the rent was cheap.
Once they realized that the purchase would never happen they began looking for a bigger space to capture the excess demand. A co-op-owned restaurant that was inside of a 95,000-square-foot farmers' supply store a few miles away presented an opportunity to expand. My parents made the move.
When we took over the new space it was a complete disaster. The owner wanted to be gone in a bad way, so he literally walked out to the parking lot and handed my parents the keys, leaving garbage in trash cans and food in the refrigerators. A small team was hired to begin the cleanup while the current crew kept the Depot running until the new restaurant opened. I helped my parents clean the filthy kitchen and declared the walk-in refrigerator my personal project. I went in armed with rubber gloves, a bucket of soapy water, and a jug of bleach. The previous owner had only been gone one day, but what I found there made it seem like it had been months. Five-gallon pickle
o on the surface. Iceberg lettuce heads were liquefying in the cardboard o box they came in. Then I came upon a partially unwrapped hotel pan
v of what seemed to be a meatlike substance that smelled so bad I ran 2 out of the cooler to keep from vomiting. I took a deep breath, ran in Q to retrieve the pan of rotting flesh, and ran out to the Dumpster as
quickly as I could. It was the single most disturbing thing I have ever
^ seen in any kitchen, and the smell haunts me to this day. Some people J just don't have standards. I learned that at an early age, spending the better part of three days scrubbing down that walk-in until the smell ^ lingered no more.
The Achatz Family Restaurant opened one month later in March 1983 to a flood of business. Revenue grew 30 percent that year and the next, and when, after two years, investors bought out the co-op, the opportunity to expand presented itself once again.
My parents borrowed $175,000 from a local bank at the stratospheric interest rate of 17.5 percent, signed a ten-year lease, and expanded to 4,000 square feet. The dining room was gutted and all-new booths, fixtures, carpet, and wall coverings were added. After a major six-week renovation, the place could now accomodate 165 people. Our little diner was not so little anymore.
When the restaurant reopened, the whole town showed up and pretty much never left. My parents had to hire nearly every one of our relatives to keep up with demand, and the Achatz Family Restaurant had its first $ 1 million gross revenue year.
Things were good in the Achatz household.
I arrived home from school one afternoon when I was eleven to see what looked like a spaceship parked in my driveway. The sleek silver object glistened in the afternoon sun. The doors, hatch, and hood were all open. I ran up to the car, stuck my head in the window, and was struck by the smell of new-car leather. As I was pulling my head out to run around back, I heard my dad say, "Pretty cool, huh? Nineteen eighty-five Corvette. Check out the gauges. They light up like Knight Rider."
My dad closed down the doors and the hood, and I hopped in the passenger seat. The engine rumbled. I was in heaven. He slowly backed out of the driveway and I heard my mom yell from the house, "Put your seat belts on! Don't drive crazy!" We both laughed. My dad crept down the street away from our house and turned the corner—he was taking it easy while my mom could still see us.
And that moment, blasting down the road in a brand-new Corvette . . .
\ / y paternal grandfather died at forty, when my father was V very young. I think my dad was determined to enjoy his success—after all, it was hard-won from hard work. Nothing was given to us, and we all contributed.
But my dad had a hard time with success.
My mother and father were married in August 1973, exactly eight months before I was born. It isn't hard to do the math. My family was stable as long as the work was hard and steady, but marital turbulence was frequent during my childhood. My dad's drinking was the source of many temporary separations between he and my mother, although I was largely unaware of the problems.
By 1986, three years after my parents' restaurant opened, the stresses of running a demanding business coupled with my father's increasingly heavy drinking led to a split that became a divorce. By this time I had graduated to working the line during the weekends, but once my parents separated, my mom stopped going to the restaurant, and so did I. The weekends that were normally filled with flipping pancakes, French toast, and hash browns were now consumed with riding dirt bikes and hunting with my cousin Tim at his house in the country. These were my first real idle weekends of just hanging out with friends in the neighborhood. But it didn't seem as satisfying.
Throughout my parents' separation and divorce, my mom shielded me from the issues surrounding my dad's drinking. I didn't know quite what was going on, I only knew that they still talked, that the restaurant still existed, and that my dad wasn't around the
house. In fact, I never saw him during the times he wasn't living in the house. He visited rarely. He was either in or out, and when he was out he simply vanished.
Nearly a year later my father returned. Suddenly he was back, and we didn't talk about the time away from each other. And for my part, I was just happy he had come home. As quietly as my parents divorced, they reconciled and were quickly remarried.
Everything became remarkably normal again.
In the spring of 1988, when I was fourteen, my dad asked me what kind of car I wanted when I turned sixteen. He loved cars, and he wanted me to love them too. "A fast one," I said.
My dad had the idea of buying an old muscle car and restoring it with me. I couldn't have been more excited. I read about cars often and had a fairly good knowledge of the different makes from building l:24-scale plastic models with my dad. He would guide me through the building process, but I was in charge of figuring out the instructions and doing the assembly. A dozen of these projects were lined up on my dresser, and you could see the progression of build-quality from early childhood on. The first one was the "General Lee" from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. It had crooked decals and thick, drippy paint. The roll cage looked like it was melted because of the thick globs of glue that hung off of it.
Eager to find the first real car that I would build with my dad, I would ride my bike every week down to the Speedy Q gas station to pick up an Auto Trader. After searching for a few months we settled on a 1970 Pontiac GTO that was about a two-hour drive away in Flint, Michigan. My dad called the owner, who had a pole barn full of old muscle cars, and they haggled out a price of $1,400.
The GTO was not really a car at this point. It was disassembled and in about fifty boxes, but the guy promised my dad that all the parts were there. Sight unseen, we arranged for a flatbed wrecker to
follow us to Flint to pick up the car, and Uncle Norm came along for the ride.
Just before we got there my dad looked at me and said, "Now don't be disappointed when you see it, Grant. Remember, this thing is not even going to look like a car. It's in a million pieces and the back fender is smashed in. I promise you, we are going to make this thing look like new, but it's going to take real time and effort."
As we hopped out of the pickup truck the owner of the pieces came out of his house and greeted us with a firm handshake. As we walked back to the barn he looked at me and said, "So, son. Is this going to be your car?" "Yes," I said quietly. "You know what kind of car it is?"
"Yes, sir, I do. It's a Goat. This one should have a 'YS' stamped 400, right?" That referred to the code on the engine block with a 400-cubic-inch, 350-horsepower automatic. Over the past week I had read everything I could find on Goats and was trying to act smart.
"Well, I guess you do know then! You're a lucky kid, but I hope you're good with a wrench, too."
"I think we'll be fine," my dad said as he shot me a wink. We shoved the front fenders inside the empty chassis shell and the flatbed started to pull the car up the platform. We loaded the doors, boxes of parts, and bags of unknown stuff into the back of the pickup and headed home to St. Clair, o My dad knew that this would be a fantastic life lesson on organi-
o zation, hard work, and persistence. You want a great car? Build one.
v At first my motivation waned. The car didn't look like anything I
wanted to drive, and it was difficult for me to visualize the end result. Q It was also really hard work to build it.
The first step was restoring the frame to its original condition and that meant the miserable task of sandblasting years of rust, grease, and tar from the skeleton. I would suit up in a thick ski-coat with gloves, put the hood up, and drop a shield in front of my face so ^ the sand wouldn't get in my eyes or rip off my skin. As the sand
whizzed out of the nozzle it would bounce off the frame and scatter everywhere—down my shirt, and in my pants and my hair. I would shower twice after finishing but still find sand behind my ears the next day in school.
My dad sensed when my motivation wavered and kept me interested by letting me choose cosmetic improvements: a chrome air filter, metal-braided plug wires, and eventually the wheels. He gave me books and encouraged me to learn about everything we were doing. Before work began we talked about what we hoped to accomplish that day, and he'd hand me the giant builder's manual to look up the procedures. We then carefully grouped, labeled, and boxed up all the loose parts in the order they would be needed.
It was a lot like organizing a kitchen.
The deeper we got into the project, the more it grew. I don't think my dad realized how involved it would become. We converted the garage into a miniature body shop and my dad took crash courses on painting, bodywork, and welding. Before long we had giant air compressors, a host of specialty tools, and were as adept at talking the lingo as mechanics.
For Christmas my parents got me a complete Alpine sound system for the half-built car: equalizer, six-disc CD changer, and radio. I opened the presents in rapid succession and the signature black and green boxes piled up. I was shocked that the biggest of the bunch read
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