Skip to main content

Grant Achatz: The Chef Who Couldn't Taste

Two years after opening his award-winning Chicago restaurant Alinea, chef Grant Achatz was diagnosed with tongue cancer. He describes losing and regaining his taste in Life, on the Line. "My palate developed just as a newborn," Achatz says. "i don't recommend it, but I think it made me a better chef."


Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2011: Interview with Patton Oswalt; Interview with Grant Achatz.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Brad Bird, Patton Oswalt On Cooking Up 'Ratatouille'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's become a FRESH AIR tradition to do a theme week at the end of August,
leading into Labor Day weekend. We've done blues week, country music week, hip-
hop week, animal week, and this week it's food; interviews about why bananas
don't always taste the way they used to, going undercover as a food critic, the
possibility of test-tube meat, an archival interview with Julia Child and so

We wanted to come up with a good title for the week, and everything we've come
up with is somewhere between not bad and bad. To give you some idea, we've had
pot luck week, smorgasbord, food for thought, FRESH AIR con queso, my dinner
with Terry, chew on this and of course FRESH AIR eats it.

So we thought you might have some better ideas. If you do, tweet us with the
hashtag #freshairfoodweek - that's one word. If we like your suggestion we'll
use it and credit you on air. We'll also make a list of the best suggestions on
our Tumblr, If you haven't used Tumblr yet, that's
spelled T-U-M-B-L-R.

Let's start off whatever-it's-called week with an all-you-can-eat moment. Comic
and actor Patton Oswalt has a great bit he does inspired by a commercial for
the Black Angus restaurant chain. This is from our 2007 interview, after the
release of the animated film "Ratatouille." Oswalt did the lead voice of the

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. PATTON OSWALT (Comedian): Black Angus used to be a very friendly restaurant
where I'd come in and have a steak and have a baked potato. It'll be a good
time. And you go, that sounds fine.

And then over the past few years, the commercials have turned into this, like,
gauntlet of threatening food, where it doesn't even look pleasant anymore. And
there's this - it sounds like an initiation rite now: At Black Angus, we’ll
start you off with an appetizer platter, featuring five jumbo, deep-fried Gulf
shrimp served with a side of our butter and cheese cream soup and 15 of our
potato bacon bombs and a big bowl of pork cracklins.

And you're like, you know, we're each going to split that. No, you'll each get
your own. And we'll take you to our mile-long soup and salad bar with our He-
Man five head of iceberg lettuce salad, served in a canoe with 18 pounds of
ranch dressing and, what the heck, four cheese burgers.

It's like oh, man, you know what? I just - how about I'll just get a little
mixed green salad? Hey, I'll put on a dress and curtsy before I bring you a
mixed green, buddy. Why are you yelling at me?

And it just keeps - it just never ends.

GROSS: That was comic and actor Patton Oswalt.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Grant Achatz: The Chef Who Couldn't Taste


Next we're going to hear from chef Grant Achatz. After becoming famous as an
innovative chef, he became famous for losing his sense of taste for months, the
result of radiation treatment for stage four tongue cancer.

Achatz's life has always revolved around food. His parents and grandparents
owned diners. In 2005 he opened his Chicago restaurant Alinea, which was named
best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2006. He was described in the
citation as redefining the American restaurant for an entirely new generation.

A typical meal might include 23 bite-sized courses of food that you never
imagined. Food writer Corby Kummer described Achatz as an alchemist. Kummer
described one course as a square of gelled sweet potato and a square of gelled
bourbon, both stuck onto a cinnamon stick skewer that was lightly torched
before it left the kitchen so that it arrives powerfully fragrant.

Kummer writes: Achatz experiments with thickeners and making things solid or
liquid, depending on what you're not used to. I'll add that to do this he's
helped develop new kitchen technologies.

Achatz has written a memoir called "Life, On the Line," about his avant-garde
approach to food and about his treatment for tongue cancer. I spoke with him
when it was published last March.

Grant Achatz, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you're feeling better, and I
think we'll better understand the impact of tongue cancer on your life if we
talk first about your food life and your approach to preparing food.

But before we do that, I just want to know: How much of your taste has
returned, and what's the state of your health now?

Mr. GRANT ACHATZ (Chef): Well, I've, you know, been in what they like to call a
remission now for - since December, 2007. So health-wise I'm great. And as far
as the taste goes, it's - you know, I feel like it's back 100 percent, but
taste is one thing that you can't - it's not like going to the ophthalmologist
and having them, you know, tell you you need a certain prescription because
your eyes are failing. There's really no way to measure taste, you know.

GROSS: So although you're famous for what's often described as avant-garde
food, your parents and your grandparents had family-run restaurants. Your
grandparents had a small eight-stool little restaurant. Describe the restaurant
that your parents had, because it's the kind of restaurant I love, that serves,
like, breakfast 24 hours a day and has a really large menu.

Mr. ACHATZ: That's it, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, go through it.

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I mean, really it becomes one of those pillars in the
community where, like you said, you can go there for breakfast, lunch and
dinner seven days a week. Regulars would come in and sit in the same seat at
the same table every day at exactly the same time.

And it really - it was a function of comfort and nourishment, both from the
aspect of food itself, but also, you know, it's a big gathering place in the
community. People would come and eat together and share, you know, and I think
that's really important for that type of restaurant.

GROSS: And it was probably very, you know, relatively inexpensive too.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, very. I mean, like you said, it was a diner. So you could go
in there and get your Western omelet and your hash browns and your whole wheat
toast for, you know, five bucks. So it wasn't - it's very different from what I
do now in many ways.

GROSS: It's, I'd say, the opposite of what you do.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Because, you know, at the previous restaurant that you had, Alinea, it
was, like, hundreds of dollars to dine there. It would take hours to eat. You'd
have these like bite-sized portions, you know, and many, many different dishes
for the meal, with foods that you created, like no one ever heard of these
combinations before.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: So where does, like - where does your parents' style of restaurant, of
food, fit in your life now?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I enjoy eating it. And really, there is a big departure from
the food that we cook at Alinea to, you know, the Achatz family restaurant back
in 1985. But in a lot of ways they're very similar because restaurants in
general have a certain culture.

You know, the people that work there, whether they're flipping over-easy eggs
or they're using jewelry tweezers to put micro-herbs on courses like we do at
Alinea, there's a common language and there's a common kind of feeling.

So while the food itself might be drastically different, there are a lot of
similarities, and I think that's what really helped me kind of push along in
this career, was having that experience at that level at such a young age, you

GROSS: Let's talk about the food that you became famous for. So just to give a
sense of it, I'm going to read what was on the menu for your investors dinner
in 2004: spoonful of borscht, puree of foie gras/honeydew melon sponge, carrot
soda/lemon drops, duck skin Hunan style, celery sorbet/caviar, chilled soup of
spring lettuces, blueberries, creme fraiche, rib eye of prime beef/variety of
eggs, crispy chocolate/liquid cake.

So that gives some idea of this, you know, who ever heard of this kind of
combinations of food?

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: So choose something from that menu and tell us why the heck you prepared

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, why don't we do the - I think the fun one is the beef.
Basically what you have there is you have a play on steak and eggs. So here we

GROSS: Oh, that didn't occur to me.

Mr. ACHATZ: Now we're right back at the diner, you know, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. ACHATZ: So when it says variety of eggs, the idea there was literally
chicken eggs but also caviar, which I know a lot of people will go, wow, why
would you ever put caviar on top of your steak? But that's what makes the food
that we do at Alinea so interesting on the outside, is that we really don't let
ourselves say no to an idea.

In other words, if I say to you, you're going to put a pinch of salt on your
steak, everybody hits their steak with salt and pepper; it makes it taste
better. Now if I said to you: What is caviar? Well, caviar is salt-cured fish
eggs. So the salinity of the caviar really almost takes the place of table salt
in this preparation.

So when we start looking at things really critically or even very simply, we
realize that there's more than one way to actually get the same result. I can
put a handful of salt on something. I can put very salty ham powder on
something. I can put caviar on something. So, you know, you're really
deconstructing the components of a course, putting them back together.

GROSS: And for anybody who's thinking of this big rib-eye steak and a whole
bunch of eggs around the plate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How big was the portion that you served at this dinner?

Mr. ACHATZ: That was probably a 60-gram portion, which is about two ounces.

GROSS: OK, so a little piece of steak and...

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, it was quite small.

GROSS: A few bites?

Mr. ACHATZ: But - yeah, I would say probably five. Five to seven, if you were
really nursing it. But, you know, that's one thing that's important with our
cuisine as well. So currently at Alinea there's only one menu, and it's 23
courses long. So people are averaging right around three hours in the dining

So really what we're trying to do with that food is tell a story and craft,
like, an emotionally rich experience, something that makes people feel.
Something that, like walking through a great modern art museum or listening to
a symphony or, you know, watching a great movie or reading a great book, we're
trying to do that with food.

GROSS: So what emotional experience would I likely get from chilled soup of
spring lettuces, blueberries and creme fraiche?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think first of all, there would be a level of...

GROSS: Astonishment?

Mr. ACHATZ: ...of intrigue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. And perhaps...

GROSS: Mystery?

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. And you know, that's important. We really - I mean, there's
courses at Alinea that we try to literally intimidate people, because if you
think about eating, you know, we do it two, three, four times a day since we're
born, basically. And the act of eating, the mechanics of eating, become very

So literally you're either picking up a fork, a spoon, and you're eating from a
plate or a bowl with the same motion every time. And so if we can break that
monotony, then we get you to take notice of the moment, and now you're thinking
about the food, it's making you feel a certain way, then we've won, you know.

GROSS: So besides feeling like, wow, this is weird, or what a surprise, soup
with spring lettuces...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: ...what do you think I would feel with that?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, first and foremost, we want you to think that it's delicious.
But I think that, you know, that's one thing that people often overlook. It's
our main priority. We can try to craft a great experience and one that makes
people feel happy or sad or, you know, elated, whatever it is, but it has to be

So with that soup, it's hard to say, and that's the thing with cooking and with
food the way we do it. It's like the painter that, when he paints it on his
canvas, he might have had an idea how he was emotionally, and that was evident
in the actual painting, but that painter is not going to tell you how to feel
when you look at his painting. That's up for you to decide.

And it's the same way with our food. We can try to have some emotional triggers
inserted into that 23-course meal. For instance, we've done food where -
impaled on a burning oak leaf, oak branch, because growing up in Michigan, when
I did, it was still acceptable to rake the leaves that were falling off the oak
trees in your front yard out to the corner, out to the side of the road, and
jump in them a couple of times. And then eventually you would light that pile
on fire.

And the smell of smoldering oak leaves to me is a very powerful nostalgia. It
really transports me back to being eight years old and growing up in Michigan.

GROSS: So how would you use that in a dish?

Mr. ACHATZ: So literally what we did is we took pheasant, apple cider. We
tempura-fry them together, and then we impale, like on a bamboo skewer, we use
oak twigs that still have the leaves attached. So the actual twig component
pierces through the pheasant, through a gelee of apple cider. Only the very end
gets tempura-fried, and then right before it goes out to the dining room, we
take a torch and we light the leaves on fire.

And we've literally had people, you know, start crying at the smell because it
literally, it transports them back to a place or a time that they have fond
memories of. And if you can do that with food, I think that's a powerful thing.

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz. His memoir is called "Life, on the Line."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz, co-founder of Alinea restaurant in
Chicago, which is famous for its avant-garde cuisine. His new memoir about food
and his treatment for tongue cancer is called "Life, on the Line."

Let me read what a couple of people have written about how you use fragrance in
your cooking. This is Corby Kummer, who writes about food for The Atlantic and
wrote a book about slow food. And he's describing your approach in the kitchen:
He brought a bong-like contraption that lets him force scented air into a
plastic bag. He gently heats lavender or orange peel or sassafras, captures the
aromatized air in the bag, pricks tiny holes in it and tucks the bag into a
specially made linen pillowcase. The waiter sets the pillow under the diner's
plate. It slowly deflates as the plate rests on it, scenting the entire place

And in the New Yorker, fragrance is described this way. They described a
liquefied caramel popcorn in a shot glass and a bean dish that came on a tray
with a pillow full of nutmeg-scented air. The plate of beans was placed atop
the pillow, forcing the aroma out.

What made you think about this idea of capturing fragrance or aroma in a
pillowcase or a pillow and then, like, letting the air out so that the person
seated there gets this, like, burst of aroma?

Mr. ACHATZ: Aroma has been an important part of my culinary repertoire since
Trio, when I was at Trio back in 2001. But basically before that, when I worked
at the French Laundry in Napa for Thomas Keller, one of the things that he did
there was had a mixture of brown spices - cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace -
that he would dust onto the hot plates right before they would go out to the
dining room, and it would activate the essential oils in that spice, and it
would become very fragrant, very aromatic.

The first time that I ate at the French Laundry, I had a duck course that had
this spice powder on the plate. And as I was eating the duck, I could taste
cinnamon and clove and allspice. So I asked the waiter, I said, you know, how
is the spice incorporated into the duck? Is it the sauce? Did he actually put
spice on the duck before he cooked it?

And he just kind of smiled and said: There's no spice actually in the duck.
What was happening was I was smelling that spice mixture, and because I was
smelling it, I was tasting it. So it was kind of a revelation for me, realizing
people take for granted the power of smell and how it affects flavor. So then
we really started to play with it at Trio.

It wasn't until we opened Alinea, one of my investors was in Europe and found
this vaporizer, this machine that allows you to aromatize anything, really. You
mentioned lavender and citrus peel. We've done, again, firewood ashes, we've
done leather, we've done grass. So it's just a tool that allows us to capture
the aroma.

The tricky part was trying to figure out - once we had the machine and we put
cinnamon in there and we had this beautifully sweet cinnamon air in this bag,
we didn't know how we were going to be able to, one, transport that bag into
the dining room, because it was literally made of plastic; and two, how to
release it. We had it in the bag, but we didn't know how we could time-release
the scent so that throughout the duration of you eating a specific course, you
were smelling the intended smell.

We finally came up with the solution of getting a linen pillowcase and using a
syringe to, you know, poke tiny holes in the plastic bag, so...

GROSS: Wow. So go back to the fact that you mentioned that leather was one of
the aromas. Why would you want to be smelling leather while you're eating?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think that's another thing, like I mentioned the beef and
the eggs. There's a lot of smells that you can't necessarily consume. Like,
you're not going to go out and chew on a baseball glove. But, in a lot of ways
a lot of smells that aren't necessarily edible smell good, and they remind you
of certain aspects of food.

You know, when you - when you're tasting a great French Bordeaux, they'll often
say: Wow, this has leather tones or tobacco or, you know, cedar. You're not
going to go out and chew on a cedar tree or leather or probably don't really
want to consume a cigar. But all those smells are present in that wine.

So making those associations with what smells good and what smells a certain
way and pairing that with actual edible ingredients is one avenue that we take

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with chef Grant Achatz in the second
half of the show. His memoir is called "Life, on the Line." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Let’s get back to the interview I recorded with chef Grant Achatz last March
after the publication of his memoir "Life, on the Line." It’s about his avant-
garde style of cooking and about getting diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer.
The treatments eradicated his sense of taste, and he was uncertain it would
ever return. It did. He's been in remission since late 2007. Achatz co-founded
the Chicago restaurant Alinea, which was named best restaurant in America by
Gourmet magazine in 2006. In 2008, he was named best chef in the U.S. by the
James Beard Foundation. After we recorded our interview, he opened a new
restaurant called Next. When we left off, we were talking about his food

GROSS: Now something else that you became famous for at your restaurant Alinea
was, you know, foams and gels, sponges. Would you describe, like, what you mean
when you say sponge for a food?

Mr. ACHATZ: Basically it's very important for us to play with texture. And so,
you know, for us, when we create a culinary sponge, it's basically a mousse,
essentially, something a little bit lighter, airier. It resembles a sponge in
that it's full of holes. It's very aerated, whatever the mixture is.

In reality, it's just a sauce. It would be like taking clam chowder, putting it
in a Kitchen-Aid with a whip attachment, like you were going to whip cream, and
aerating it.

So, you know, for us, like, playing with different densities of food,
manipulating texture, it impacts not only the way the food is perceived
aesthetically but also the flavor release. So if I whip that clam chowder into
a sponge, and you put it on your palate, it's going to dissolve instantly and
cleanly and evenly, and it's going to have a different effect on the palate
than it would if you took a spoonful of clam chowder soup and put it in your

GROSS: And what would the difference be?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, you know, there's something called flavor release in food.
And it's exactly as it sounds. It's the way that your palate perceives the
flavors that are in it, on it, I guess you would say.

Some things have really good flavor release, where instantly upon hitting the
palate, they're incredibly flavorful. Other things have bad flavor release. I'm
trying to think of an example.

So if you were to make Jell-O, okay, the less gelatin that you put in the Jell-
O, it's going to have a lot higher flavor release. So if I over-gel cherry
Jell-O, and you have to put it in your mouth and chew on it to get it to kind
of melt and break apart and release the flavor, then it's going to be far less
flavorful than if you set it very lightly or if we aerate it so that it
dissolves very quickly.

So having this knowledge about flavor release and texture - you know, like I
say, texture's a very important part of the dining experience because when
you're - we talk about monotony with the mechanics of eating, but there's also
a great deal of monotony, potential monotony, in both texture and flavor.

So there's something that we call the law of diminishing returns in our
cooking. That's why the steak is only two ounces, because by your fifth bite
you're really, you're done. You're done with that steak. You know what it's
going to taste like. The actual flavor starts to deaden on the palate.

If we were to make you take 10 more bites, by the time you got to bite 15, the
steak's just not that compelling anymore. So if we have a series of 23 small
courses, where it's a burst of flavor on the palate, and then you move on to
something completely different and then completely different, that helps us set
up a more exciting meal, and it's something that is easier to kind of be
compelled to go through a 23-course menu.

GROSS: You've had to create new technology in order to create some of the foods
that you've created. Tell us one of the unusual pieces of technology that you
either borrowed from another field and now use in food, or that you basically

Mr. ACHATZ: We realized early on with the opening of Alinea that we were going
to have to look to other disciplines and other avenues for technology and tools
that would help us cook, shape, manipulate the ingredients in the way that we
wanted. One of the items that we came up with is called the anti-griddle. And
we partnered with, collaborated with a company in Niles, Illinois call
PolyScience, and PolyScience is owned by gentlemen by the name of Philip
Preston. And Philip is a big foodie, and his company basically supplies the
medical industry with a lot of temperature-control technology.

So he does specific water bass that can be either super-hot or super-cold, down
to like 100th of a degree. So he was very versed in laboratory-style equipment.
We came to him and said, you know, maybe there's some way that we can
collaborate on a piece that basically is the inverse of the pancake griddle
that I grew up cooking on at my parent's diner. So you have a large, stainless
steel surface, and instead of it being hot, we want it to be incredibly cold.
And he got kind of excited about the challenge, and three days later, he had
what he called the Frankenstein version of it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: ...which was the prototype. It wasn't real pretty, but it worked.
And so that stainless steel plate gets negative 50 degrees Celsius. And it
allows us to freeze - not only freeze things that normally don't freeze. So,
for instance, if you take a cup full of olive oil and put it in your freezer at
home overnight, you're going to wake up the next morning, and it's still going
to be liquid because the freezing point of olive oil is very, very low. So you
take a tablespoon of that olive oil and you put it on top of the anti-griddle,
and it will instantly freeze.

GROSS: What's an example of something that doesn't usually freeze that you've
frozen and served?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think olive oil is a good one - is a good example. So we,
you know, we've actually made olive oil lollipops, essentially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: So you can take olive oil, freeze it on the anti-griddle with a
stick in it. And then once it comes off the anti-griddle, we seasoned it with
very - depending on whether we wanted it sweet or savory. So in this case, we
did a savory olive oil lollipop, where we seasoned the outside with salt,
smoked paprika and some dried basil. And so basically, you're now kind of in
the South of Spain with those flavors. And it looked like a lollipop, came on a
stick, and it was savory and fatty. And as soon as you put it on your palate,
of course, the olive oil immediately starts to melt and kind of floods the
palate with this smoky paprika, savory, almost like a roasted red pepper oil.
It was really interesting.

GROSS: Part of what we base our sense of taste on is what we see on the plate.

Mr. ACHATZ: Absolutely.

GROSS: And that affects our expectations. So if the shape of the food or the
texture of the food doesn't conform to our expectation of what that food is, is
that going to taste different because of that?

Mr. ACHATZ: I don't know that it will taste different, but you've touched on
something that is what we really focus on, you know, and this is - this goes
back to part of crafting that emotional experience. So if I present to you
something that I call a root beer float, and again, it's not in a glass. It's
on a plate. It's not liquid, it's solid, and it's not brown. It's completely
clear, and I say root beer float, and you look at it and you look at me and you
think I'm crazy, I think that's a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Because now you're already - you're engaged, and that's kind of
what I was talking about before. We're engaging you on so many different
levels. And then the payoff is that when you put that perfectly clear, bite-
size cube in your mouth, it tastes like a root beer float. And then everybody

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz, the co-founder
of Alinea restaurant, where he's been the chef. He has a new memoir called
"Life, on the Line." That's not only about his food life. It's about getting
hit with tongue cancer, and then recovering from that.

We'll talk about that in a moment. First, let's take a short break, here.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz. He's the
creator of the avant-garde restaurant Alinea, and he's written a new memoir
called "Life, on the Line." It's about his life as a chef creating really,
pretty avant-garde food and it's also about getting hit with tongue cancer a
few years ago from which he has been in remission since 2007.

It's so horrible that while you were living in this food world, that you got
tongue cancer. And what makes it particularly more bizarre is that you were
living in this world of rarified food where food was art, where food was like a
very special experience to be savored, because no one outside of a chef like
you could make food like this. It cost a whole lot of money to eat there,
hundreds of dollars. And then you get a disabled mouth and tongue because of
the tongue cancer. You got a diagnosis, and you went to see a surgeon.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you were told that, basically, he was going to cut out your tongue
and replace it with a muscle from another part of your body. Tell us what he
told you.

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, basically, the standard of care is surgery for this type of
cancer. And usually, the glansectomy is something that they would remove the
cancerous tissue in the tongue and replicate what they would call - they call
it a flap procedure, where they would take tissue from either your thigh or
some part of your arm and try to reconstruct or re-create - cosmetically, at
least - the tongue.

Now, obviously, the movement would be severely compromised, and you wouldn't be
able to taste, because all those nerves that are in your tongue would no longer
be there. It would be a piece of your leg or a piece of your arm. So basically,
I went to a couple of institutions here in Chicago after I first got diagnosed.
They recommended surgery. That didn't sound very appealing to me, because after
the CT's and the oral exams, they estimated that the tumor had taken over about
three quarters of my tongue. So they would essentially have to remove the
entire thing. So we flew to New York...

GROSS: Wait, can I add something?

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: That on top of that, you were told that if you had that kind of radical
surgery, that you would only have a 50 to 60 percent chance of surviving two
years or more.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. So...

GROSS: And you write in your book that you were more afraid of losing your
sense of taste and your ability to eat than of dying.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. I mean, there's elements of that for sure, because, you know,
what was important to me, I lived my whole life, you know, since I was five
years old, in the kitchen, and - with a very specific goal. Not only that, but
ultimately what happened is, you know, it's the passion. It's the love for
cooking and food. It's dictated my entire life, every aspect of it. And so the
thought of not being able to do that anymore radically affects your life. And
if you've given your whole life to something and you're kind of looking down
the barrel of not being able to do that anymore, it makes you think, you know.

GROSS: So you found a doctor who had an alternate approach. What was the

Mr. ACHATZ: So finally, after visiting four institutions and them basically
saying the same thing, which was we need to remove most of your tongue, part of
your mandible, your lymph nodes on both sides of your neck, and even after we
do that we're going to give you a 50 percent chance at a two-and-a-half or
three years survival rate, we came back to Chicago and went to the University
of Chicago, where they were doing a clinical trial based on inverting the

So typically, what everybody was recommending was surgery first, followed by
chemotherapy and radiation. And the folks at U of C said hey, wait a minute. If
we can use certain drugs in certain combinations and a certain type of
radiation that's very targeted, we might be able to put the chemo radiation
first and only do the surgery if necessary. If we cannot eradicate the tumor
and the cancerous cells with the chemo and radiation, then sure, we'll have to
go in and cut. Well, as it turns out, the trial was incredibly effective.

GROSS: What was it like eating without tasting or receiving any pleasure from
it? Because it - if you were lucky enough to get something down, it would hurt
as it went down.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. It was very strange to not be able to discern any flavor at
all. And, you know, we all go through this at some point in our life, but it
might only be for a day or two, you know, when you have that really bad head
cold and you're all stuffy and you can't smell, and the chicken soup that your
mom made you that you're slipping on has no flavor, no taste at all. This
lasted for a little over a year. And, you know, it's funny, because clearly,
you know that you have to eat to live. But even knowing that, for me, there was
no reason to eat. I just had no interest in eating, whatsoever.

Even though, like you said, you know, there were some issues of pain that I was
dealing with, but even beyond that, like, you would put something in your mouth
- say, a vanilla milkshake - and it tasted like nothing. And at that point,
you're just like, why bother? Like, if I can't get any pleasure or any
satisfaction from eating this, then what's the point?

GROSS: So one of the things you were occasionally able to get down are those,
like, nutrition drinks that people who are sick and who can't eat much or who
are losing a lot of weight and need a supplement drink.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: So as one of America's top chefs, which is better: Ensure or Boost?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: My go-to was Ensure.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: And...

GROSS: So during this period, you're actually still going to work, right, at
your restaurant.

Mr. ACHATZ: Every day.

GROSS: And I guess I can't really comprehend how food can be punishing to

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you're so sick. You've lost about like 50 pounds. You're nauseous
most of the time. And yet you're surrounded not only by food, but by this
really, like, arcane food where you used like, you know, as you say, jeweler's
tweezers to put micro herbs...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: ...on bite-size portions of food. I mean, like, I, how, why did you keep
going to work?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, there was a couple of reasons I kept going. I think when
people are faced with whether it be a serious illness or some type of adverse
situation in their life, everybody does something different. Everybody
gravitates towards something different. Some people might, you know, say, okay,
I'm not going to work for a couple of months and I'm going to spend more time
with my family and people that I love and really change the way that they
approach their life.

For me, after I kind of was able to wrap my head around it, I realized that I
didn't want to change a thing and that I was probably one of the luckiest guys
in the world, because every day that I would go to quote/unquote "work," I
loved it. It was my passion. So, to me, the kitchen, work, cooking was the
place of refuge. It was the safest place for me. It was where I was most
comfortable. It's where I felt the most familiar. That world was my comfort

GROSS: But most people can't be around food when they're nauseous.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. I mean, you just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: I mean, there were times when it wasn't easy, but, you know, the
other aspect of it was I had 62 employees that were coming in every day and
supporting me, not by patting me on the back or giving me a hug and telling me
it was going to be okay, but by walking in the back door of that restaurant and
putting on their game face every day. Because they knew that the worst thing
that could possibly happen to me, aside from the cancer, was that Alinea fell
into some sort of decline.

So they all worked harder than normal to try to make sure that that didn't even
- wasn't even a consideration. And so I felt like I needed to reciprocate their
effort and be a true leader and come to work every day so that they knew that I
respected them.

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz. His memoir is called "Life, on the Line."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz, and he's the
founder of Alinea restaurant in Chicago. He has a new restaurant called Next
that's about to open. He has a new memoir called "Life, on the Line." That's
about his food life and his artistic and avant-garde approach to cooking. But
it's also about getting diagnosed with tongue cancer and getting an extreme
form of radiation treatment, as well as chemo and surgery, and going through a
period where he couldn't eat, where he basically lost all sense of taste. And
he's been in remission since 2007, and his sense of taste has returned.

Your tastes, I imagine, came back to you not all in one shot, but how did they
come back? Was it one kind of taste at a time, or did slowly, all the tastes
start to emerge together?

Mr. ACHATZ: No, it was very much one at a time. And I tell people, when you're
first born, newborns can only perceive sweet. They're not, their palates
haven't developed yet. They can't taste salt. They can't taste bitter. They
can't taste acid. And obviously, the reason for that is so that they're drawn
to eat, tasting the natural sweetness in the milk. So the same thing happened
to me. I started from zero and the first thing back was sweet. So my palate
developed just as a newborn, but I was 32 years old. So I could understand how
flavors were coming back and how they synergized together.

I remember one morning, I woke up and poured myself a cup of coffee. And
because the doctors were harping on me to eat enough calories - I never put
sugar in my coffee, but during that period, I was trying to get as many
calories as I could. So I dumped a couple of spoonfuls of sugar in there and
took a sip, and put the cup down and went, wait a minute. That taste sweet. And
it was like, oh my gosh, I can taste sweet. And I got really, really excited.

And I remember calling my doctor and going, I can taste sweet. I can taste
sweet. Like, what does this mean? You know, when are the rest of them going to
come back? And they always told me that it was a complete - it was different
for everybody. Some people think they get about 50 percent of their taste back.
Some people would only get sweet and salty back, and they would never be able
to perceive bitter or acid. They really couldn't tell me. And so I just kind of
went through life thinking, okay, maybe I'll only be able to taste sweet for
three months.

A few months later, I remember waking up and doing the exact same thing,
getting my coffee, throwing a couple of spoons of sugar in there, take a swig.
And instinctively I go - I said to my girlfriend Heather, who was sitting next
to me, I'm like, god, this coffee's terrible. It's so bitter. And she looked at
me, kind of smiled, and goes, it's what? I go it's really bitter. And I just
started laughing. I go oh, my gosh, you know. Now I can taste bitter.

So the thing with it coming back in pieces like that is that now I could
understand the synergies of sweet and bitter, how they cancel each other out,
how they act with each other. Then once salt came back, it was the same thing.
Salt enters the equation. I know how it plays off of sugar, how it plays off of
bitterness, acid, so on and so forth. So it was very educational for me. I
don't recommend it, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: But, yeah. I mean, it was - I think it made me a better chef,
because now I really, really understand how flavor works.

GROSS: So what's for dinner for you tonight? Is it hazelnut yogurt, curry
saffron, freeze-dried corn and edible tube?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or is it pizza?

Mr. ACHATZ: It'll be neither tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. ACHATZ: Typically, we have staff meals. All the employees in the restaurant
sit down in the kitchen around 4 o'clock and, you know, we cook largely ethnic-
focused foods. So I'm not sure what's on the menu today, but it'll probably be
chili or tacos or maybe some udon noodles. I don't know. But usually, it's that
one meal a day. I'll take a little bit in for breakfast, and then that big
staff meal at 4 o'clock will push me through the rest of the day. So if I
didn't have to work tonight, it could very well be pizza.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Good luck with
your new restaurant.

Mr. ACHATZ: Thank you.

GROSS: And I wish you really could health.

Mr. ACHATZ: Thank you. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Yeah. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mr. ACHATZ: Okay.

GROSS: My interview with chef Grant Achatz was recorded in March after the
publication of his memoir "Life, on the Line" written with his business partner
Nick Kokonas. You can read an excerpt on our website: Their
restaurant Alinea is in Chicago. After we recorded our interview, they opened
their new restaurant called Next, which changes its menu every three months.
Each menu focuses on a specific time and place. The first was Paris 1906. The
current menu is Tour of Thailand.

We'll close with a track from a CD by the group One Ring Zero that will be
released along with a short book of recipes this October in a package called
“The Recipe Project.” The book features recipes by famous chefs. One Ring Zero
used those recipes as lyrics and set them to music. This recipe for calves,
brains and eggs is by San Francisco-based chef Chris Cosentino.

(Soundbite of music)

ONE RING ZERO (Band): (Singing) Two calves brains, one teaspoon salt, one
tablespoon of lemon juice, one tablespoon of white wine, five eggs, two
tablespoons cream, one tablespoon butter, one teaspoon chopped chives, one
teaspoon of chopped tarragon, four slices of rustic country bread. Two
teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil, salt, taste black pepper to taste.

To poach the brains, fill a large pot with water and add the salt, lemon juice,
and white wine. Bring the water to a boil and then turn it down to a simmer, so
the water is lightly bubbling. Two calf brains, one teaspoon...

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue