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For all of Alinea's precision and weirdness, though, Achatz lacks pretension. He started cooking at his father's diner in Michigan at age 12 and, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1994, sent his résumé to Napa Valley's acclaimed French Laundry every week until it hired him as a line cook. He's still just as driven. Even after he was named the James Beard Best Chef in America in 2008, he would stay up after dinner service, from 1 to 5 in the morning, plotting new dishes by writing lists of flavors and then drawing diagrams to figure out which of them might go together.
In addition to being methodical, he's Midwestern earnest, open about everything from his restaurant's profits (about $1 million in a good year) to his troubled relationship with his dad (they didn't speak for several years). He's also open about his cancer.
Cooking with Tongue Cancer
Achatz has the most poetic cancer possible. Just as Beethoven composed when he was deaf and Milton wrote masterpieces after losing his sight, Achatz cooked with tongue cancer. In July 2007, at age 33, the chef who had never smoked a cigarette was diagnosed after years of being told by oral surgeons and dentists that his pain stemmed from grinding his teeth with Stage IV tongue cancer. There is no Stage V. The only cure, doctors said, was to cut out his tongue, which was covered in tumors, and replace it with muscle from his leg, which would mean he could never taste again. If he didn't cut out his tongue, he was told, he'd be dead in a month. He refused to get the surgery.
"People said this was shallow of me, but it was going to strip me of who I was," Achatz says at 1 a.m. in his office, which is strewn with awards, cookbooks and college chemistry gadgets. "It wouldn't have been about the physical deformity or not being able to talk or taste. This is the path I've been on since I was 17. They were going to derail me from that one thing. That's who I am. I sacrificed. I got divorced. If I wanted to stay with my wife, she wouldn't have let me do this restaurant."
In other words, this is not the cancer story in which the disease makes the guy realize he needs to stop focusing on his work and finally spend time with his two young sons, see his parents more and reconnect with his former sweetheart. No, this is the cancer story that makes a man realize that his screaming ambition was right the whole time and that if he had only a month to live, he'd better get some stuff done. He found an experimental program at the University of Chicago that let him keep his tongue. Every morning, he chopped food at Alinea, took a midday break for chemo and radiation and often barfed in a cup as he drove back for the night shift at the restaurant. He lost his sense of taste completely and learned to cook by aroma, relying on other chefs to detect salt, sugar and anything else he couldn't smell. He also wrote and self-published the Alinea cookbook, which has sold more than 50,000 copies.
The cancer, which is now in remission, has made Achatz an even better cook. After the skin of his tongue peeled off in strips from the radiation leaving it thin, dark and oversensitive to temperature his sense of taste returned slowly. First came sweetness and then salt, so he was able to understand and improve the balance between them. Now his cooking is more extreme, with weirder flavor juxtapositions, putting things like olives, white chocolate and strawberries together.
"Today the modern chef is not about classical cuisine," says French Laundry's head chef, Thomas Keller, after whom Achatz named his youngest son Keller. "It's about personality cuisine. It's about an interpretation of something that has been impactful on an individual." Thomas Keller describes Achatz's food as "a tightrope walk between what would be considered intellectual cuisine and food with an emotional connection to it."
Calling the New Place Next
Alinea is the name of that strange symbol copy editors use to mark the start of a new paragraph, and Achatz chose it to signal new ideas in cooking. Like a lot of artists, he responds to criticism with creations. His dishes are too small? The 23-course Alinea meal now ends with a chef throwing a silicone mat over your table and smearing it with an obscene amount of chocolate concoctions. His style is too weird? The course in the middle of your meal is straight-up French haute cuisine, taken right from Auguste Escoffier's 1903 cookbook and served on antique plates. This is the kind of meal you're likely to get at his second restaurant, set to open Feb. 1 in Chicago. But only if you go there soon.