Grant Achatz is a giant of the culinary world. He is a Beethoven, creating grand symphonies of taste and flavour… but he shares something else, something almost tragic, with the great classical composer. He spoke to Nidhi Dugar about his creative process and its perseverance against devastating challenges.
It’s late in the night, very late, when I call Grant Achatz for an interview. “I like to come up with new culinary ideas late at night, when the restaurant is empty” he says,, his voice papery but bold.
The staff at his restaurant, Alinea, has left, but Grant is working on new dishes. He tries to change his menu every season. Last thanksgiving, this Chicago based restaurant, which figures among the top six in the world, served a “turkey consommé, poured from a teapot into china cups, holding thinly sliced radish and a sage dumpling; an accompanying bouquet of sage, leeks, and rosemary, with a wishbone hidden among its fronds and a bath of hot water to release an herbal, onion-y fragrance”, according to a popular American magazine. The jury’s out on whether a chef can be an artist, but Achatz certainly aims to do much more than feed people; he tries to awe them, and to tell them a story.
Achatz works on the tradition of molecular gastronomy, which aims to take familiar foods and, using scientific techniques, give them new tastes and textures. But he says he would rather call his cooking “Progressive” …. “Molecular Gastronomy sounds like a lab-term. I’m cooking here… which I assume is ‘good food’… only my techniques are different. The roasting, boiling, and sautéing that have dominated the kitchen, since the time of Auguste Escoffier are out. I just need hot water for cooking.” In April, 2001, at twenty-six, Achatz applied to be the chef of Trio, a wellknown restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The owner hired him after he auditioned with a seven-course meal. He quickly became renowned in the food world for a dish called Truffle Explosion—an experience wherein the diner bit into a piece of ravioli and was greeted by a burst of deep, black-truffle liquid. In 2002, the Chicago Tribune’s restaurant reviewer gave Trio four stars; a year later, the James Beard Foundation named Achatz its ‘Rising Star Chef ’.
A few weeks after that, a tiny abrasion appeared along the side of his tongue.
Malignant cells grow rapidly; they travel through the bloodstream to find organs to make home. But, as adroit as they are, they meet an incredible enemy in a human mouth. The tissues here are designed to withstand fungus, bacteria, salivary acids and food remnants. Evolution has created the cells lining the mouth to be extraordinarily resistant to tumours. So at first Achatz’s cancer, which may have emerged earlier than the abrasion was found, had only marginal success in gaining a hold in his tongue.
That month, Grant began organising funding and investors for his dream restaurant. He cherished Trio, but he always wanted his own kitchen. Alinea soon took shape and became an instant hit with food lovers. White turkey meat came draped like a ribbon around a luscious poached oyster and was crowned with a lace-like slice of buttery whitebread toast, dipped in colloidal silver. Liquefied caramel popcorn came in a shot glass and a bean dish came on a tray with a pillow full of nutmeg scented air. A top favourite with the restaurant goers was the ‘Hot Potato, Cold Potato’ – potato simmered in clarified butter and covered by a black truffle, skewered on a steel pin, along with a cube of Parmesan, butter, and chives. You are to slide off the needle, letting them fall in a bowl of cold potato soup. Then, you tip your head back and down a soup that was two temperatures at once. Alinea, was soon to be reviewed for Michelin stars. International hotel chains came to talk about opening branches of Alinea. Achatz signed an indenture for a cookery book. “I dealt with tongue sore by putting a soft chewing gum between by tongue and teeth”, he says.
Eventually, a tumour developed in Achatz’s tongue. By early 2007, it had swollen to the point that Achatz could no longer talk clearly. He lost a lot of weight and lived on soup and other liquid food. The biopsy reports showed that the tumour was malignant “O.K., I get three-quarters of my tongue cut out, what’s my quality of life? Could I talk? No. Could I swallow? No.” He tells me that he told the surgeon he didn’t want his tongue to be removed. Then, he adds nonchalantly “’Well, you’ll be dead in four months,’ the surgeon said.”.
“The thing is, the tongue is actually a sidekick to smell”, Achatz informs me. “Taste is a waste, the action’s in olfaction” as the wisecrack goes. “Apples and onions can have the same taste, if you close your nose and eat them. A person needs to smell these foods, note their texture, or see them in order to distinguish between them”, says Achatz. Some estimates put the amount of information that smell contributes to identifying flavours to be upto ninety per cent, but no one really knows. “I was perhaps worried more than I needed to. But, while smell and vision can enhance taste, nothing can replace it. I can’t smell salt. I can’t smell sugar,” Achatz explains to me. “Those are the structuring blocks.”
Alinea serves a wide array of flavours. They serve caramel with mint, cedar with cinnamon, smoke, vanilla, lemon, fresh grass, iodine, pepper, orange. Hay, the carbon-ish taste of burnt toast, and sea weed also contribute to the undertones in its food… how would Achatz make up for his tongue? Soon, friends and family helped him sign up for a clinical trial at University of Chicago after they realised he just wouldn’t go for the surgery. Under the University of Chicago protocol, seventy per cent of patients are alive three years after treatment. Achatz put up with the chemotherapy well, physically and emotionally. When his hair began falling out, he gave his young children an electric razor and told them to shave it all off. The tumour soon began to shrink under the pressure of the drugs. By September, it had become seventy per cent smaller, and Achatz could eat most foods again. But the thing with radiation is that it kills cancerous cells, but it also targets other rapidly growing cells. Achatz’s doctors had cautioned him that the waves might affect his sense of taste. And within a week of the therapy, Achatz was unable to taste anything.
Achatz though still worked for 16 hours in day. So, what changed in his process of cooking? “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing changed. The process was exactly the same. Except, my sous chef tasted for me while I put the dish together. Earlier, I would tell them to increase the salt or reduce. It was them telling me how to clean up now. At this stage in cooking, you know what flavours will go with what.”
“My whole life has been spent on memorising food and their flavours”, Achatz says, his voice now getting hoarse from all the talking. “Smells just burns onto my brain. Well, smell, primarily of food, is the most powerful trigger of memory that your body can have and feel. I remember for every year at Thanksgiving, my grandmother would make apple pie, mashed potatoes and gravy. And at the Thanksgiving dinner when she would pull the apple pie out of the oven, the whole house would smell of it. The smell of baked apples not only takes me back to my childhood, but also to fall, and to autumn. In summers we would eat ripe tomatoes and eggplants and peppers and corn….”
By the end of 2007, he could taste sweet flavours again and he survived on milk-shakes and ice cream. He brings up the example of Beethoven, who composed his Ninth Symphony while deaf. Achatz answered, his hoarse voice rising, “He did it, but did he enjoy it? Sure, he wrote a great symphony when he couldn’t hear. I could cook then and I couldn’t taste it. So I enjoyed it on an emotional level. But do I wish I could taste my own creation and be satisfied with it.” Day by day, he recovered more of his palate—soon salt was distinguishable. The flavour was like a barbed wire, he told me; it made his tongue feel the way a person’s legs feel when they go numb. Because his ability to taste has come back over time, Achatz feels that he is indulging the sense in a way you would if you could see only in black-and-white and, one by one, colours were restored to you. He says, “Earlier I could just taste sweet. Now, I’ve been introduced to bitter, so now I’m understanding the relationship between sweet and bitter– how they work together and how they balance. And now, as salt comes back, I understand the relationship among the three components. Things like Pumpkin and lavender make a lot more sense to me…”
Achatz believes that the dishes that the team at Alinea is producing are first-class. “I can articulate it, and I can explicate it,” he says. “When I close my eyes, I know what it is supposed to taste like, and I wonder how close it is to that. People love it, so I know it’s O.K. I know my restaurant still figures in the top six of the world.”