One of America’s most decorated chefs relates the triumphal story of his culinary genesis and epic battle with tongue cancer.
The unlikely comma in the title of this 36-year-old’s memoir, seemingly choking off the subject before it’s developed, wonderfully captures the pivotal pause cancer forced the young chef to take during his meteoric rise in the restaurant world. Witnessed and told in part by business partner Kokonas, Achatz’s story begs comparison more with sports greats like Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong, who famously surmounted gross physical challenges to reach the pinnacle of their careers, than with other culinary lions. While his untimely diagnosis with carcinoma of the tongue at age 33 may have compelled Achatz to share his story of life “on the line” with a mainstream audience, the bulk of the memoir focuses on the chef’s extraordinary culinary journey. From cracking eggs at age seven in his grandmother’s café, to opening Alinea in Chicago at 31, which was subsequently named the best restaurant in the country by Gourmet in 2006, Achatz writes that the great challenge of his younger life was matching the culinary achievement of those around him. “All of my life I was surrounded by success”—including his parents, who owned their own restaurant before they were 30, exposure to the uncompromising demands of Charlie Trotter and mentoring by the inimitable Thomas Keller. “The whole time I wanted to be as good as all of them,” he writes. “I knew the only way to come close to that was to do something different; otherwise, I would always be in their shadows.” With an unrelenting work ethic and crackerjack imagination that has yielded gastronomic gems like foie gras lozenges enrobed in bittersweet chocolate or lavender-flavored popsicles, not to mention a revolutionary approach to food preparation and presentation, Achatz has demonstrated success at achieving “different.” But what makes this memoir ring true for those beyond the world of the professional kitchen is the author’s understated rise to the challenge of his life-altering trauma.
Revelatory and inspiring.