CHICAGO — The dining room at Alinea is a rare and special place where dark-suited waiters glide past tables, carrying trays laden with fantastical creations.
Steelhead roe in coconut suspended from vanilla pods. Granola encrusted bison with oatmeal foam. Jelled apple cider floating in walnut milk and vegetable ash. Sweet potato and bourbon tempura pierced by a smoking cinnamon stick.
Some plates arrive floating on pillows of lavender air, or suspended on bouncing antennas — one-bite explosions of flavor at times so startling diners cry out in delight.
Dining as performance art.
It is one reason people flock to this 3-year-old restaurant named the best in the country by Gourmet Magazine and considered by many to be among the best in the world.
They come for the food, and for the sheer joy of sampling what the genius young chef with the magical touch has dreamed up next.
Alinea means new train of thought and that is precisely what 34-year-old Grant Achatz is all about. He wants diners to be dazzled by his daring, to chuckle at his whimsy and even to weep at the memories some dishes evoke.
But the most startling aspect of that performance is not the food. It is that the man who spends 17-hours-a-day orchestrating it, has never tasted some of his creations.
Last summer Achatz was diagnosed with advanced tongue cancer.
His latest dishes were conceived at a local chemotherapy clinic as poison dripped into his body, killing not just his malignant cells but also his sense of taste.
Moved by food
Taste, Achatz says, is more than what happens on the tongue. "It is about emotion, translating a feeling, a memory, an experience."
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Achatz is thoughtful and soft-spoken, his thin, freckled face radiating youth and vigor, though he acknowledges the toll cancer has taken. Gone is the once ever-present can of Diet Coke. These days he downs protein drinks, trying to build back some of the weight he lost. He carries a little bottle of lidocaine, which he sips to numb the pain.
But illness is not something he focuses on at Alinea, where everything is about creativity and emotion.
"We want to reset your mind," Achatz says, grinning.
Achatz has been doing this since he was a boy cooking omelets at his parents restaurant in St. Clair, Mich. His father recalls how, even then, Achatz thrived on the intensity, the teamwork, the drama of the kitchen.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Achatz landed a job at Thomas Keller's renowned Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry, when he was just 23.
Under Keller, Achatz learned how to prepare classics like "Oysters and Pearls" — Malpeque oysters nestled on a bed of tapioca topped with a mound of caviar. But he also learned the sheer force of will it takes to work in a top kitchen where pressure is absolute and dishes must be perfect every time.
Achatz reveres Keller; his youngest son is named for him. But he was restless to find his own culinary voice. In 2000 he spent a week in Spain with chef Ferran Adria at the El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia. Achatz was mesmerized.
'It was Mars!'
Adria is at the forefront of a cuisine called molecular gastronomy — a kind of fusion of kitchen and science lab. Ingredients like agar agar and carrageenan are used to thicken and mold food in unconventional ways. Foams and warm jellies and liquid nitrogen all play their parts.
Achatz returned to California with a new sense of inventiveness — one that would find expression the following year when he tried out for top chef at Trio in Chicago.
"His food wasn't just out there," owner Henry Adaniya said. "It was from Mars!"
It was also the best Adaniya had ever tasted. The black truffle explosion — a single ravioli that burst with warm truffle broth when Adaniya bit into it — eventually became a signature dish.
Trio became a sensation under Achatz. When Achatz won the James Beard Foundation's rising star award in 2003 Adaniya was as proud as if the chef was his own son.
Yet he couldn't help but wonder about the toll on Achatz's health. Even by the grueling industry standards, Achatz worked harder and with more intensity than anyone Adaniya had ever seen.
But Achatz had a vision and he was unstoppable. Especially after he met the man who would become his great friend and champion.
Nick Kokonas, a derivatives trader who retired in his 30s, had been a regular at Trio for years. But Achatz's food amazed him.
In January 2004 Kokonas asked Achatz to create a special meal for his wife's birthday. "She's ethnically Latvian, speaks Japanese and loves Thai food," Kokonas said.
The 25-course extravaganza — Latvian sorrel with smoked ham hocks, frozen Willakenzie verjus with thyme, liquid cake of kaffir lime and banana — became the meal that launched Alinea.
White spot spotted
Achatz first noticed the little white spot on his tongue in the hectic months leading up to the opening of Alinea. A dentist fitted him for a night guard and told him not to worry.
Achatz was too busy to worry. Achatz and Kokonas had found a two-story office building in tony Lincoln Park which they planned to demolish and rebuild into a 20-table restaurant with one of the most exotic menus in the world.
They made no secret of their goal. There were long postings on Internet food forums and write-ups in culinary magazines.
The buzz just grew after the restaurant opened on May 4, 2005. It exploded after Gourmet named Alinea the best restaurant in America in October 2006.
For the kitchen at Alinea is as rare as the dining room. Nothing seems rushed or loud and there is a startling absence of smoke. Meat and fish are more likely to be vacuum packed and cooked "sous vide" — in pans of warm water — than roasted or fried. And the sizzle is as likely to come from the "anti-griddle," which instantly freezes food, as from a searing pan.
Here, every cook is called "chef." Everyone sweeps the floor. And when something is wrong, everyone can sense it.
'That's not gonna happen'
By the summer of 2007, Achatz was barely able to speak. The painful white sore on his tongue was also affecting his appetite and his taste.
His dentist diagnosed stress. A biopsy came back negative. Relieved, Achatz wedged a wad of chewing gum between his tooth and his tongue and tried to ignore the pain.
And then, in early July, his tongue exploded overnight into a throbbing swollen mass that left him barely able to swallow.
Nothing prepared Achatz for the news.
Stage 4 squamous cell cancer. Doctors needed to operate immediately — to cut out three-quarters of his tongue in order to save his life.
"That's not gonna happen," Achatz muttered, too stunned to say anymore.
There is a late afternoon ritual at Alinea when the wait staff, hosts and sommeliers gather in the upstairs dining room for a pre-service briefing with the master. Achatz talks about menu changes, how to serve certain dishes, and who might be dining that night.
When the ritual was broken last summer, when instead the entire staff was asked to assemble downstairs, everyone knew something was terribly wrong.
Nervously, they gathered around a small black phone consul. Achatz's voice crackled through. He told them he was in New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center with some of the best doctors in the world, and he was confident. He hadn't come this far to be beaten down by disease.
When Achatz hung up, 50 pairs of stunned eyes turned to Kokonas, some in tears. What could Kokonas say? He couldn't tell them what a top oncologist had told Achatz that morning.
"We need to operate immediately and remove your tongue or you will be dead in three months."
The headlines were stark: Cancer Strikes Top Chef In His Prime. At the University of Chicago Medical Center, oncologist Everett Vokes read the paper and wondered if he would see the stricken chef.
Achatz walked into his office a few days later.
Doctors make their case
Even doctors were struck by the irony of Achatz's case. He didn't fit the profile for a tongue cancer patient: He had never smoked, he drank moderately, he was fit and healthy and young.
"It was just this enormous human tragedy," said Vokes, who heads a team that specializes in trying to save organs, rather than remove them.
Instead of the standard therapy — removing the tumor surgically, followed by radiation and chemotherapy — they would reverse the order. Aggressive chemotherapy, using promising new drugs, followed by radiation to shrink and kill the tumor. Surgery might still be necessary later, but it would be less radical.
They warned Achatz that it would not be easy.
His tongue would burn with radiation and he would probably lose his taste for a year. His face would turn into a hot red rash and he would have to wear a burn mask. He would temporarily lose his hair. To be safe they would remove his lymph nodes.
By now, three top cancer specialists had told Achatz that it was necessary to remove his tongue. Vokes offered another choice, and said there was a 70 percent chance he would be cured.
"Where do I sign?" he asked.
From the start, Achatz made it clear that he considered cancer an unpleasant interruption, that would not affect his standards or his creativity.
His understanding of ingredients didn't die with chemo, Achatz pointed out. Nor did his flavor memory. And though he no longer trusted his own palate, he did trust that of his sous-chef who had worked with him for years.
But all the mental fortitude in the world couldn't conceal the horror of being strapped onto a gurney, a huge, black radiation machine humming as it gunned deadly rays into his tongue.
Achatz's face burned. He couldn't swallow. His mouth became a raging mass of pain and he spent nights throwing up pieces of burnt skin.
It was torture for Achatz to stay away from his restaurant. Though he often drove straight to work after treatment, there were days he simply couldn't let staff or clients see how sick he was.
Even the doctors marveled at Achatz's stoicism and resilience. He remained an outpatient, even during the worst days. He refused a feeding tube, forcing himself to swallow, no matter what, because doctors said that would speed recovery.
In mid-December, Achatz returned to the hospital for a final checkup. He still couldn't taste and his immune system was spent. He needed physical therapy, speech therapy, swallowing therapy and it would probably be a year before he would feel normal again.
But the scans were clear. The cancer was gone.
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