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Grant Achatz writ large: Chef's memoir details cancer battle, ascent in culinary world


Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas will be at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State at 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss their book, Life, On the Line. Radio host Eric Ferguson of WTMX-FM (101.9) will moderate. The event is free; seating is limited and first come, first served. (312) 747-4300.

The pair will visit Kendall College, 900 N. North Branch, at 2 p.m. March 11 for a talk and signing. Tickets are $45; reserve by Friday by calling (312) 752-2196 or e-mailing

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The story of Grant Achatz, the young Chicago chef with tongue cancer, had to be written.

So Achatz, 36, did what any other high-profile, busy chef might do: He hired a ghostwriter.

The ghostwriter sent the beginnings of a story to Achatz. “It felt so fake to me. It made me cringe,” the chef says.

Nick Kokonas, 43, Achatz’s partner in Alinea, the Lincoln Park restaurant considered one of the world’s best, was more blunt: “I said to them, ‘It’s terrible.’ ”

Overnight, Kokonas says he typed out about 20 pages — about the day in 2007 when Achatz was given the diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer — and sent them to the ghostwriter’s agent to show them what the story should sound like. Which effectively ended the ghostwriter’s stint.

Kokonas and Achatz continued to crank out pages, a few thousand words at a time. They would e-mail each other what they’d written, then edit each other’s words, their correspondence taking place into the wee hours.

From the start, Achatz and Kokonas were adamant that the story would be told by both of them, in both of their voices.

“It is at times a business book, at times an inside portrait of the culinary world and at times a cancer survival story,” their proposal read.

Five publishers rejected it; a memoir should be first-person, they were told. A sixth publisher, Penguin Group, bit.

This is the Alinea way: Break the mold. Take control. Get it done.

Life, On the Line (Gotham, $27) by Achatz and Kokonas will be on shelves Thursday. The publicity tour for the book has begun. A movie script has been written and a director tapped. They are mulling over two offers for a TV show that Achatz describes as “part-travel show, part-history show, part-food show.”

And in a few more weeks, the pair will open Next and Aviary, a restaurant and bar respectively, on West Fulton that they say will be nothing like what diners in Chicago, or elsewhere for that matter, have yet encountered.

“In terms of complicating my life, it’s a bad thing, because now I’m getting pulled in a lot of different directions,” Achatz says, “but from a media standpoint, it’s kind of like the perfect storm, right?”

Rising star

Achatz has garnered just about every accolade that matters to a chef, including the highly coveted three Michelin stars.

But he’s pretty sure he won’t win any literary awards for this book (though his self-published Alinea cookbook did win a James Beard Award in 2009).

“What we lack in being great writers and amazing prose, we make up for in authenticity,” says Achatz. “Nick said, ‘The book sounds like you’ and to me, that’s awesome.”

The story almost writes itself.

Small-town Michigan kid learns to crack eggs at his family’s diner and, as his friends go off to college, he vows to one day open a “great restaurant — a famous one.”

Even then, the kid’s drive and perfectionism are apparent. He’s an average student but focused as hell: building his first car, a Pontiac GTO, piece by piece over two years; in the diner, pushing himself to see how long he can man the griddles, broiler and fryers himself.

After culinary school, he goes to work for the best — Charlie Trotter, then Thomas Keller. He pursues Keller by writing him 14 letters in a row.

He’s dreaming big now, ready to run a kitchen, and he finds it in Trio, the tiny Evanston restaurant. This is where his star rises, and when the reviews and awards start coming in. He meets Kokonas, a successful, confident trader and regular diner at Trio, and they start laying plans for Alinea.

A frankness permeates the book. Achatz is open about his father’s drinking (“He’s an alcoholic. Still is,” he says to me during our conversation sitting on steps outside his new bar, Aviary), his parents’ fractured marriage and his own failed marriage.

He is unapologetic about his ambition and ego. The day after his younger son is born, “I returned to work, on time, the next morning,” he writes.

Entire chapters are Kokonas’ e-mails to investors detailing the buildout of Alinea, complete with architects’ renderings and photos of dining room chairs and dishes being researched.

You don’t even get to the cancer part until page 305 of the 390-page book.

That part is the stuff of movies, dramatic and awful and inspirational:

Achatz opens the restaurant of his dreams, Alinea, in 2005 at age 30, and two years later is told he has Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. He is told, by three different doctors at three different hospitals, that his tongue must be cut out and that, even after that, he may die. A team at the University of Chicago proposes something else: drugs and radiation to wipe out the tumors. Which, remarkably, they do.

Achatz drives himself to every treatment session but one.

“Occasionally,” he writes, “I would find it necessary to pull to the side of the road, vomit and then drive on.”

On the inside

Hardcore foodies and followers of Achatz (there are 23,417 of them on Twitter) will lap up the chef and food references.

There’s a young, stoic Bill Kim in the kitchen at Trotter’s; Kim now runs the popular casual eateries Urban Belly and Belly Shack. There’s a pre-“Top Chef” Richard Blais in the kitchen at the French Laundry, and Chicago comrades Nathan Klingbail, John Peters and Michael Carlson cutting their teeth at Trio.

There’s the Black Truffle Explosion, one of Achatz’s most famous dishes (“We would get rid of Black Truffle Explosion and Hot Potato, Cold Potato if people didn’t kill us,” Kokonas jokes to me).

There are the local and national food critics and writers, and the uneasy, complicated dance Achatz and Kokonas know they must do to court the media while swallowing their pride.

And there’s Trotter.

Achatz is 21. First day of his tryout at Trotter’s Lincoln Park restaurant, and he muffs a batch of blanched peaches. A pastry chef tries to salvage them, but too late.

“I turned to see Charlie Trotter standing before me, head tilted to one side, peering over his John Lennon-style glasses,” Achatz writes. “His hands were together in front of him like a praying mantis, and he leaned forward slightly to intimate that he was looking into the ice bath, even though his eyes were on the pastry chef.”

Trotter unleashes a verbal assault on the pastry chef, walks away, then turns back, walks to Achatz and sticks out his hand. “I am Charlie Trotter. If you give a s---.”

Achatz quits the restaurant after only a few months. Trotter’s parting words, according to Achatz: “As far as I am concerned, if you don’t work here for a year, you haven’t worked here for a day.”

Trotter’s presence looms throughout the book. While scouting locations for Alinea, Achatz and Kokonas drive by Trotter’s restaurant. Kokonas jokes that they should buy the spot across the street and call it “F-U-C-T.’ F--- you, Charlie Trotter,” he writes.

Achatz, standing now with his hands jammed in the pockets of his peacoat as we talk outside Aviary, shakes his head.

“This is a problem,” he says. “The stories that were in there weren’t intended to be disrespectful. They weren’t intended to be shedding light on the monster that is Charlie Trotter. Believe it or not, I was trying to draw more parallels with him to me than most people are getting.

“His all-out assault to be the best, to be perfect, to make an amazing restaurant — I got that from him.”

His relationship with Trotter today? “Nonexistent,” Achatz says.

But then he tells me this story: A month after being diagnosed with cancer, he and his girlfriend ate at Trotter’s. She’d never been there and they both wanted to do it up.

They ate like royalty. Afterward, Charlie invited them to his house to celebrate the restaurant’s 20th anniversary with a bunch of other chefs. They went; it was a great night.

“People don’t see his generosity and what he gives,” Achatz says.

Achatz wrote that scene, but it ended up getting cut.

Like brothers

The book opens with Achatz at the 2008 James Beard Awards in New York, accepting the award for Outstanding Chef. He had completed treatment five months earlier, but was still recovering — “bald, pimpled, scaled and sore” and unable to taste a thing.

It was Kokonas, not Achatz, who wrote this scene in the chef’s voice, describing a time during which the two were barely speaking.

“People didn’t realize how bad things were during that time,” Kokonas says. “At that point, I didn’t want to deal with him personally anymore. I was just done with him. That’s why I wasn’t there. And he felt awkward being there. He felt awful, he weighed 130 pounds. He’s the one who told me, ‘God, everybody treated me like a leper.’ ”

Theirs is a unique relationship. They are business partners, but even more, “best friend brothers,” Achatz says. “More like brothers than we are like friends. Really close brothers.”

They are both only children. They both like to talk, and they’re direct when they do. They share a work ethic that Kokonas describes as “warped strength.”

“The thing Grant and I have most in common is when we set out to do something, we do it,” Kokonas says.

Nothing is half-assed. It took $2 million to build Alinea (and some 18,000 e-mails between the two, Kokonas figures). They’re exceeding that with their new ventures by “only about eight percent so far,” Kokonas deadpans.

The initial plan was to keep it tight and low-cost. “We were just going to be about food, food, food,” Kokonas says.

That has morphed into this: Next, a restaurant serving food of a specific era and place for three months at a time — basically, a different restaurant four times a year — and taking customers by ticket, not reservation; and Aviary, a bar where chefs make the cocktails and finger food behind a bar that patrons won’t actually be able to walk up to.

“Cocktail exhibition,” says Kokonas. Ever the “serial entrepreneur,” he is starting yet another company modeled around the unusual ticket reservation system at Next.

It was Kokonas who pushed to get a second, third and fourth opinion on Achatz’s cancer diagnosis.

Without Kokonas: “Dead,” Achatz says. He’d be dead.

Another start

Nearly dying hasn’t changed Achatz all that much. He now has a will in place for his kids, and “that sense of being invincible” that every twentysomething boasts, he doesn’t feel that anymore. But he doesn’t dwell on what was, or what could have been.

Time with the boys was always sacred, and more so now, he says. Alinea is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Next and Aviary will follow that schedule because those are his days with his kids.

While on tour for the book, Achatz will be out of town for only one Monday and Tuesday. That was by design. His only other stipulation: that he not do back-to-back stops in various cities, so he’s not away from Alinea too long.

He goes to the U. of C. once a month for checkups. He knows the likelihood of seeing the cancer return is “highly possible.”

And yet, getting older — being supplanted one day by the young It chef, as Kokonas warns him in the book will happen — seems more unsettling.

“I mean, I still feel like I’m 20, despite everything I’ve been through,” he says. “But that’s absolutely correct. Some cook that has either been in my kitchen or I don’t even know yet because they don’t work for me yet, five years, 10 years from now, it’s going to be him in the paper and somebody is going to say, ‘The torch has been passed’ or ‘The guard has changed in Chicago dining.’ And I don’t know how it will make me feel.”

Achatz’s book ends where we are now — with the start of Next and Aviary. But his story is not yet done.

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