Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Life, on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Subtitled A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, this book begins as the memoir of an ambitious young chef. Raised by parents who owned a diner, Achatz cooked virtually all his life. After attending culinary school, Achatz worked briefly at Charlie Trotter's acclaimed Chicago restaurant and then moved on to Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa. While Achatz found Keller's restaurant much more to his liking than Trotter's, he nonetheless chafed at the slow pace of his advancement. While making the perfect food at FL was rewarding and he learned a tremendous amount from Keller, what Achatz yearned for was a chance to cook "his own food."

That chance came at Trio, a restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, whose owner gave Achatz a tremendous amount of autonomy considering that he was still in his 20s and had never run a kitchen before. Nonetheless, the restaurant was highly successful. While Achatz describes some of his creations at Trio, it is still difficult for the average reader/eater to understand these avant garde dishes.

Then, on page 166 of the book, we suddenly get another narrator--Nick Kokonas, who, after eating at Trio, approached Achatz about starting a restaurant of his own. The second voice is actually welcome at this point in the book, when Achatz's relentless ambition has become a bit tiresome. And Kokonas's description of the food he and his wife ate at Trio better conveys what Achatz's food is like than Achatz's own writing. Kokonas and Achatz begin planning what will become Alinea, one of the preeminent restaurants in North America, and the story of creating the restaurant from the business and creative sides is very interesting. They include the reports they sent to investors, which, we learn, they also posted online. Indeed, based on his own reportage, Achatz was ahead of the field in capitalizing on food blogs and forums to build a following for Alinea.

Alinea was, of course, a huge success almost immediately (I know only one person who has eaten there, but she raves). Then, in the midst of that success, Achatz was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the tongue. The recommended treatment would have robbed Achatz of his ability to taste and to speak with any clarity--and the chances of survival were still only around 50 percent. Luckily for him, Kokonas sought out a clinical trial that did not involve radical surgery, and Achatz embarked on a grueling regimen of chemo and radiation--a protocol that restored his health with only a temporary loss of the sense of taste. As the book ends, Achatz and Kokonas are planning their next restaurant, named Next, which has now been up and running in Chicago for a couple of years.

Achatz portrays himself as too ambitious and too emotionally unavailable to those closest to him to be very sympathetic (his description of his brief marriage to the mother of his two sons really made me despise him), though it is clear he inspired devotion among many who knew and/or worked with him. On the other hand, his battle against cancer was inspirational, and his culinary success certainly indicates that his culinary skills are beyond compare. Still, I don't truly understand his cuisine even after reading the book (undoubtedly as much my problem as anything), but I have to give him a two out of three on the claims of the subtitle--while he's achieved greatness and beaten death, if he has redefined the way "we" eat, the "we" is a highly select group.

Favorite passage:

The plate was beautiful. The balloon of cheese was absurdly large, and the heirloom tomatoes--red, yellow, green zebra, brandywine--had been cut into geometric shapes that temporarily obscured their identity as tomatoes. There were green streaks of basil puree, and a pile of sea salt, itself composed of tiny pyramid-shaped crystals, sat in a far corner of the plate. I gingerly cut into the bottom half of the mozzarella balloon, surprised to find not a huge hunk of cheese, but rather a thin balloon-like shell. The tomato water poured out and the mozzarella deflated slowly. the tomatoes were exceptionally well chilled, the basil and olive oil perfectly combined, the tomato water sweet and salty.

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