Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago, which last year ranked No. 7 on the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. That's a good 25 places ahead of the French Laundry, whose chef, Thomas Keller, served as Achatz's mentor for years. Achatz has won four James Beard Foundation Awards, the latest in 2008 for the country's outstanding chef, in which he beat out, among others, Jose Andres.
Achatz is a cancer survivor, a budding empire builder (his latest restaurant, the concept-morphing Next, is expected to open any day now in Chicago) and an author. He recently co-wrote "Life, on the Line" (Gotham Books, 2011), a memoir in which he packs a lot of action into his 36 years. Here are edited excerpts of our recent phone interview:
Your approach to life at a young age was to avoid drinking and drugs and focus on learning about the family restaurant business in Michigan. Was that a result of the chaos you had to deal with when young? Your dad's drinking? The instability of your parents' marriage?
I don't think it was that calculated on my part -- at least not until I hit culinary school, and then it was more about intense focus and intense studying. That's where I developed the drive to really try to achieve something outside of the norm.
Intermediate string overflow Your latest project is Next, where you're going to radically change the menu every few months, from one era of cooking to another. Is this restaurant a reflection of your creative restlessness?
Absolutely. Where Alinea is about constant innovation, Next will be constant exploration. One thing that's been largely overlooked, I feel, in gastronomy is the exploration of the past and world cuisines. What was it like in Paris 1906 to sit down for a dinner at the Ritz served by Escoffier? What was it really like to eat in New York City in 1962? What was it really like to eat at the Watergate when Jean-Louis Palladin was cooking in [Washington] D.C. in 1982? These are things that are worth exploring because, largely, America is always focused on the future.
The decision to write an autobiography: Did you have any internal struggle on whether you wanted to keep your struggle with cancer private?
No, not at all. In fact, I always knew that if I made it to the back side of treatment, I would scream to the world, because it was my responsibility to do so. My message is a couple-fold: One, you have to be your own advocate, because I went to four institutions and they were telling me the exact same thing: "We're going to cut out your entire tongue, a quarter of your jaw and both sides of your neck in order to maybe, maybe save your life. We'll give you a 50 percent chance." That didn't sit well with me. So if I say, 'This isn't good enough,' and people read that, then maybe they'll believe that this isn't good enough and something will happen from it. The other thing is that if you're confronted with an adverse situation, whatever it may be, and you have to seek out professional care, and if on your consultation they don't tell you something you like, go somewhere else. If, on your second one, they tell you something you don't like, go somewhere else. So on and so forth, until you feel like you've explored all of your options.
What's your long-term prognosis?
I'm still cancer-free. Nobody's ever going to say, 'You're good,' but the fact is that since December 2007 I haven't had one blip on the radar. There's a bell curve with this sort of thing. You're at high risk right after treatment's done, and it remains high for X amount of time. Then as time progresses, the risk of recurrence starts to plummet when you hit about the two-and-a-half, three-year mark. Once you hit five years, they basically say you have the same risk of getting cancer as somebody that's never had it. So, where am I at now? Let's see, December 2007 so what am I? Three and a half years?
(Note: Achatz has also said that his ability to taste has returned by degrees.)