I listened to this podcast interview a few months ago, and it's come up in conversation and in my thoughts enough to warrant a post. It's a story whose sensual details and twist of fate are both worthy of Salman Rushdie's pen. But it's real.
Chef Grant Achatz opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005, and the next year it was named America's best restaurant. He's a pioneer of molecular gastronomy: lots of courses, each of them very small.
In the interview, Achatz describes how the most vivid bites of any food are the first two or three. After that, even if you really like what you're eating, it doesn't impact you as much. You stop paying attention.
So what does an innovative chef do? Serve a couple of bites of this. And then a few bits of that. Over the course of three hours.
Furthermore, let's make these courses diverse and unexpected. As it says on NPR's webpage for the podcast, "A typical 23-course meal might include olive oil lollypops, sweet potatoes skewered by smoking cinnamon sticks, strips of bacon hanging from a stainless steel bow, and pheasant tempura-fried with apple cider, impaled on a flaming oak leaf."
Not exotic and interesting enough? He'll also serve courses alongside inedible items that release smells as part of the sensual experience. A pillow case with tiny holes in it. Leather from an old baseball glove. Grass. Firewood ashes.
He was born in 1974, by the way. He was doing all of this at 31.
Then he got cancer of the tongue. Stage four, metastasized to both sides of his neck. His doctor recommended removing his tongue and replacing it with muscle from elsewhere in his body. He'd then have a fifty percent chance of surviving two years. And he'd never taste anything again.
Achatz found a clinic that didn't dictate a tongue-ectomy, but instead blasted it with radiation, destroying his tastebuds and shedding the lining of his esophagus.
His cancer went into remission.
He never missed a day of work throughout the treatment. He couldn't taste a single thing he made.
Little by little his tastebuds regenerated. Flavours came back one at a time: sweet, then salty, then bitter - exactly the way a baby's taste awakens in stages.
He was named Best Chef in America in 2008 by the James Beard Foundation. He's opening a new restaurant called Next, where not only will the menu change every few months, so will the ethnicity and time period of the food.
Achatz wrote a memoir about all of this called Life, on the Line. I haven't read it yet. Totally looking forward to it. In meantime, check out this half-hour podcast with him, conducted by my favourite interviewer, Terry Gross.
For more pictures of the micro-courses at Alinea, check out their site's gallery section. The items in this article are, in order: watermelon, hearts of palm, bacon, sardine, pbj.