Grant Achatz has cooked for Hollywood stars, billionaires and chefs more famous than himself. But tonight at his Chicago restaurant, Alinea, the American high church of so-called molecular gastronomy, he will prepare one of his signature 24-course dinners for a new patron with more VIP status than any of those people: Everett Vokes, the oncologist who saved Mr. Achatz's tongue, and his life.
"He's eating here for the first time," Mr. Achatz said over the phone yesterday. "I'm really excited to have him in."
Mr. Achatz, 34, was back at work late this week from New York, where on Sunday the James Beard Foundation, a prominent culinary organization, named him best chef in the United States.
It was the second of two magic moments he savoured with particular gusto during the past six months. The other came in mid-December, when he learned he had been cleared of the gruesome disease that not only threatened his life but was tragically misdiagnosed for four years until a fateful day last July.
"This is a very nice way to close out one year and start another, that's for sure," Mr. Achatz said.
Notwithstanding the good news, there was something Mr. Achatz could not savour quite so well yesterday: some of the food he was cooking. Though he has regained "about 50 per cent" of his taste and was told he will probably continue to improve for the next six months, prolonged chemotherapy and radiation have compromised his ability to sense basic components, such as sourness and bitterness. Some things that once gave him pleasure now cause pain or discomfort, most notably spicy food, carbonated beverages and alcohol. "Alcohol is really bad. It burns, like my mouth is on fire."
Mr. Achatz (pronounced AH-kets) first noticed a painful white spot on his tongue in 2003. A dentist cited stress, probably linked to chronic 18-hour work days. Years passed and the pain grew unbearable, inhibiting his ability to chew and causing the 5-foot-9, 160-pound chef to lose 15 pounds.
In 2006, another dentist concluded he was biting his tongue during sleep and fitted him for a mouth guard. Then, last summer, he was referred to a periodontist, who took one look before ordering a biopsy.
The cruel irony of a noted chef, who had been named 2002 "rising star" at the Beard awards, losing his taste has drawn the easy analogy with Beethoven, who composed his Ninth Symphony while deaf. Another cruel irony: Mr. Achatz has never smoked or been a heavy consumer of alcohol, the two main risk factors for his type of disease.
The cancer was classified as Stage 4, the most advanced of its type, leaving him few treatment options. An oncologist flatly said he would have to cut out most of the visible portion of his tongue. Mr. Achatz sought a second opinion. The father of two young boys, now 4 and 6, was told again that the tongue would have to be removed - or he'd face almost certain death within months.
But that second doctor added a footnote: A clinical trial for organ preservation was under way at the University of Chicago Medical Center, directed in part by Dr. Vokes, which featured a combination of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation.
Faced with the prospect of losing his livelihood along with his tongue, Mr. Achatz applied for the trial. He also felt a spiritual kinship between the avant-garde medicine and his cutting-edge cuisine.
Though Mr. Achatz, who is from Michigan and has French-Canadian ancestors, first trained under U.S. superstars Charlie Trotter of Chicago and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California's Napa Valley, it was a stint in 2000 working under culinary surrealist Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli restaurant that set him on his current path.
In the molecular gastronomy world, industrial chemicals such as gelatins and foaming agents are used to give new forms and textures to ingredients. At Alinea, dehydrated bacon is presented hanging from a scaffold. Wagyu beef is a frozen sheet suspended from a vertical rod to resemble a flag of meat. His hot potato, cold potato dish encourages the diner to slide a sautéed potato ball off a steel skewer into a bowl of vichyssoise.
So postmodern is Mr. Achatz's cooking that his kitchen at Alinea, which he opened in 2005, has no large central stove and is carpeted rather than lined with rubber mats. Much of the cooking is done with vacuum-sealed bags in warm water, a process known as sous vide, which keeps proteins tender and moist while dissolving tough collagen and preserving flavour.
Mr. Achatz continued cooking while he was in treatment last fall, bringing his laptop into the chemotherapy waiting room to work on menus and a forthcoming cookbook to be published this fall (a preview can be seen at Alineabook.com). In the restaurant, he relied on his sous chefs to taste new creations for him.
Not all his employees rose to the occasion. Alinea, which employs 25 chefs, lost 11 of them while Mr. Achatz sought treatment. "Some was probably people worrying about job security and what was going to happen to the restaurant," Mr. Achatz said. "Some probably didn't find it exciting to work for a chef that couldn't taste. They are too young, they didn't understand that what we do with cooking comes from the mind, less so than the palate, frankly."
There were uplifting moments, too. "I had chefs that I have always looked up to as leaders in the profession, the highest chefs on the totem pole, offering to come in and cook on the line," he said. But Mr. Achatz, who prefers not to name names, declined the offers. "It would have really freaked my cooks out to have some of these chefs in the kitchen cooking right next to them."
Though he still takes painkillers, he says, in some ways his sense of taste has been tuned more finely because basic flavours are returning in stages, with sweet the first. "You see how the salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami [the 'savoury' flavour]go together," he said. "You've isolated them."
Knowing radiation would rob him of sensitivity, he went with his girlfriend on a bacchanalian tour of top restaurants last August and early September, including Gramercy Tavern and WD-50 in Manhattan and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.
"You go through your life and you have the occasional great meal and you say, 'This is in the top five meals of my life,' and it just so happened that I had five or six of those within a six-week period. I'm sure [the chefs]felt a certain responsibility and obligation to make it a great experience for me."
In his acceptance speech at the Beard gala on Sunday, held in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, Mr. Achatz attributed his recovery to the perseverance he learned from former employer, Mr. Keller. "That drive, that tenacity, that dedication that I took in at that restaurant ... it became part of who I am 12 years later and helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle."
This evening he will acknowledge another helper more personally, someone who will enjoy a sublime meal and wine served without an item every other VIP gets after dessert: the $375 (U.S.) check.
"I think I'll probably pick up his bill," Mr. Achatz said of Dr. Vokes, with a healthy, hearty laugh.