By the age of 31, Grant Achatz had achieved what most chefs only dream of. He had worked as a sous-chef for culinary legend Thomas Keller, opened his own wildly successful restaurant, Alinea, with business partner Nick Kokonas in Chicago and was earning an international reputation as a culinary genius with his mind-bending dishes.
Then, in 2007, Mr. Achatz was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Doctors told him that unless they surgically removed his tongue, his condition would be fatal. He couldn't accept that approach and, instead, took his chances with an experimental treatment of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. It stripped him of his taste buds, leaving him with no sense of taste. Yet he rarely missed a day of work.
Now back to health, and able to taste again, Mr. Achatz, 36, is as driven as ever. In November, Alinea won three Michelin stars, the highest possible honour. His new memoir, co-written by Mr. Kokonas, titled Life, On the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, will be released in Canada on March 8. And his new restaurant, called Next, and its adjoining bar, Aviary, are slated to open in Chicago in a few weeks. (Billed as a revolutionary concept, Next will continually revamp every three months, morphing from a 1912 Parisian restaurant one season to a futuristic Hong Kong restaurant the next.)
Mr. Achatz shared his thoughts on food, ambition and beating death with The Globe and Mail.
As a young cook, you ate at several Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and found they weren't all that great. Are the Old World culinary institutions overrated?
No, I think at the time I was looking for that holy grail. I was kind of lost. I was questioning whether I should cook any more. So there was that expectation from me, and then, I was 20 years old, so I don't think any of the restaurants took me seriously. They were probably going, "Who is this punk kid? What is he doing in my restaurant?"
What does it take to blow you away?
Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to a pizza place here in Chicago called Great Lake, and it really was awesome pizza - the best pizza I've ever had in my life.
It's not all about creativity. People think, "Oh my god. We've got to have wacky, crazy things for him because he's this wildly creative chef." That's not it at all. You just want genuine good food, and you want some expression behind it.
How do you come up with the ideas for your dishes?
For me, it's just being aware of the world around you and using it for inspiration, whether it be the texture of a soda can when you crinkle it up before you throw it in the recycling bin, or you're at the beach and you're running sand through your fingers. It comes very unexpectedly.
Usually what I do is take an hour and half or two hours a day , usually after everybody leaves the restaurant around 2 a.m.,and devote that to writing down ideas. If I'm out and about, I'll type them in my phone. Then I'll take those notes, and me and a couple members of my team will talk about the dish, the philosophy and how we want it to come together and we'll start working it out.
Your dad, who owned a diner, tried to dissuade you from a career in cooking. How would you react if your two sons wanted to follow the same path?
I would probably tell them the same thing he told me: It's really hard work, you're going to spend a tremendous amount of time in the kitchen, it can be not rewarding on many levels, it can be very stressful, it can be hard on family life. But, you know, you can say that about anything.
People make money to survive. But to be able to draw your paycheque and be uber-passionate about it? Do whatever you want, but love it.
Even with cancer, you were still working 16-hour days in the kitchen. Is that what it takes? Would you expect others to do the same?
That's what it takes at this level, yeah. There's that saying: If it were easy, everyone would do it. If you want to be at the top, and you want to stay at the top, you've got to work your tail off.
How were you able to cook when you lost your sense of taste?
Cooking is very intuitive, especially when you've done it all your life. A great example would be like brushing your teeth. It's that motion that you're used to doing every day.
I've used the same type of salt my entire career, to the point where we chose a specific purveyor just because I wanted Diamond Crystal Salt. It has a different texture, so in my seasoning, when I pick up a three-finger pinch of salt and I throw it into a sauce, I already know how it's going to taste. I just know from that repetition.
Doctors initially said you'd die if they didn't remove your tongue. Yet you decided against surgery. Didn't you feel you had other things to live for beyond your career?
Yeah, you can't put it like that, you know what I mean? Of course I had stuff. I had two young boys, an amazing girlfriend, I had 62 employees that were basically like my family. But there's also elements that are not tangible, that go beyond saying, "Well, what about your kids?" If I had that surgery, it would have been a very different life. So if you're living the life that you love and you're passionate about, and you have to entertain the thought of not living that life any more, it makes you think.
You gave up on your nutritionist as soon as she suggested blending canned chicken noodle soup to help you gain weight. As sick as you were, was it the idea of eating junk food?
Oh, I like junk food. But I can assure you, puréed canned chicken soup is not junk food in a good way. Milkshakes, pizza, fries, I love junk food. ... But think about making basically a chicken noodle soup smoothie. Yuck, right? I wasn't going there.
After you were declared cancer-free, you wrote that, for the first time, you wanted to quit. Why?
It's one of those things: You've attained pretty much all that you can professionally at a rapid pace. You've met all your goals. You've looked death in the face and you won that battle. What's left? It's depressing in some ways. It's not until you get to that low point that you look at what's really important and go, "Oh, it's not about winning 'best restaurant in the country.' It's not about X, Y, and Z," like you thought it was.
You're as ambitious as ever. What is there left to prove?
Happiness. When you hit that point that I just described and go, "Now what?" Well, now it's living and making life pleasant and doing things you want to do.
For us, it was writing this memoir, it's building these next restaurants that we're working on now. We've got all kinds of things in the hopper - iPad apps for a cookbook, documentary films, feature films. That's what makes life interesting. To me, that was what was really important.
This interview has been edited and condensed.