Book Review: “Life, on the Line” by Grant Achatz

Although “Life, on the Line” is packaged as chef Grant Achatz’s culinary memoir, the crux of the book may actually be the existential question it poses: If a three-Michelin star chef loses his ability to taste, is life even worth living any longer? For most of us, this question may seem a bit melodramatic. After all, taste is just one of our five senses, and there certainly must be more to life than food and cooking. But then again, who are we to judge? The passion, the genius, and the dedication of a three-Michelin-star chef is simply beyond the grasp of most people, even among professional chefs. And if food cooked at the highest level can be considered art, then a chef’s sudden loss of taste would prove every bit as debilitating as a musician losing a hand or a painter losing his eyesight. For Achatz, who was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer in 2007, this existential crisis becomes painfully real.

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“Life, on the Line” follows Achatz from his earliest years, growing up in Michigan, where he spent much of his time working at his family’s diner and where the life and the pace of the kitchen soon became the norm. After high school, Achatz attended the Culinary Institute of America before he eventually landed at the French Laundry in 1996, just two years after Thomas Keller had purchased the restaurant. Along the way, Achatz occasionally stumbles, and I found the early chapters recounting his eight-week stint at Charlie Trotter’s to be particularly revealing. It seems that whenever someone achieves success at the highest level, it can often be difficult to remember (or even imagine) that there were also the early failures. But despite his natural abilities, Achatz just couldn’t ever find his footing at Trotter’s, proving that kitchens themselves can have their own distinct personas, and that not all people will thrive in the same environment.

If anything, it may remain comforting for many to learn that Achatz had once experienced these early professional defeats; I have no doubt that the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s has chewed up and spit out hundreds of would-be chefs since then, as well. But how different people respond to these setbacks can often say the most about them. For Achatz, he learned of the French Laundry shortly after he left Trotter’s, and he sent his resume to Thomas Keller for 14 days in a row, until he was finally allowed to stage at the Yountville restaurant. Subsequently, Achatz thrived under Keller, and he would rise to the rank of sous chef by the time he left the French Laundry in 2001. Upon leaving his mentor, Achatz soon began to establish his own culinary identity at Trio in Chicago, where one of his most loyal diners, Nick Kokonas, would become his future business partner at Alinea.

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention that Kokonas himself authored a small portion of “Life, on the Line” — I would estimate about 10% or maybe 15% of the text. The shift in narrative is differentiated by a change in font, and although this approach may seem a little unorthodox, it works well. Kokonas’ narrative contributions begin midway through the book, and his passages not only provide insight into the business of launching and running a restaurant, but they also offer an added perspective of Achatz’s battle with cancer. It’s Kokonas whom Achatz claims saved his life, if only by encouraging him to see one more specialist who might offer an alternative to tongue and partial jaw removal (an operation which Achatz was totally unwilling to even consider). As it turns out, aggressive chemotherapy proved the only recourse to surgery, and amazingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), Achatz continued to work at Alinea well into his treatment.

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For me, the lure of reading “Life, on the Line” actually had little do with the life-and-death decisions and the existential dilemmas that pervade the latter half of the book. Instead, I’m always fascinated by the journey to culinary greatness, and how people get there. Since Achatz and I are practically the same age, it’s also interesting to compare years and milestones with a true professional (Achatz opened Alinea in 2004, roughly the same time that I began attending the CIA, very different trajectories). That being said, as proud as I am to have cooked in a handful of one-Michelin-star restaurants, I’m also keenly aware of my own limitations in the kitchen. Rest assured, I’ve long accepted the fact that I’ll never run a three-Michelin-star kitchen (nor will I ever play Carnegie Hall). In fact, I’d probably feel most fulfilled selling Southern-style comfort food from a catering truck — that’s just the way I am. But it’s still fascinating to see the other side, especially when the story proves compelling.

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