I’ve been a fan of Chef Grant Achatz for a number of years. Last year, I had the pleasure of dining at Alinea, his restaurant in Chicago which was recently named the best restaurant in North America. During the twenty course meal, I was treated to Chef Achatz’s amazing cuisine, and each dish was more delicious, playful, and imaginative than the last.
Chef Achatz’s creativity in cooking translates well to storytelling in his memoir, life, on the line. The book traces Achatz’s start cooking in his family restaurant in Chicago to his education at the Culinary Institute of America. Through his persistence after graduation, Achatz landed a position at the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, California. There, he was mentored by renowned chef Thomas Keller and developed an attention to detail and a push for perfection that continues to carry throughout his career. Eventually, Achatz moved to Chicago to run his own kitchen at Trio restaurant, were he met co-author Nick Kokonas, a wealthy former stockbroker who became a regular in the restaurant. Together, they opened Alinea to sky-high expectations that they met and exceeded. Having opened his own restaurant, Achatz was living his dream until a crushing diagnosis of tongue cancer that threatened to end his career, if not his life. The latter part of the book deals with the way chef Achatz handled his diagnosis and treatment for cancer.
As much as I admired Chef Achatz for his cooking, I respect him more after reading life, on the line. Achatz’s commitment to building a world-class restaurant where he can create the avant-garde dishes he wants was inspiring. I also enjoyed watching Achatz’s and Kokonas’ relationship grow from a business partnership to a life-saving friendship. It seems rare to come across a story about such deep friendship between grown men. Of course, the most striking part of the story is Achatz’s fight to beat cancer. Initially, he faced the tough choice of having his tongue—his best chef tool—removed to save his life. His commitment to his career is clear in the choices he made in treating his cancer. In reading memoirs from people who overcome severe illness, the person often focuses on being sick as a point of change in his or her life, but not Achatz. He had built the life he wanted before his diagnosis, and his struggle is to hold on to the career he’s spent his adulthood chasing. Rather than making Achatz question his choices, the cancer reaffirmed his devotion to his career and restaurant.
I highly recommend life, on the line. Fans of memoirs will enjoy this well-written story of how a young man became a world-renowned chef and will be inspired by his triumph over cancer. Foodies will enjoy an inside look at world-class restaurants—both Alinea and The French Laundry—and will be glad to learn more about chefs Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller. life, on the line gets a 5 rating from me.