Life, on the Line

At Alinea,America’s best restaurant, the food speaks to more than the tongue. Plates areserved on pillows of air that slowly deflate as you eat, the scent they releaserefining the dish’s flavor; the table ornament turns out to be a piece of ricepaper inlaid with leaves of marigold, a wrapper for a rich pork bellypreparation; the inch of clear liquid at the end of a Champagne flute embodiesthe spicy sweet of Thai basil and curry. Some bites you eat without your hands,as they dangle from elegant metal. Even the restaurant’s entryway seeks todisorient, drawing the diner in on an Escher slant. All the senses are engaged,played with: the eye is shocked, the nose seduced, and finally the tongue andbelly simply lie happy. By the end of a meal at Alinea the senses seemretrained, newly calibrated.

Grant Achatz was makingthis food before he was diagnosed with oral cancer; before the chemotherapy andradiation that saved his life also took his sense of taste; before that senseslowly returned to him. The Oprah-level irony is not loston him. In his memoir Life, on the Line, he jokingly admits he was expecting the call thateventually came from the famous talk show.  

The deeper ironies though,the ways in which his real life trials oddly mirror the unique experience hisart offers, seem to escape the chef. In Life,on the Line, Achatz is unwilling to examine his cancer as a dark journey towardthe same light he leads his diners, a light in which the upended senses seemnewly opened. He denies us the great drama, the master chef teaching himselfwhat he’s taught so many others—how to taste. Much like his food, hiswithholding here might seem subversive. His food, though, is never sounsatisfying.

Like aline cook in the weeds, Achatz tries to do too much in Life, on the Line, andthe finer details suffer. Anecdotes are told in the same style, with the sameemphasis, regardless of their importance; every epiphany shares the samemomentary glow, so none stands out as truly essential. A long passage thattakes Achatz and his mentor Thomas Keller (chef and owner of the former bestrestaurant in America, The French Laundry) to Hawaii only serves to reinforce awell-established fact: Keller’s standards are impossibly high. Less time isspent discussing the moment he found himself breaking from his mentor’saesthetic, the pivotal moment he realized he had to make his own food. Inspiredby a trip to elBulli he offers Keller a foamed lobster parfait. Keller agreesto serve it; Achatz realizes it’s not really for The French Laundry.

It is in these kinds ofpassages that Achatz is at his best as a writer, opening up on his creativeprocess and the development of his singular style. The type of food Achatzmakes (called molecular gastronomy by many) is dismissed by some as madscience, soulless technique. The chefs grouped under the umbrella use liquidnitrogen and cryovac machines to achieve new textures and to deepen flavors;and some indeed might confuse style for substance. But Achatz never lets histraining get in the way of his instinct, in his cooking or his thinking. On awhim he adds hyacinth flowers to scent a seafood dish; tasting it he remembersfishing with his father and eating lunch beside some wildflowers. “Fishand flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but a sentimental one… I began to veer off course and play with ideas of place—rabbit ‘in the field’or frog legs ‘in the woods’—and of childhood—burning oak leaves, firesideChristmas morning. I recognized that even when a diner did not have anawareness of why these pairings worked, they still stirred their emotions andenhanced their experience.” For Achatz, the technical is always in serviceof the sensual. At least in his cooking.

Awkwardly, a second writeris introduced at the mid-point of Life,on the Line; Nick Kokonas, the main investor in Alinea, helps detail thefounding of the restaurant and provides a third-party account of Achatz’scancer treatment. Kokonas is neither a writer nor a chef; even if they share arestaurant, a friendship, and a tin ear for dialogue, Kokonas shares in none ofAchatz’s genius. It is hard to justify the amount of ink he’s been allowed tospill when key creative collaborators are given none.

It’s not that Kokonas’s stories are particularly boring. It’s simplythat they’re not Achatz’s. What makes Life,on the Line worth reading are the moments where a brilliant chef relivesthe flashes of revelation and invention he transforms into a menu. In thosefleeting moments when Achatz writes about his process, he draws you into themindset you leave his restaurant with—thinking not about food, but how thesenses interact.