If you've never heard of Grant Achatz, all you need to know, some people would say, is that he's a food genius.
Renowned chef Charlie Trotter, whose Chicago restaurant, Charlie Trotter's, was ranked by Restaurant magazine as the 30th best restaurant in the world, is one of those admirers.
"He's one of the chefs who has taken ideas, classical collinear ideas, and is applying modernity to them — applying a kind of futuristic view of things," said Trotter.
Achatz is a soft spoken man who, in a very short period of time, went from being a culinary unknown, including some time spent working under Trotter, to founding a restaurant in Chicago called Alinea, recognized by Gourmet magazine as America's best restaurant in 2006.
Achatz is only 33, has a book coming out, and in all ways, it looked like the future was his, until a mysterious sore on his tongue threatened to end his cooking career.
"It became very apparent that there was something very wrong, Achatz said. "I was having a really hard time eating solid foods, my speech was dramatically impaired. It was a big problem."
A biopsy revealed he had a cancerous tumor on his tongue. Doctors said they would have to remove three-fourths of his tongue to save his life — a devastating blow to a chef, passionate about food.
"At that point, I'm going, alright, well, that's not going to happen," Achatz said
In his mind, Achatz had good reason to refuse the surgery. He was in the middle of setting up his future acclaimed restaurant, Alinea. He was busy designing the kinds of dishes that would bring him global recognition — whimsical creations like Ayu — a succulent flaky fish — atop watermelon and hearts of palm, arranged in a way that could make a table top look like an art gallery.
Achatz cooks stunning aesthetic and flavorful foods, leaving no detail of the restaurant undone. He creates different aromas in the dining area, by mixing scents in a pillow case, to best compliment the food being served that night. Achatz says sometimes the aromas evoke such a strong memory for patrons, that it brings them to tears.
"We've seen it happen when we've had guests cry with either enjoyment or just overwhelming emotion at the table ... and it's amazing," Achatz said.
His work is all about the senses, and yet, Achatz faced the real possibility that he could lose a chef's most important sense — his sense of taste.
"As a chef, to imagine losing your ability to taste or to smell, perhaps it is Shakespearean, indeed," Trotter said. "One must really have to soul search to imagine how to proceed if those capabilities were to go away."
"Basically, it would be robbing me of my energy source, my passion," Achatz said. "I mean, this is my passion, so, take that away from me, and then what do I have?"
Achatz couldn't bear the thought of losing his tongue, and so, he kept going about his business, running the restaurant. His customers were largely unaware, and simply enjoyed the masterpieces.
Achatz's options seemed limited, until he met Dr. Everett Vokes of the University of Chicago, who told Achatz that he might not need surgery on his tongue.
"We're not saying there should never be surgery," Vokes said of tongue cancer. "All we're saying is, it isn't the first option. So, let's try something else — chemotherapy and radiation — carefully treat the patient at the end of that, we take a biopsy and, hopefully, the tumor will then not be apparent, and we will not need to do surgery."
While Achatz realized that the worst might still happen, and he might lose his tongue, he promised himself that he would never give up doing what he loved.
"I've been cooking for a long time. It's a part of who I am," said Achatz. "I think if I completely lost all sense of taste, I would still be able to achieve what I want to. But never once in this process have I said I'm going to die, or I'm going to lose my tongue. Never. It was never an option."
The chemotherapy seems to be working — his tumor has shrunk in size and his cancer is in remission.
Achatz continues to cook and create. With 80 guests a night, who are served 12 or 24 courses, each, at Alinea, Achatz's kitchen turns out 7,000 meticulously flavored and fanciful creations a week — and he's there for all of them.