Cancer Threatens Top Chef's Sense of Taste

Grant Achatz

Chef Grant Achatz Lara Kastner/Alinea Press Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lara Kastner/Alinea Press Images

Grant Achatz just won one of cooking's highest honors, the coveted James Beard Award for outstanding chef.

It's a major accolade for any chef, but a special triumph for Achatz, who was diagnosed last year with a deadly, late-stage tongue cancer. The cancer treatments robbed him of his sense of taste, which has returned gradually, but not completely.

"It's a poignant bookend to a tumultuous year," says the 34-year-old head chef of Alinea in Chicago. On Monday, a day after he had won the award, he tried calling his office on the phone, but things were so hectic, he says, "I couldn't even get through to my own restaurant."

Alinea, which was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2006, is known for elaborate, whimsical dishes — performance art on a plate. Dinner can be made of as many as 30 tiny courses.

Achatz says that he tries to use emotional triggers, including what he terms "intentional aromas," in the dishes he creates. "I'll try to go into my own mind to pick out specific things in my own life." Achatz loves fall, so he's used oak branches as skewers for a pheasant recipe: he sets leaves from the branches on fire and blows them out before the dish is served to diners. "You have this smoldering oak leaf aroma." he explains. "It pulls on people in a poweful way. It's not only food at that point, you're transporting people back to other times in their lives in a remarkable way."

Achatz first noticed a little white dot on his tongue in 2003, but it was not properly diagnosed as cancer until last year. The standard treatment was surgery first, which would have removed most of his tongue. "That doesn't present a very good quality of life for anyone, particularly for a chef," he says, so he looked for alternative treatments, which he found at the University of Chicago. The regimen included a new drug, as well as radiation, which caused him to lose his sense of taste completely.

Now, Achatz says, his sense of taste is slowly returning. The sweet sensations came back first, followed by salty tastes, but only partially. "It comes back fragmented and disjointed," he says. "I'd say I'm about halfway there." But he notes that it's also impossible to measure. An eye doctor can tell you exactly what your vision is, he explains, but "taste or smell is something in your own mind."

Achatz says that tongue cancer has not limited his work. "The food that we create is very conceptual, very idea driven." He says. "But I need to rely on people to get that final tweaking at the very end."

In fact, Achatz says that it may have even made his cooking better. "It's educated me on what flavor is and how certain tastes come together," he says. "I think, conceptually, it's actually given me a little bit more freedom and a little bit more confidence, ironically enough. So now I'm probably able to compose things that before I probably wouldn't have completely understood."

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