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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After becoming famous as an innovative chef, my guest, Grant Achatz, became famous for losing his sense of taste for months, the result of radiation treatment for stage four tongue cancer.

Achatz's life has always revolved around food. His parents and grandparents owned diners. In 2005 he opened his Chicago restaurant Alinea, which was named best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2006. He was described in the citation as redefining the American restaurant for an entirely new generation.

A typical meal might include 23 bite-size courses of food that you never imagined. Food writer Corby Kummer described Achatz as an alchemist. One course he described was a square of gelled sweet potato and another of gelled bourbon, both stuck onto a cinnamon stick skewer that was lightly torched before it left the kitchen so that it arrives powerfully fragrant.

Kummer writes: Achatz experiments with thickeners and making things solid or liquid, depending on what you're not used to. I'll add to that that he's helped develop new kitchen technologies.

Achatz has written a new memoir about his avant-garde approach to food and about his treatment for tongue cancer. It's called "Life, on the Line." Grant Achatz, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad you're feeling better, and I think we'll better understand the impact of tongue cancer on your life if we talk first about your food life and your approach to preparing food.

But before we do that, I just want to know: How much of your taste has returned, and what's the state of your health now?

Mr. GRANT ACHATZ (Chef): Well, I've, you know, been in what they like to call a remission now for - since December, 2007. So health-wise I'm great. And as far as the taste goes, it's - you know, I feel like it's back 100 percent, but taste is one thing that you can't - it's not like going to the ophthalmologist and having them, you know, tell you you need a certain prescription because your eyes are failing. There's really no way to measure taste, you know.

GROSS: So although you're famous for what's often described as avant-garde food, your parents and your grandparents had family-run restaurants. Your grandparents had a small eight-stool little restaurant. Describe the restaurant that your parents had, because it's the kind of restaurant I love, that serves, like, breakfast 24 hours a day and has a really large menu.

Mr. ACHATZ: That's it, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, go through it.

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I mean, really it becomes one of those pillars in the community where, like you said, you can go there for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Regulars would come in and sit in the same seat at the same table every day at exactly the same time.

And it really - it was a function of comfort and nourishment, both from the aspect of food itself, but also, you know, it's a big gathering place in the community. People would come and eat together and share, you know, and I think that's really important for that type of restaurant.

GROSS: And it was probably very, you know, relatively inexpensive too.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, very. I mean, like you said, it was a diner. So you could go in there and get your Western omelet and your hash browns and your whole wheat toast for, you know, five bucks. So it wasn't - it's very different than what I do now in many ways.

GROSS: It's, I'd say, the opposite of what you do.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Because, you know, at the previous restaurant that you had, Alinea, it was, like, hundreds of dollars to dine there. It would take hours to eat. You'd have these like bite-sized portions, you know, and many, many different dishes for the meal, with foods that you created, like no one ever heard of these combinations before.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: So where does, like - where does your parents' style of restaurant, of food, fit in your life now?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I enjoy eating it. And really, there is a big departure from the food that we cook at Alinea to, you know, the Achatz family restaurant back in 1985. But in a lot of ways they're very similar because restaurants in general have a certain culture.

You know, the people that work there, whether they're flipping over-easy eggs or they're using jewelry tweezers to put micro-herbs on courses like we do at Alinea, there's a common language and there's a common kind of feeling.

So while the food itself might be drastically different, there are a lot of similarities, and I think that's what really helped me kind of push along in this career, was having that experience at that level at such a young age, you know.

GROSS: Let's talk about the food that you became famous for. So just to give a sense of it, I'm going to read what was on the menu for your investors dinner in 2004: spoonful of borscht, puree of foie gras/honeydew melon sponge, carrot soda/lemon drops, duck skin Hunan style, celery sorbet/caviar, chilled soup of spring lettuces, blueberries, creme fraiche, rib eye of prime beef/variety of eggs, crispy chocolate/liquid cake.

So that gives some idea of this, you know who ever heard of this kind of combinations of food?

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: So choose something from that menu and tell us why the heck you prepared it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, why don't we do the - I think the fun one is the beef. Basically what you have there is you have a play on steak and eggs. So here we go.

GROSS: Oh, that didn't occur to me.

Mr. ACHATZ: Now we're right back at the diner, you know, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. ACHATZ: So when it says variety of eggs, the idea there was literally chicken eggs but also caviar, which I know a lot of people will go, wow, why would you ever put caviar on top of your steak? But that's what makes the food that we do at Alinea so interesting on the outside, is that we really don't let ourselves say no to an idea.

In other words, if I say to you: You're going to put a pinch of salt on your steak, everybody hits their steak with salt and pepper, and it makes it taste better. Now if I said to you: What is caviar? Well, caviar is salt-cured fish eggs. So the salinity of the caviar really almost takes the place of table salt in this preparation.

So when we start looking at things really critically or even very simply, we realize that there's more than one way to actually get the same results. I can put a handful of salt on something. I can put very salty ham powder on something. I can put caviar on something. So, you know, you're really deconstructing the components of a course, putting them back together.

GROSS: And for anybody who's thinking of this big rib-eye steak and a whole bunch of eggs around the plate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How big was the portion that you served at this dinner?

Mr. ACHATZ: That was probably a 60-gram portion, which is about two ounces.

GROSS: Okay, so a little piece of steak and...

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, it was quite small.

GROSS: A few bites?

Mr. ACHATZ: But - yeah, I would say probably five. Five to seven, if you were really nursing it. But, you know, that's one thing that's important with our cuisine as well. So currently at Alinea there's only one menu, and it's 23 courses long.

So people are averaging right around three hours in the dining room. So really what we're trying to do with that food is tell a story and craft, like, an emotionally rich experience, something that makes people feel. Something that, like walking through a great modern art museum or listening to a symphony or, you know, watching a great movie or reading a great book - we're trying to do that with food.

GROSS: So what emotional experience would I likely get from chilled soup of spring lettuces, blueberries and cr�me fraiche?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think first of all, there would be a level of...

GROSS: Astonishment?

Mr. ACHATZ: ...of intrigue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. And perhaps...

GROSS: Mystery?

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. And you know, that's important. We really - I mean, there's courses at Alinea that we try to literally intimidate people, because if you think about eating, you know, we do it two, three, four times a day since we're born, basically. And the act of eating, the mechanics of eating, become very monotonous.

So literally you're either picking up a fork, a spoon, and you're eating from a plate or a bowl with the same motion every time. And so if we can break that monotony, then we get you to take notice of the moment, and now you're thinking about the food, it's making you feel a certain way -then we've won, you know.

GROSS: So besides feeling like, wow, this is weird, or what a surprise, soup of spring lettuces...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: ...what do you think I would feel with that?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, first and foremost, we want you to think that it's delicious. But I think that, you know, that's one thing that people often overlook. It's our main priority. We can try to craft a great experience and one that makes people feel happy or sad or, you know, elated, whatever it is, but it has to be delicious.

So with that soup, it's hard to say, and that's the thing with cooking and with food the way we do it. It's like the painter that - when he paints it on his canvas, he might have had an idea how he was emotionally, and that was evident in the actual painting, but that painter is not going to tell you how to feel when you look at his painting. That's up for you to decide.

And it's the same way with our food. We can try to have some emotional triggers inserted into that 23-course meal. For instance, we've done food where - impaled on a burning oak leaf, oak branch, because growing up in Michigan, when I did it, it was still acceptable to rake the leaves that were falling off the oak trees in your front yard out to the corner, out to the side of the road, and jump in them a couple of times. And then eventually you would light that pile on fire.

And the smell of smoldering oak leaves to me is a very powerful nostalgia. It really transports me back to being eight years old and growing up in Michigan.

GROSS: So how would you use that in a dish?

Mr. ACHATZ: So literally what we did is we took pheasant, apple cider. We tempura-fry them together, and then we impale, like on a bamboo skewer, we use oak twigs that still have the leaves attached. So the actual twig component pierces through the pheasant, through a gelee of apple cider. Only the very end gets tempura-fried, and then right before it goes out to the dining room, we take a torch and we light the leaves on fire.

And we've literally had people, you know, start crying at the smell because it literally, it transports them back to a place or a time that they have fond memories of. And if you can do that with food, I think that's a powerful thing.

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz. His new memoir is called "Life, on the Line." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz, co-founder of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, which is famous for its avant-garde cuisine. His new memoir about food and his treatment for tongue cancer is called "Life, on the Line."

Let me read what a couple of people have written about how you use fragrance in your cooking. This is Corby Kummer, who writes about food for The Atlantic and wrote a book about slow food. And he's describing your approach in the kitchen: He brought a bong-like contraption that lets him force scented air into a plastic bag. He gently heats lavender or orange peel or sassafras, captures the aromatized air in the bag, pricks tiny holes in it and tucks the bag into a specially made linen pillowcase. The waiter sets the pillow under the diner's plate. It slowly deflates as the plate rests on it, scenting the entire place setting.

And in the New Yorker, fragrance is described this way. They described a liquefied caramel popcorn in a shot glass and a bean dish that came on a tray with a pillow full of nutmeg-scented air. The plate of beans was placed atop the pillow, forcing the aroma out.

What made you think about this idea of capturing fragrance or aroma in a pillowcase or a pillow and then, like, letting the air out so that the person seated there gets this, like, burst of aroma?

Mr. ACHATZ: Aroma has been an important part of my culinary repertoire since Trio, when I was at Trio back in 2001. But basically before that, when I worked at the French Laundry in Napa for Thomas Keller, one of the things that he did there was had a mixture of brown spices - cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace - that he would dust onto the hot plates right before they would go out to the dining room, and it would activate the essential oils in that spice, and it would become very fragrant, very aromatic.

The first time that I ate at the French Laundry, I had a duck course that had this spice powder on the plate. And as I was eating the duck, I could taste cinnamon and clove and allspice. So I asked the waiter, I said: You know, how is the spice incorporated into the duck? Is it the sauce? Did he actually put spice on the duck before he cooked it?

And he just kind of smiled and said: There's no spice actually in the duck. What was happening was I was smelling that spice mixture, and because I was smelling it, I was tasting it. So it was kind of a revelation for me, realizing people take for granted the power of smell and how it affects flavor.

So then we really started to play with it at Trio. It wasn't until we opened Alinea, one of my investors was in Europe and found this vaporizer, this machine that allows you to aromatize anything, really.

You mentioned lavender and citrus peel. We've done, again, firewood ashes, we've done leather, we've done grass. So it's just a tool that allows us to capture the aroma.

The tricky part was trying to figure out - once we had the machine and we put cinnamon in there and we had this beautifully sweet cinnamon air in this bag, we didn't know how we were going to be able to, one, transport that bag into the dining room, because it was literally made of plastic; and two, how to release it. We had it in the bag, but we didn't know how we could time-release the scent so that throughout the duration of you eating a specific course, you were smelling the intended smell.

We finally came up with the solution of getting a linen pillowcase and using a syringe to, you know, poke tiny holes in the plastic bag, so...

GROSS: Wow. So go back to the fact that you mentioned that leather was one of the aromas. Why would you want to be smelling leather while you're eating?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think that's another thing. Like I mentioned the beef and the eggs. There's a lot of smells that you can't necessarily consume. Like, you're not going to go out and chew on a baseball glove. But, in a lot of ways a lot of smells that aren't necessarily edible smell good, and they remind you of certain aspects of food.

You know, when you - when you're tasting a great French Bordeaux, they'll often say: Wow, this has leather tones or tobacco or, you know, cedar. You're not going to go out and chew on a cedar tree or leather or probably don't really want to consume a cigar. But all those smells are present in that wine.

So making those associations with what smells good and what smells a certain way and pairing that with actual edible ingredients is one avenue that we take creatively.

GROSS: Something else that you became famous for at your restaurant Alinea was, you know, foams and gels, sponges. Would you describe, like, what you mean when you say sponge for a food?

Mr. ACHATZ: Basically it's very important for us to play with texture. And so, you know, for us, when we create a culinary sponge, it's basically a mousse, essentially, something a little bit lighter, airier. It resembles a sponge in that it's full of holes. It's very aerated, whatever the mixture is.

In reality, it's just a sauce. It would be like taking clam chowder, putting it in a Kitchen-Aid with a whip attachment, like you were going to whip cream, and aerating it.

So, you know, for us, like, playing with different densities of food, manipulating texture, it impacts not only the way the food is perceived aesthetically but also the flavor release. So if I whip that clam chowder into a sponge, and you put it on your palate, it's going to dissolve instantly and cleanly and evenly, and it's going to have a different effect on the palate than it would if you took a spoonful of clam chowder soup and put it in your mouth.

GROSS: And what would the difference be?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, you know, there's something called flavor release in food. And it's exactly as it sounds. It's the way that your palate perceives the flavors that are in it, on it, I guess you would say.

Some things have really good flavor release, where instantly upon hitting the palate, they're incredibly flavorful. Other things have bad flavor release. I'm trying to think of an example.

So if you were to make Jell-O, okay, the less gelatin that you put in the Jell-O, it's going to have a lot higher flavor release. So if I over-gel cherry Jell-O, and you have to put it in your mouth and chew on it to get it to kind of melt and break apart and release the flavor, then it's going to be far less flavorful than if you set it very lightly or if we aerate it so that it dissolves very quickly.

So having this knowledge about flavor release and texture - you know, like I say, texture's a very important part of the dining experience because when you're - we talk about monotony with the mechanics of eating, but there's also a great deal of monotony, potential monotony, in both texture and flavor.

So there's something that we call the law of diminishing returns in our cooking. That's why the steak is only two ounces, because by your fifth bite you're really, you're done. You're done with that steak. You know what it's going to taste like. The actual flavor starts to deaden on the palate.

If we were to make you take 10 more bites, by the time you got to bite 15, the steak's just not that compelling anymore. So if we have a series of 23 small courses, where it's a burst of flavor on the palate, and then you move on to something completely different and then completely different, that helps us set up a more exciting meal, and it's something that is easier to kind of be compelled to go through a 23-course menu.

GROSS: My guest, Chef Grant Achatz, will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Life, on the Line." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with chef Grant Achatz. His new memoir, "Life, on the Line," is about his avant-garde style of cooking and about getting diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. The treatments eradicated his sense of taste, and he was uncertain it would ever return. It did. He's been in remission since late 2007. Achatz co-founded the Chicago restaurant Alinea, which was named best restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine in 2006. In 2008, he was named best chef in the U.S. by the James Beard foundation. In a few weeks, he'll open a new restaurant called Next. When we left off, we were talking about his food innovations.

You've had to create new technology in order to create some of the foods that you've created. Tell us one of the unusual pieces of technology that you either borrowed from another field and now use in food, or that you basically created.

Mr. ACHATZ: We realized early on with the opening of Alinea that we were going to have to look to other disciplines and other avenues for technology and tools that would help us cook, shape, manipulate the ingredients in the way that we wanted. One of the items that we came up with is called the anti-griddle. And we partnered with, collaborated with a company in Niles, Illinois call PolyScience, and PolyScience is owned by gentlemen by the name of Philip Preston. And Philip is a big foodie, and his company basically supplies the medical industry with a lot of temperature-control technology. So he does specific water bass that can be either super-hot or super-cold, down to like 100th of a degree. So he was very versed in laboratory-style equipment.

We came to him and said, you know, maybe there's some way that we can collaborate on a piece that basically is the inverse of the pancake griddle that I grew up cooking on at my parent's diner. So you have a large, stainless steel surface, and instead of it being hot, we want it to be incredibly cold. And he got kind of excited about the challenge, and three days later, he had what he called the Frankenstein version of it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: ...which was the prototype. It wasn't real pretty, but it worked. And so that stainless steel plate gets negative 50 degrees Celsius. And it allows us to freeze - not only freeze things that normally don't freeze. So, for instance, if you take a cup full of olive oil and put it in your freezer at home overnight, you're going to wake up the next morning, and it's still going to be liquid because the freezing point of olive oil is very, very low. So you take a tablespoon of that olive oil and you put it on top of the anti-griddle, and it will instantly freeze.

GROSS: What's an example of something that doesn't usually freeze that you've frozen and served?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I think olive oil is a good one - is a good example. So we, you know, we've actually made olive oil lollipops, essentially.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: So you can take olive oil, freeze it on the anti-griddle with a stick in it. And then once it comes off the anti-griddle, we seasoned it with very - depending on whether we wanted it sweet or savory. So in this case, we did a savory olive oil lollipop, where we seasoned the outside with salt, smoked paprika and some dried basil. And so basically, you're now kind of in the South of Spain with those flavors. And it looked like a lollipop, came on a stick, and it was savory and fatty. And as soon as you put it on your palate, of course, the olive oil immediately starts to melt and kind of floods the palate with this smoky paprika, savory, almost like a roasted red pepper oil. It was really interesting.

GROSS: Part of what we base our sense of taste on is what we see on the plate.

Mr. ACHATZ: Absolutely.

GROSS: And that affects our expectations. So if the shape of the food or the texture of the food doesn't conform to our expectation of what that food is, is that going to taste different because of that?

Mr. ACHATZ: I don't know that it will taste different, but you've touched on something that is what we really focus on, you know, and this is - this goes back to part of crafting that emotional experience. So if I present to you something that I call a root beer float, and again, it's not in a glass. It's on a plate. It's not liquid, it's solid, and it's not brown. It's completely clear, and I say root beer float, and you look at it and you look at me and you think I'm crazy, I think that's a good thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Because now you're already - you're engaged, and that's kind of what I was talking about before. We're engaging you on so many different levels. And then the payoff is that when you put that perfectly clear, bite-size cube in your mouth, it tastes like a root beer float. And then everybody wins.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz, the co-founder of Alinea restaurant, where he's been the chef and he's about to open a new restaurant called Next. He has a new memoir called "Life, on the Line." That's not only about his food life. It's about getting hit with tongue cancer, and then recovering from that.

We'll talk about that in a moment. First, let's take a short break, here. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz. He's the creator of the avant-garde restaurant Alinea, and he's written a new memoir called "Life, on the Line." It's about his life as a chef creating really, pretty avant-garde food and it's also about getting hit with tongue cancer a few years ago from which he has been in remission since 2007.

It's so horrible that while you were living in this food world, that you got tongue cancer. And what makes it particularly more bizarre is that you were living in this world of rarified food where food was art, where food was like a very special experience to be savored, because no one outside of a chef like you could make food like this. It cost a whole lot of money to eat there, hundreds of dollars. And then you get a disabled mouth and tongue because of the tongue cancer. You got a diagnosis, and you went to see a surgeon.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you were told that, basically, he was going to cut out your tongue and replace it with a muscle from another part of your body. Tell us what he told you.

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, basically, the standard of care is surgery for this type of cancer. And usually, the glansectomy is something that they would remove the cancerous tissue in the tongue and replicate what they would call - they call it a flap procedure, where they would take tissue from either your thigh or some part of your arm and try to reconstruct or re-create - cosmetically, at least - the tongue.

Now, obviously, the movement would be severely compromised, and you wouldn't be able to taste, because all those nerves that are in your tongue would no longer be there. It would be a piece of your leg or a piece of your arm. So basically, I went to a couple of institutions here in Chicago after I first got diagnosed. They recommended surgery. That didn't sound very appealing to me, because after the CT's and the oral exams, they estimated that the tumor had taken over about three quarters of my tongue. So they would essentially have to remove the entire thing. So we flew to New York...

GROSS: Can I add something?

Mr. ACHATZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That on top of that, you were told that if you had that kind of radical surgery, that you would only have a 50 to 60 percent chance of surviving two years or more.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. So...

GROSS: And you write in your book that you were more afraid of losing your sense of taste and your ability to eat than of dying.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. I mean, there's elements of that for sure, because, you know, what was important to me, I lived my whole life, you know, since I was five years old, in the kitchen, and - with a very specific goal. Not only that, but ultimately what happened is, you know, it's the passion. It's the love for cooking and food. It's dictated my entire life, every aspect of it. And so the thought of not being able to do that anymore radically affects your life. And if you've given your whole life to something and you're kind of looking down the barrel of not being able to do that anymore, it makes you think, you know.

GROSS: So you found a doctor who had an alternate approach. What was the approach?

Mr. ACHATZ: So finally, after visiting four institutions and them basically saying the same thing, which was we need to remove most of your tongue, part of your mandible, your lymph nodes on both sides of your neck, and even after we do that we're going to give you a 50 percent chance at a two-and-a-half or three years survival rate, we came back to Chicago and went to the University of Chicago, where they were doing a clinical trial based on inverting the protocol.

So typically, what everybody was recommending was surgery first, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. And the folks at U of C said hey, wait a minute. If we can use certain drugs in certain combinations and a certain type of radiation that's very targeted, we might be able to put the chemo radiation first and only do the surgery if necessary. If we cannot eradicate the tumor and the cancerous cells with the radiation, then sure, we'll have to go in and cut. Well, as it turns out, the trial was incredibly effective.

GROSS: So the quality of your life during the radiation - during the chemo, but most especially during the radiation - was actually awful.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, it improved after you healed. But, I mean, you describe how the radiation severely burned your tongue. You basically shed the lining of your tongue and esophagus. Your taste buds came off with the lining of your tongue. You were choking and vomiting. It sounds pretty awful.

Mr. ACHATZ: It was pretty awful. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What did you do for food during that period when the whole, you know, your mouth, your tongue, your esophagus were in flames, basically, because of the radiation?

Mr. ACHATZ: Not much, to be honest with you. When I entered treatment, I weighed 172 pounds. And at the end of treatment - I think my lowest was two weeks after treatment, I think I stepped on the scale and was like 128, 127. I'm not a big man, by any means. I'm 5'9, and normally who's averaging rate around 170, 175 pounds. But 127 pounds is pretty light. So basically, during that time, they wanted me to have a feeding tube. And originally, when I started the procedure, they said that most people have to have one at some point, and they were just going to put one in right away, and I said no. And to me it was - again, there's that great irony of, like, I didn't want to not be able to put food in my body.

It just seemed ridiculous that me, as a chef, had to put food into my system through a tube in my stomach. It just seemed unfathomable. And, you know, they were saying this isn't about - you know, this isn't about being a chef. This is about life and death. And I said I understand that, but you have to understand my stance here. There's something that - it was just a philosophical thing, that I just - I couldn't accept it. I didn't want it to be - I didn't want the irony to win, you know. So, I mean, there were times at the end that I couldn't hold down water. You know, I would take a sip, and it would come right back up. So I had to do some - they would hook me up and give me fluids through an IV, because I literally couldn't keep anything down. It was tough. But the whole time, you know, you're there going okay, this is tough and it's not very pleasant but, you know, the alternative is far worse. So you just keep plugging along.

GROSS: So one of the things you were occasionally able to get down are those, like, nutrition drinks that people who are sick and who can't eat much or who are losing a lot of weight and need a supplement drink.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

GROSS: So as one of America's top chefs, which is better: Ensure or Boost?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: My go-to is Ensure.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: What was it like eating without tasting or receiving any pleasure from it? Because it - if you were lucky enough to get something down, it would hurt as it went down.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right. It was very strange to not be able to discern any flavor at all. And, you know, we all go through this at some point in our life, but it might only be for a day or two, you know, when you have that really bad head cold and you're all stuffy and you can't smell, and the chicken soup that your mom made you that you're slipping on has no flavor, no taste at all. This lasted for a little over a year. And, you know, it's funny, because clearly, you know that you have to eat to live. But even knowing that, for me, there was no reason to eat. I just had no interest in eating, whatsoever.

Even though, like you said, you know, there were some issues of pain that I was dealing with, but even beyond that, like, you would put something in your mouth - say, a vanilla milkshake - and it tasted like nothing. And at that point, you're just like, why bother? Like, if I can't get any pleasure or any satisfaction from eating this, then what's the point?

GROSS: So during this period, you're actually still going to work, right, at your restaurant.

Mr. ACHATZ: Every day.

GROSS: And I guess I can't really comprehend how food can be punishing to you...

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you're so sick. You've lost about like 50 pounds. You're nauseous most of the time. And yet you're surrounded not only by food, but by this really, like, arcane food where you used like, you know, as you say, jeweler's tweezers to put micro herbs on bite-size portions of food. I mean, like, I, how, why did you keep going to work?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, there was a couple of reasons I kept going. I think when people are faced with whether it be a serious illness or some type of adverse situation in their life, everybody does something different. Everybody gravitates towards something different. Some people might, you know, say, okay, I'm not going to work for a couple of months and I'm going to spend more time with my family and people that I love and really change the way that they approach their life.

For me, after I kind of was able to wrap my head around it, I realized that I didn't want to change a thing and that I was probably one of the luckiest guys in the world, because every day that I would go to quote/unquote "work," I loved it. It was my passion. So, to me, the kitchen, work, cooking was the place of refuge. It was the safest place for me. It was where I was most comfortable. It's where I felt the most familiar. That world was my comfort zone.

GROSS: But most people can't be around food when they're nauseous.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. I mean, you just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: I mean, there were times when it wasn't easy, but, you know, the other aspect of it was I had 62 employees that were coming in every day and supporting me, not by patting me on the back or giving me a hug and telling me it was going to be okay, but by walking in the back door of that restaurant and putting on their game face every day. Because they knew that the worst thing that could possibly happen to me, aside from the cancer, was that Alinea fell into some sort of decline.

So they all worked harder than normal to try to make sure that that didn't even - wasn't even a consideration. And so I felt like I need to reciprocate their effort and be a true leader and come to work every day so that they knew that I respected them.

GROSS: My guest is chef Grant Achatz. His new memoir is called "Life, on the Line."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is chef Grant Achatz, and he's the founder of Alinea restaurant in Chicago. He has a new restaurant called Next that's about to open. He has a new memoir called "Life, on the Line." That's about his food life and his artistic and avant-garde approach to cooking. But it's also about getting diagnosed with tongue cancer and getting an extreme form of radiation treatment, as well as chemo and surgery, and going through a period where he couldn't eat, where he basically lost all sense of taste. And he's been in remission since 2007, and his sense of taste has returned.

Your tastes, I imagine, came back to you not all in one shot, but how did they come back? Was it one kind of taste at a time, or did slowly, all the tastes start to emerge together?

Mr. ACHATZ: No, it was very much one at a time. And I tell people, when you're first born, newborns can only perceive sweet. They're not, their palates haven't developed yet. They can't taste salt. They can't taste bitter. They can't taste acid. And obviously, the reason for that is so that they're drawn to eat, tasting the natural sweetness in the milk. So the same thing happened to me. I started from zero and the first thing back was sweet. So my palate developed just as a newborn, but I was 32 years old. So I could understand how flavors were coming back and how they synergized together.

I remember one morning, I woke up and poured myself a cup of coffee. And because the doctors were harping on me to eat enough calories - I never put sugar in my coffee, but during that period, I was trying to get as many calories as I could. So I dumped a couple of spoonfuls of sugar in there and took a sip, and put the cup down and went, wait a minute. That tasted sweet. And it was like, oh my gosh, I can taste sweet. And I got really, really excited.

And I remember calling my doctor and going, I can taste sweet. I can taste sweet. Like, what does this mean? You know, when are the rest of them going to come back? And they always told me that it was a complete - it was different for everybody. Some people think they get about 50 percent of their taste back. Some people would only get sweet and salty back, and they would never be able to perceive bitter or acid. They really couldn't tell me. And so I just kind of went through life thinking, okay, maybe I'll only be able to taste sweet for three months.

A few months later, I remember waking up and doing the exact same thing, getting my coffee, throwing a couple of spoons of sugar in there, take a swig. And instinctively I go - I said to my girlfriend Heather, who was sitting next to me, I'm like, God. This coffee's terrible. It's so bitter. And she looked at me, kind of smiled, and goes, it's what? I go it's really bitter. And I just started laughing. I go oh, my gosh, you know. Now I can taste bitter.

So the thing with it coming back in pieces like that is that now I could understand the synergies of sweet and bitter, how they cancel each other out, how they act with each other. Then once salt came back, it was the same thing. Salt enters the equation. I know how it plays off of sugar, how it plays off of bitterness, acid, so on and so forth. So it was very educational for me. I don't recommend it, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: But, yeah. I mean, it was - I think it made me a better chef, because now I really, really understand how flavor works.

GROSS: So, has your sense of what you want to eat changed, post-cancer?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, I mean, there's - I don't think what I want to eat. I mean, there are some long-lasting side effects that prevent me from eating certain things. Like, I can't have anything really spicy. I never really liked spicy food to begin with, but now it's very painful. Things that are very, very hot still are very sensitive. But yeah. I mean, I still have the same cravings. I love pizza. I love great Japanese food. So my cravings are the same. There's just some things I can't eat.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And you're okay with that? You have to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah. There's no choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. So what's for dinner for you tonight? Is it hazelnut yogurt, curry saffron, freeze-dried corn and edible tube?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or is it pizza?

Mr. ACHATZ: It'll be neither tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. ACHATZ: Typically, we have staff meals. All the employees in the restaurant sit down in the kitchen around 4 o'clock and, you know, we cook largely ethnic-focused foods. So I'm not sure what's on the menu today, but it'll probably be chili or tacos or maybe some udon noodles. I don't know. But usually, it's that one meal a day. I'll take a little bit in for breakfast, and then that big staff meal at 4 o'clock will push me through the rest of the day. So if I didn't have to work tonight, it could very well be pizza.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Good luck with your new restaurant.

Mr. ACHATZ: Thank you.

GROSS: And I wish you really could health.

Mr. ACHATZ: Thank you. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Yeah. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Mr. ACHATZ: Okay.

GROSS: Chef Grant Achatz co-wrote the new memoir "Life, on the Line" with his business partner Nick Kokonas. You can read an excerpt on our website: freshair.npr.org. Their restaurant Alinea is in Chicago. In a few weeks, they'll open their new restaurant called Next, which will change its menu every three months. Each menu will focus on a specific time and place, starting with Paris 1906.

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