Cancer Threatens Top Chef's Sense of Taste The James Beard Foundation has just named Grant Achatz the most outstanding chef in the U.S. But Achatz has tongue cancer, which has damaged his ability to taste.
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Cancer Threatens Top Chef's Sense of Taste

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Cancer Threatens Top Chef's Sense of Taste

Cancer Threatens Top Chef's Sense of Taste

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Grant Achatz attained one of cooking's highest honors last weekend, the James Beard Award for outstanding chef. Achatz is only 34-years-old, young for a James Beard winner, and far too young for the news he got from his doctors last year. He was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer and told he might only have a few months to live. Rather than opt to remove part of his tongue, Achatz chose chemotherapy and radiation. And after months of treatment, it seems to have worked. He's been cancer free for half a year now.

But there was a cost, a big one for a chef. The radiation took away his sense of taste. But he pushed through the pain and kept cooking. Achatz is known for elaborate, whimsical dishes, sort of performance art on a plate. At his restaurant, Alinea in Chicago, dinner can be made from as many as 30 tiny courses. Gourmet Magazine named it the best restaurant in America in 2006, only a year and a half after it opened. Grant Achatz, congratulations, sir.

Mr. GRANT ACHATZ (Executive Chef, Alinea; 2008 James Beard Award Winner): Thank you.

PESCA: So I know after you get an award, you're supposed to say, I don't do it for the awards, but what does being named outstanding chef by James Beard - winning that award, what does it mean for you?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, you know, it certainly has some personal meaning, especially after the - this year in particular. I look at it as a very, you know, poignant bookend. I mean, it ends kind of a tumultuous year and it's a great jumping-off point for the following year.

PESCA: And because of it, is the waiting list of Alinea now, like four and a half years instead of three and a half?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, well, let's just say that, you know, it made the phone ring pretty good. So...

PESCA: So, like, I'm sure that you have a lot of people claiming to be your first cousin who can't get a reservation.

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, right.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ACHATZ: I tried to call the restaurant and speak to somebody on Monday, you know, a day after the awards...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ACHATZ: And I couldn't get through to my own restaurant, so...

PESCA: And you have the hotline, right?

Mr. ACHATZ: Yeah, right.

PESCA: You hear the special number. Oh, my.

Mr. ACHATZ: That didn't work, so there you go.

PESCA: Now you talked - I read a good quote where you talked about wanting to create nostalgia and emotion through food. Can you mention maybe a specific dish that does both things?

Mr. ACHATZ: We try to - yeah, we try to kind of pull on these emotional triggers, and we do that a couple of different ways, but one way in particular is the use of intentional aroma with food. And so when I'm creating dishes, I'll often try to just go into my own mind and try to pick out specific things that I feel are important in my life.

And one of them is - I grew up in Michigan, so my favorite season happens to be fall, and one of the things that is very indicative of fall to me as a young child was the smell of burning leaves, which is, of course, you know, when I was growing up, it was still environmentally accepted to rake the leaves that were in your front yard up out to the side of the road and, you know, jump in them a couple of times, and light them on fire.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. ACHATZ: So, one of the things that we've done kind of involving that was actually take oak branches that still had the colored leaves attached and use it like a bamboo skewer. Skewer some food on the end, pheasant and roasted shallot and cider, a gelee made of cider, kind of the quintessential fall or autumn ingredients, tempura-fry just the end. That covers the food composition.

And then before it's served to the diner, actually light the leaves on fire. Blow them out, so you have this smoldering-leaf aroma, and it really - it pulls on people in a very powerful way. It's not only food, at that point, but you're transporting people back to a time in their life, which is, you know, it's a very powerful thing.

PESCA: What's the biggest disaster in terms of trying to burn something, or invoke a smell?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, you know, a disaster in that one in particular, I was doing a photo shoot a couple months ago, and basically, burnt the carpet in the dining room.

PESCA: That evoked...

Mr. ACHATZ: And so...

PESCA: Yeah, that evoked something else.

Mr. ACHATZ: You've always got to be careful, right? When you're playing with torches, so...

PESCA: Tell me about - when did you first start feeling that something was wrong or funny going on with your tongue, or inside your mouth?

Mr. ACHATZ: Ah, 2003 I noticed sort of a small, white dot on my tongue, and just kind of figured it was - somehow I bit my tongue or, you know, it was like a canker sore or something like that.

PESCA: Mm-hm. But it didn't go away for a long time?

Mr. ACHATZ: Didn't go away, and then repeated trips to the dentist, you know, they kind of misguided me and told me I was stressed and young, because of the hours I was working and under the pressure, and that, in fact, I was biting my tongue, grinding my teeth at night, you know.

PESCA: And so when you finally got to the right doctor, I assume it was an oncologist, and he presented you with the choices of radiation or, you know, cutting out part of the tongue, did you think - what - I don't know what your first thought was, but you know, how did you think about - that this could very much affect your sense of taste. How did you process that?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, we went, you know, once I got the positive pathology report back and got my diagnosis, we kind of went on this crusade to find treatment, the best treatment. And we ended up at five hospitals throughout the course of that, and each of them recommended what they called the standard repair, which was surgery first, and that would've entailed removing three quarters of my tongue.

I was - obviously, that's not - you know, that doesn't present a very good quality of life for anyone, in particular, but especially for a chef that relies on that ability, to use that sense of taste every day and in their career. So, you know, I went on this search for an alternative treatment, and luckily University of Chicago, essentially, right in my backyard, ironically, that had a protocol - a new protocol that was kind of based on organ preservation.

And their belief was that - kind of reversing what had typically been the standard of care for 25 years or more, which was surgery followed by radiation chemotherapy. They had a new drug that they felt was going to help eliminate cancer cells, and then only use surgery if absolutely necessary at the very end.

PESCA: And from what...

Mr. ACHATZ: So...

PESCA: And from what I've read, it seems to have worked, knock on wood. But tell me, what's the state of your taste now?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, it's - it's impossible to measure, right?

PESCA: Right, yeah.

Mr. ACHATZ: If you go to the ophthalmologist, they can tell you exactly what your vision is, and same for your hearing, but something like taste or smell, they really have no way of measuring it, and it's really - it's kind of in your own - it's kind of in your mind. I would say - I would put it - if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably somewhere around 50 percent back.

PESCA: And is - are specific tastes more gone than others? I think the four tastes are sweet, bitter, sour, salty and then there's this other kind of substance thing.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ACHATZ: Right, yeah, I mean, all the sweet sensations came back to me first, and you know, kind of, salt followed closely behind but not fully, as I recall it. You know, so it comes back very fragmented and kind of, you know, disjointed. But they say it can take up to a year for you to recover from the treatment. So, you know, I'm six or so months out. I still have a long way to go, and I'd say I'm about halfway there.

PESCA: What kind of accommodations do you make in the kitchen? Do you have a taster? How do you tell if the food is good?

Mr. ACHATZ: Well, you have to, you know, the food that we create is - it's very conceptual, and it's, you know, very artistically driven. So the creation process is really - takes place in my head anyways. I need the validation for the final concepts to come from chefs de cuisine and my sous chef. I need to rely on people to get that final tweaking at the very end.

PESCA: Mm-hm. You know, the obvious parallel that I thought of is with Beethoven. I don't know if you've listened to him or even read about his life after he went deaf as a composer, but...

Mr. ACHATZ: Right, yeah.

PESCA: One of the things that he did is, that period, he wrote the Eroica Symphony, which was his third, right as he went deaf, and he got bold for a moment, and then he got romantic. But did your loss of taste, has it changed you? I guess this is an Oprah-y question, but are you taking more risks? Are you any more bold? Or has it changed your personality at all?

Mr. ACHATZ: I don't think personality, really. It certainly has changed the cooking. I think it's probably - you know, it's educated me on what flavor is and how the certain tastes come together. So, I think, conceptually, it's actually given me a little bit more freedom and a little bit more confidence, ironically enough. Because now I feel I have a greater understand of how all the flavors work together. So I'm able to compose things that I probably normally wouldn't have understood.

PESCA: Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago restaurant Alinea. Thank you very much for joining us, and again, congratulations.

Mr. ACHATZ: You're welcome.

PESCA: This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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