Chef Grant Achatz (ACK-utz, I finally learned) would come up periodically, particularly when the James Beard Awards were announced, or a list of best restaurants was revealed. Once the restaurant was in the spotlight for not being on a best-of list (in Esquire, it’s in the book), and Alinea got some press for that too.
But it was the announcement that Achatz had squamous cell carcinoma (effectively, tongue cancer) that really seemed to put the entire world’s focus on this Chicago chef, particularly as it was the year when Achatz was up for the James Beard Award for best chef. A world-renowned chef battling to keep his sense of taste? What news outlet could resist that?
So now we’ve got Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, written by Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas. It goes on sale this Thursday, March 3. But what is it?
Is it an inspirational story of overcoming cancer?
Is it a business story of everything involved in creating a business?
Is it the story of one man’s passionate search for discovering and creating amazing food?
I’d say it’s all three, but it’s most glorious as a foodie narrative*. Grant Achatz would have a wonderful tale to tell, even if he didn’t have his life-changing bout with cancer. His drive to cook was there since his early years, working short order at his parents’ restaurant in Michigan. He saw his parents struggle, he saw them reach for more, he saw them battle, and he saw his father’s drinking problem.
Every step of the way, Achatz stretched for opportunity, for experience. And in one of the more important takeaways from his story, Achatz knew when something wasn’t right and it was time to move on.
There’s no question that Thomas Keller was one of his most important mentors, in terms of vision, the quest for quality, and the culture of the kitchen. You see that most in Achatz’s short-lived stint at another restaurant institution. Yes, gossip fans, Life, on the Line names names. Well, at least a few.
Boy, is this an emotional book. And you don’t have to wait for the diagnosis to start tearing up. I got weak on Achatz’s European tour of Michelin-starred restaurants, when he learned a surprising lesson about greatness. I was hooked when he connected with his first mentor, at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, and a goner when he connected with The French Laundry**. The passion for food and for new ways to appreciate it seeps through the paper and sets my taste buds blazing.
And when the restaurant starts to be more than a dream, Kokonas enters the narrative, the ideal business partner whose one passion is only matched by his smarts. What a great combination! And as I always focus back to my business, I wondered if there are folks out there who might team up with a bookseller to fill a hole in a few of the markets that are losing bookstores.
I thought about my three favorite food narratives of the last twenty years or so***:
Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl
The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
Interestingly enough, Reichl plays a pivotal role in the narrative, and Steingarten shows up for a nice guest spot. Bourdain gets mentioned too of course. And many folks really got to know Achatz from Michael Ruehl’s chef trilogy, The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef, and The Reach of a Chef. Our customer Nancy B. has bought numerous copies for friends over the years.
So here’s the deal. I’m putting Life, on the Line up with these books. Yes, this is a inspiring story to turn on any foodie, a must-read for all entrepreneurs, and yes, a survival narrative too. And just to add a little dollop of foam to the offering, one of the Top Chef cheftestants also has a nice supporting role in the story. Guess which one?
And yes, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas are coming to Boswell, on Sunday, March 13, 7 pm. You always have to do some negotiating and in my case, a little begging. These guys are incredibly busy setting up Next, their new restaurant in Chicago, which will have the passion and perfection of Alinea, but with a seasonal menu that captures a place and time. You have to watch this video--it's amazing!
So this is a ticketed event to a rare opportunity to hear two amazing people talk about overcoming some amazing odds. $25 gets you admission and a signed copy of Life, on the Line. (Yes, that’s cheaper than the book price of $27.50). You can buy the tickets in the store, by phone, or online. There is also a $20 gift card option in lieu of the book. I’ve told Carrie, whom I am working with to put this together, that if I can get to 150 people, we’ll start talking donation to a cancer group. Heck, I’ll start talking at 100.
May I just say that T.C. Boyle comes to Milwaukee every third book, but you are not likely to get this opportunity again to hear Achatz and Kokonas talk. Don’t kick yourself later.
*Not that the cancer narrative isn’t interesting and inspiring. It is.
**Just to connect everything together, Michael Ruhlman wrote the text for The French Laundry Cookbook.
***I think of Danny Meyer's Setting the Table almost as more of a business narrative, which is why it isn't on this list. But do I think every potential restauranteur should read this book? Yes, I do.