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Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea: “I was like, You’re going to cut my tongue out? There’s no way!”
If you’re ever looking for Grant Achatz, just go to Alinea, his restaurant in Lincoln Park. He’s always there—usually in the kitchen, as was the case on a recent day in March. “I’m shelling fava beans. You know why?” he asked me. Is this a quiz? Because there’s no one else to do it? “It’s spring!” he answered, brightly, in a little boy voice that’s a bit higher than its usual register.
It’s an awfully upbeat answer from a guy who basically shouldn’t still be around. Last July, Achatz, one of the best chefs in the city, if not the entire country, received devastating news: An oral surgeon told him that the painful raw spot on the left side of his tongue was cancer—specifically, squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. The tumor had grown so large that the malignant mass now occupied nearly the entire organ and was swiftly working its way toward the back of his throat.
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“It was the weirdest thing,” Achatz recalls. “It was a Friday. There was nobody in the waiting room. I remember it being really dark. There was only one receptionist and one doctor in the whole place. Here’s this probably 42-year-old doctor and he comes in and he looks like somebody just killed his mother. You could just see it all over his face: I gotta tell this 33-year-old kid, a chef no less, that he’s got tongue cancer? How fucked up is this world?”
That question rippled through the restaurant world when the news came out a couple of weeks later. How could this happen to someone so young and so completely on the brink of greatness? And how weird and Shakespearean was it that a chef would have not just cancer, but cancer of the tongue?
What followed in the next several months was a cascade of predictable events: confirmation of the diagnosis, second and third and fourth opinions, the brutal calculus of weighing options in the face of death, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery—and now the long slog of recovery. The good news is that right now Achatz appears to be cancer-free and the tumor eradicated. Moreover, Achatz still has his tongue, probably thanks to a targeted new drug called Erbitux, which he received as part of a clinical trial at the University of Chicago. And he’s back to work at Alinea, his serious, four-star foodie destination, and apparently more ferocious than ever, creating a whole new raft of the otherworldly, high-tech dishes that have become his calling card (see Dining Out: From There to Alinea). Of course the threat of recurrence hums in the background: The disease could strike back at any time and, statistically speaking, the next two years are the danger zone.
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Photograph: Tom Maday