Perhaps knowing how the story ends—genius chef from a small Midwestern town survives advanced cancer of the tongue (the tongue!) to achieve every accolade known to his profession by the age of 36—is what makes the candid new memoir by Grant Achatz so compulsively readable. You want to know who this guy is, and Life, on the Line (Gotham Books, $27) delivers. The son of a second-generation diner owner in tiny St. Clair, Michigan, Achatz was absorbed into the family business by the time he was six; he learned to cook by slinging bacon and eggs. There are some wonderfully vivid moments: For example, Achatz chops off the tip of his index finger while making a fancy dinner for his high-school girlfriend’s parents, and you get to watch the young chef chafe under Charlie Trotter’s legendary hazing routine. (Nick Kokonas, Achatz’s business partner, contributes chapters about the business side of Alinea and writes movingly about watching his friend battle cancer.) Best of all, Achatz is unsentimental about success, ambition, fame, and mortality, telling his amazing story in a voice that is matter of fact yet still bemused at the wonder of it all.
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