Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review - Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat by Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas

Title: Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat
Author: Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas
Year: 2011
Page: 320
Genre: Non-Fiction - Memoir

FTC Disclosure: Borrowed from the library

Summary (from
"One of America's great chefs" (Vogue) shares how his drive to cook immaculate food won him international renown-and fueled his miraculous triumph over tongue cancer.

In 2007, chef Grant Achatz seemingly had it made. He had been named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine in 2002, received the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2005 he and Nick Kokonas opened the conceptually radical restaurant Alinea, which was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. Then, positioned firmly in the world's culinary spotlight, Achatz was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma-tongue cancer.

The prognosis was grim, and doctors agreed the only course of action was to remove the cancerous tissue, which included his entire tongue. Desperate to preserve his quality of life, Grant undertook an alternative treatment of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. But the choice came at a cost. Skin peeled from the inside of Grant's mouth and throat, he rapidly lost weight, and most alarmingly, he lost his sense of taste. Tapping into the discipline, passion, and focus of being a chef, Grant rarely missed a day of work. He trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. As Kokonas was able to attest: The food was never better. Five months later, Grant was declared cancer-free, and just a few months following, he received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America Award.

Life, on the Line tells the story of a culinary trailblazer's love affair with cooking, but it is also a book about survival, about nurturing creativity, and about profound friendship. Already much- anticipated by followers of progressive cuisine, Grant and Nick's gripping narrative is filled with stories from the world's most renowned kitchens-The French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's, el Bulli- and sure to expand the audience that made Alinea the number-one selling restaurant cookbook in America last year.

First Sentence: 
On June 8, 2008, I flew to New York to attend the James Beard Foundation Awards.

My Thoughts:

  •  I love food, I love reading how chefs become chefs. I guess I never thought about food being both an art and a science before, but once I learn more about it, food is like magic. I have heard of the restaurant Alinea before (you can read a brief description on wiki here or go to the restaurant's website). I think I first heard about it because I was browsing different cooking blog, and stumbled upon this one - Alinea At Home - which is quite impressive because of the ingredients and technique used in these dishes. I didn't know a lot about Alinea apart from browsing their website, read a few reviews and saw a few pictures. When I saw this book on my library's new catalog, I was intrigued - especially, "Facing Death"? What do they mean?
  • I really enjoyed this memoir - it was a bit of a memoir, a bit on the chef's creativity, and a bit on their restaurant business history and model. The chef, Grant Achatz, wrote the majority of the book, and this business partner, Nick Kokonas wrote part of it relating to the business and a bit about his own personal journey. Some people wondered why Nick was included, as they just wanted to learn more about food and Grant as a chef. But i like to hear Nick's perspective too, because really, without Nick, there is no Alinea. Or quite possibly it'd be a different restaurant altogether. I doubt it'd be the same because Nick let Grant had his vision, and Nick just made it happen.Another business partner might not have let that happen. Or Grant may not have enough financing to open his restaurant until a later date.
  • I think both authors were honest in their stories - the ups and downs they went through. I liked that Grant was grateful with the previous chef / mentor he worked with - Thomas Keller. I wish we all get to have a mentor like him. I admired people who teach and share their knowledge selflessly. He was also appreciate of another restaurant owner he worked with - Henry Adaniya at Trio, who did not restrict Grant's creativity. E.g. I never would have imagine a dish like this - it is a fish dish, but it is served in a bowl within a bowl. They'd place some flowers in the outer bowl, and the fish in the inner bowl. Once it's served, they'd add hot water to the bowl the flowers is in to release the scent of the flowers. He created this because it reminded him of the time when they'd eat walleye fish at a picnic with his family, where they could smell the flowers while they ate. Could you imagine - combing the visual, smell, taste, and texture all together? And most of all, it brought back his fond memories with his family.
  • After reading this book, it made me want to try Alinea in the near future, or at least sometime before I die (assuming I won't die too soon!) It is quite pricey for its tasting menu, which sometimes last for hours, but I am sure it'd be an experience - and that was what Grant envisioned. A new eating experience. It also made me want to borrow his cookbook though I know his technique is way beyond my skill level. I also want to eat at The French Laundry (Grant's mentor, Thomas Keller's restaurant in Napa), and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago even though Charlie wasn't the same mentor like Keller (Grant worked in his restaurant before going to Keller's, and let's just say it wasn't as positive of an experience.)
  • I just really loved reading about people's passion, dreams and their success stories (well the difficulties and failures too - so we could all learn from them). Interestingly, some of their "best practice" is also what we do at work in the health clinic - e.g. on their restaurant opening date, they limited the number of reservations/tables they'd serve, even if it meant they would not be making as much money, just so they could work out the kinks. We do the same when we open a new clinic or move to a new location, so that if something did not work, we did not impact the patients too much.
  • I teared up when I read the part where Grant went through his medical journey (I had no previous knowledge about it) and that was where part of the subtitle, Facing Death, came in. 
  • I wish though that Grant would have elaborated more on his thought processes on creating his dishes. He talked about some (see the flower/fish example above) but I just wished he'd talk a little bit more. But I supposed this might be intellectual property. I did find this video online that talked about "bouncing flavors" - about how he thought of pairing two (or more) unusual flavors together.
  •  I also wish the book would include more pictures of the food, and the serviceware designed especially for the food (not just for looks, but for functional reasons). It had some, but mostly in black and white. So I had to go  google for some more photos - you can see the design of the servicewear by Marin Kastner here - very fascinating. You can also find pictures of the food they served when the first opened here - a visual feast in itself. You can see more pictures of the "food lab" (where they are trying out different ideas) here.
  • I also learned something new - Alinea is the only Michelin 3-Star restaurant that doesn’t have tablecloths on their black wooden tables, which presented the unexpected problem of table condensation (when serving water).  Therefore, the staff calibrates the water to a specific temperature to avoid unsightly water. See the little details they thought of?
  • They had since opened a new restaurant called Next - the concept is very differently and recently they decided to devote it to childhood favorites - this is a fun video to watch (darn, I just found that the video had been removed due to some music copyright issue - but you can read about it here on Michael Ruhlman's blog. I have read a couple of Michael's books - though not his books on chefs/food, but do check them out as he is listed on my "read more" authors. I had read Walk on Water: The Miracle of Saving Children's Lives and House: A Memoir. I read these books before I knew he specialized in writing food! The first one was about pediatricians and the second one was about the fun and tears of renovating his historical house. Both were great reads.)
  • I also found a great article about this book here.  I didn't know that this book was rejected by 5 publisher first because it didn't fit into the traditional 1st person memoir. I am glad that the 6th one accepted it because this is going to be one of my favorite reads in 2011.
  • Wow, did I write a long post or what! If it is not clear already - read this book especially if you are into food! It definitely make me appreciate eating at restaurants even more - all the hard work the chefs and the team put into putting something together for us to enjoy.

Chef Keller always talked about thinking "big picture." He drilled that into all of the cooks at The French Laundry. With the tripe, he knew that if he showed us the right way to prepare it, he would be passing down not just a recipe but also a philosophy of cooking. (p77)

"I want to create an experience that is based on emotions. I want people to be excited, happy, curious, surprised, intrigued, and even bewildered during the meal." (p137)

Overall Rating:

4.5 Stars. I am hungry after reading this. But I am also inspired.

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.


  1. Thanks for the great in-depth review of this book, on my must-read list now. And thanks too for all the links - they add a lot to the review!

  2. Wow, this sounds fascinating! I have another memoir on my shelf, I can't remember the name, about a chef who loses her sense of smell and still wants to cook. I can't imagine being a chef without being able to taste.

  3. @Fiona - I think you'd enjoy this one. If the book had more pictures, I doubt I'd google anything. But I am glad I did and find a lot more!

    @Kim - Is it Season To Taste? I have the ARC, started it, but wasn't in the mood to read it. So I am saving it for a later date as I don't want to give that one up yet. I couldn't imagine losing your smell/taste if you are a chef! I think this memoir appeals to me because it is a personal story, it's inspiring, it talks about business, and it is about food!