The plagues of nature can be cruel. To give a chef, of all people, tongue cancer. Not just a chef, mind you, but Chef Grant Achatz, one of the best chefs on the planet, a chef who runs what is now ranked as the best restaurant in the world, according to Elite Traveler Magazine.
Was there a greater purpose for his illness? Was it is just a coincidence?
Achatz has thought about it. He considers it to be just another part of his life, focusing very little on the topic during our conversation. Stage IV tongue cancer was something he had, something he treated and something he eventually overcame. Then he moved on. And like conquering his health scare, Achatz sees Alinea's most recent (and best) ranking as an accomplishment, but he plans to continue on and continue growing.
"What do we do from here? You just keep going on the path that you've already created."
It does make sense. Why would you veer off of a path that's inches away from reaching perfection? His domain, including Alinea, Next and The Aviary, has arguably already reached that milestone, though he believes there's always room for growth. He's had offers to expand his culinary empire in New York, Dubai, Tokyo, but he has turned down every one, citing unoriginality and lack of creativity as his reasoning.
"If we do something else, another venue, it has to be equally as original and creative and unique. That's what we built the brand on: innovation, creativity and not doing the same thing twice."
Achatz is not about to clone what already exists. His brands are unique and different and creative, but individually, he's even more than that. Thoughtful about his food and his business choices, and also about the words he chooses throughout our interview. His answers are not chosen lightly, but rather with passion.
And that's really what sets Achatz apart. If diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, most people would tell the doctors to go ahead with whatever plan was necessary. Whatever they thought best. But Achatz refused to let them take his tongue, his professional weapon. Instead he thought out an aggressive plan, a plan that eventually led to the cancer's demise.
Clearly, he's thoughtful and passionate about his food. A menu that has been heralded as perfect, yet changes so many times is evidence of an irresistibly creative mind at work. To think that an aroma coming from a small pillow would be equally as important to a meal at Alinea as the actual food on a plate can only come about from thoughtfulness rooted in precision.
"There are about 700 flavors that you can smell, but only five you can taste. A lot of times what you're perceiving as flavor has nothing to do with palette, but it's more to do with scents. When you have a glass of red wine, you swirl it and sniff and drink and think you taste leather, chocolate, vanilla. Well, guess what? There's one ingredient in that glass of wine and it's grapes. There's no leather, no chocolate. You're tasting it because you're actually smelling it."
Today, like he did when he had cancer, his sense of taste wiped out for months, Achatz doesn't rely merely on flavor to create a magical dining experience. While slowly regaining his sense of taste, he had to relearn what it meant for something to be sweet, to be salty or sour, and through this process, he believes he became a better chef.
Achatz doesn't expect people to always want an extensive experience for dinner, to want to have a three and a half hour event every night. Even he says that most of the time, he doesn't want to be at the mercy of another chef. He wants to order what he wants, when he wants it.
But, that's not what he and his team at Alinea do. As chef, he creates for you what you long to experience, even just once. Achatz believes that each evening is about passion, that you can feel it in the restaurant. From the moment you walk through his doors, he expects you to open up and embrace that. His vision.
But once he's expressed that vision, he moves on. To the next night's service, the next day, the next project. He doesn't dwell on where he's been, what he's done. His passion moves him forward to what's next.
"I've never eaten at Alinea. Maybe I never will."
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