The day Grant Achatz got cancer

March 25, 2011

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(Flickr/Stu Spivack)
Chef Grant Achatz in the kitchen of his restaurant, Alinea. He was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer in 2007.

Before 2007 you might have said Chef Grant Achatz led a charmed life. He trained with renowned chef Thomas Keller at French Laundry, became executive chef at four-star-rated Trio in Evanston, found a friend and business partner in Nick Kokonas, and ultimately co-founded Alinea, named by Gourmet Magazine as the country’s best restaurant in 2006.

But in 2007 Achatz was struck by events so horrifying and ironic they almost seem unreal: He was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer which threatened to rob him of his sense of taste, and his life.

Miraculously, he found a medical team at the University of Chicago willing to treat him with radiation and chemotherapy instead of amputating his tongue. He beat the cancer, but only after a harrowing struggle. For months he was in so much pain that his assistant would run across the street to get Orajel every night just so he could make it through dinner service.

Achatz and Kokonas recently spoke at the Chicago Public Library to mark the release of their new co-authored memoir, Life, On the Line. They told the story of coping with cancer while trying to run a world-class restaurant, and you can listen to their account in the audio excerpt posted above. Achatz starts by describing the mysterious tongue pain he had for years before he ever received a diagnosis.

This event was moderated by Eric Ferguson from 101.9 The Mix’s Eric & Kathy in the Morning.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas spoke to an audience at the Chicago Public Library in March. Click here to hear the event in its entirety, and click here to subscribe to the Dynamic Range podcast.