Monday, March 9, 2009

Grant Achatz: Where's Your Movie?

Chef Grant Achatz, photography by Lara Kastner, courtesy of

Nora Ephron is putting the finishing touches on a movie about Julia Child called Julie and Julia. Meryl Streep plays Julia of course, but the movie also stars Amy Adams as the lesser-known Julie Powell, a woman who in 2002 began blogging her daily cooking experiences following each and every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

This is a movie I will surely see, but it got me thinking: Why aren’t there more movies about chefs? A chef certainly sounds more interesting than Greg Kinnear starring in a movie about inventing the intermittent windshield wiper.

Come to think of it, chefs sound a lot more interesting.

In his memoir Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain witnesses a chef shagging a just-married, obliging bride on top of a 55-gallon drum outside of her wedding reception while her unsuspecting groom dances on the other side of the Dutch door. Mario Batali recently took to the stage of a crowd of 400+ in his trademark orange Crocs, and called certain members of an audience “weasel f---wads” paying no mind that the crowd also included the King and Queen of Spain. Masa Takayama charges $350 for a tasting menu, and serves a good portion of his courses raw. Gordon Ramsay calls fellow chefs “f---ing donkeys” and expects a response of, “Yes, chef!” Anthony Bourdain ate the beating heart of a cobra.

Not only are chefs interesting, they boast a work ethic not unlike those found in ER doctors. They put in obscene hours and bear harsh conditions in the name of perfection. They obsess. They operate with little to no sleep. They rarely call out sick and never show up late. In The Seasoning of a Chef, Doug Psaltis recounts unpaid double-shifts at Manhattan’s best restaurants on his “off” days, catching his only shut-eye on the train ride back to his regular cooking gig in Long Island. Eric Ripert relies on 24 surveillance cameras to achieve quality control in Le Bernardin’s kitchen while he is away, knowing it’s his only surefire way to maintain his 3-star Michelin standards from year to year. Thomas Keller knows that a great chef never takes short-cuts at the expense of quality: a fava bean, for instance—each and every one—should be meticulously shelled and peeled before cooking, because to do so after might cause discoloration.

Fascinating, no?

So where’s The Grant Achatz movie?

Michael Ruhlman’s magnificent book The Reach of a Chef first introduced me to Achatz. Achatz is the current chef and owner of Alinea in Chicago, arguably one of the finest restaurants in the world. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and went on to work for Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, and Ferran Adria at El Bulli (for certain the most famous restaurant in the world). It was at El Bulli where Achatz became a disciple and proponent of molecular gastronomy (think hot gelatins, nitrous oxide, and foaming and liquefied foods), and went on to apply these principles to his own restaurant, Alinea.

In 2006, Gourmet Magazine named Alinea the Best Restaurant in the United States. Patrons were treated to ever-evolving, multiple-course tasting menus, where dishes resembled exhibits from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Diners experienced flavor combinations and textures familiar before only in REM sleep.
More fascinating than Achatz’s resume or surreal gastronomy, perhaps, was his decision to continue operating Alinea when he lost all sense of taste in his tongue.

In 2007, while Achatz was enjoying much-deserved success and critical acclaim, he was diagnosed with advanced stage squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth (tongue cancer). “Treatment” involved removing most of his tongue, which would limit speech and make eating incredibly difficult (tasting was a pipe dream). Without immediate treatment, Achatz was told in no uncertain terms he would die.

Achatz refused to accept invasive surgery that would strip him of taste. Using the same work-ethic he applied to his restaurant, he sought options to keep his tongue. Most specialists told him there were none.

Persistence led Achatz to the University of Chicago, where he took part in a clinical trial involving chemotherapy and radiation, treatments not normally advised in head and neck cancer patients. Weeks after the radiation, Achatz completely lost his sense of taste. Through it all, Alinea never shut its doors, and Achatz continued to work, conducting his own Ninth Symphony every night in his kitchen, relying on loyal sous-chefs, and his own sense of sight and smell. His restaurant continued to garner accolades and wow diners with complex and mind-bending dishes.

In December of 2007, Achatz announced his cancer was in full remission. His taste is slowly returning (anybody see him on Top Chef this past season?).

[In D.T. Max’s article “A Man of Taste” published in The New Yorker in May, 2008, Achatz addresses the “Beethoven of the culinary world” analogy, offering up a thoughtful, heart-wrenching response.]

I was about to get on my soapbox and list all the reasons Achatz should have a movie: his extraordinary personal story; a career set against the most exciting backdrops in culinary history; the beautifully weird, sexy, unsettling food he creates (a cinematographer’s paradise). Just look at this image from his cookbook:
Then I was going to throw some directors out there: David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, David Cronenberg—just think what these geniuses could do! As for actors, it’s a shame Christian Bale went all “La dee da dee da” on us (although he’s ripe to play Gordon Ramsay, now, yeh?), but then there’s always that James McAvoy fellow, or even, as my friend suggested, “that hot little boy from Twilight.”

We even have the “blogger” angle: hip, spunky Carol Blymire, who worked her way through the entire French Laundry cookbook with no culinary background, and is now onto Alinea. (Her blogging is as hilarious as her project is mammoth).


As I was planning on saying all of the above, a friend (the same one who gave me a copy of Kitchen Confidential) sent me the following link:

My first thought was someone had hacked into my computer and stolen my brilliant idea.

But then I just rolled with, “Right on.”

Achatz will actually be starring in this film, directed documentary-style by R.J. Cutler (The War Room). I unearthed a quote from Achatz in about the upcoming project: “There’s the Gordon Ramsays and Anthony Bourdains who show the underbelly of restaurants, but to have a film and sit down for an hour and a half and show you the triumphs and the failures, I think it can be really exciting. It’s something I would like to watch. But I’m a little biased.”


  1. I feel a road trip coming on. I want to go to Chicago and try his tasting menu!

  2. Sharon, you are so right. Where is the movie. This is Academy material. A modern day Beethoven. we need more heroes in today's world!

  3. Your most in-depth blog entry yet. Very, very well-written and lively. I had no idea that Grant Achatz survived tongue cancer and still operated his restaurant during his treatment. Then again, I guess I wasn't that familiar with Grant Achatz at all until now. I especially like your quote: "Diners experienced flavor combinations and textures familiar before only in REM sleep."

  4. I think Mr. Achatz may be my new hero! Thank you, Sharon, for bringing his story to your blog. I look forward to more "biography" pieces. I would also like to try the tasting menu in Chicago...and I actually have family there!