Grant Achatz Wins 2008 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Award

Written with Great Respect and Admiration for Grant Achatz

Grant Achatz: Alinea Restaurant (Chicago)

Grant Achatz Wins The 2008 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Award

Chicago’s Acclaimed Alinea Restaurant

Chicago’s Grant Achatz Wins The James Beard Foundations’ Best Chef Award

Chicago’s Grant Achatz, 34, won The James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in America award on Sunday night, capping an intense year during which he courageously battled oral cancer and saved both his tongue and his career. Achatz had previously won James Beard Foundation awards for Rising Star Chef in 2002 and 2003, and for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region last year. The award winners were announced Sunday evening at the annual awards ceremony, which took place at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

Achatz, whose reputation as a molecular gastronomist, is the Chef/Co-Owner of Chicago’s Alinea Restaurant, arguably one of the best restaurants in the United States. Alinea opened in Chicago three years ago and is known for Achatz’s inventive techniques and fanciful presentations. When Gourmet Magazine named Alinea the top restaurant in its 2006 List of America’s Best Restaurants, the influential food critic Ruth Reichl praised Achatz and his food, putting him in the forefront as America’s next great chef.

The James Beard Foundation Awards are acknowledged to be “The Oscars” of the food world, and they honor those who are felt to be following in the footsteps of James Beard, who was considered to be the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985. The James Beard Foundation is dedicated to celebrating, preserving, and nurturing America’s culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence. A cookbook author and teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge about food, James Beard was a champion of American cuisine. He helped educate and mentor generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. Today, The Beard Foundation continues in the same spirit by administering a number of diverse programs, which include educational initiatives, food industry awards, scholarships to culinary schools and publications. The Foundation also maintains the historic James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village as a “performance space” for visiting chefs.

Achatz Battles Cancer: The Will to Survive

A year ago, Achatz’s tongue suddenly had become so severely swollen that he was not able to speak clearly, and he lost much of his sense of taste. Stage 4 squamous cell cancer on his tongue was diagnosed. Doctors wanted to operate immediately, to cut out three-quarters of his tongue in order to save his life. “That’s not gonna’ happen,” Achatz muttered, too stunned to say anymore.

At first, Achatz considered seeking treatment in secret, but he realized that the news would inevitably get out to the restaurant world and, from there, to the gourmet crowd and then to the critics. Recognizing that there was no way to really keep it private, soon afterward Achatz told his co-workers at Alinea, some of whom immediately went into the alley behind the restaurant and just cried. Public accounts of Achatz’s battle against cancer have seldom touched upon the fact that he is a truly kind and emotionally generous man.

However, instead of accepting a fate that would have ended his career, he consulted with cancer specialists at The University of Chicago Medical Center and embarked upon an aggressive, if unproven, cancer treatment. Instead of the standard therapy that begins with the surgical removal of the tumor, which is then followed by radiation and chemotherapy, they would reverse the order. Aggressive chemotherapy, using promising new drugs, would be followed by radiation to shrink and kill the tumor. If surgery did become necessary later, it would be less radical.

They warned Achatz that it would be very difficult for him. His tongue would burn from the radiation, and he would probably lose his taste for a year. His face would turn into a hot red rash, he would have to wear a burn mask and would temporarily lose his hair. Just to be safe they would have to remove his lymph nodes.

But instead of surgically removing most of his tongue, the University of Chicago oncologist offered another choice, saying that there was a 70 percent chance he would be cured. “Where do I sign?” Achatz asked.

During the following months of treatment, Achatz’s face burned, he couldn’t swallow, his mouth became a raging mass of pain and he spent nights throwing up pieces of burnt skin. It was emotional torture for Achatz to stay away from his restaurant. Though he often drove straight to work after treatment, there were days he simply couldn’t let staff members or customers see how sick he was.

Even the doctors marveled at Achatz’s stoicism and resilience. He remained an outpatient, even during the worst of days. He refused a feeding tube, forcing himself to swallow, no matter what, because his doctors said that would speed up his recovery. This past mid-December, Achatz returned to the hospital for a final checkup. He still couldn’t taste, and his immune system was spent. He needed physical therapy, speech therapy, swallowing therapy and it would probably be a year before he would feel normal again.

But the scans were clear. The cancer was gone.

Achatz Speaks of Survival in His Award Acceptance Remarks

Achatz told the large crowd representing members of the food world’s elite who had gathered for the awards that he credits the lessons learned when he was 22 years old and working at the renowned French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville (CA) with teaching him not just how to cook, but also how to survive. Those lessons were going to “make me a good cook and ultimately a great chef. What I didn’t know was that it was actually going to save my life,” he said. “That drive, that tenacity, that dedication that I took in at that restaurant…it became a part of who I am 12 years later and helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle.”

During his acceptance comments, Achatz thanked the many chefs in the audience for their offers to help during his battle with cancer. “I didn’t let any of them come to the restaurant and cook as they suggested. I couldn’t do that to the cooks,” he said with a laugh.

During his treatment, Achatz not only barely stopped working at Alinea, but he also continued writing his cookbook on his laptop in the hospital. With Achatz’s health now much improved, he is planning to publish the cookbook in September and to open a second restaurant in Chicago

In an article here last August, I reported this tenderly sad note that had been written by Phil Vettell in The Chicago Tribune, at the time when Achatz’s diagnosis had just became known to the general public:

“Grant Achatz, the young superstar chef whose restaurant, Alinea, is ranked among the very best in the world, announced that he has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. In layman’s terms, that’s a malignant cancer that has spread. It is life-threatening. The treatment, which Achatz says will be aggressive, won’t be pleasant.

I remain, and will remain, actively and optimistically engaged in operations at Alinea to the largest extent possible,” Achatz said in an email that’s still reverberating in the fine-dining world.

For anyone, this diagnosis would be terrible news. For an energetic, hands-on chef who’s never out of his kitchen, an illness affecting his mouth — and by extension, his sense of taste — followed by treatment whose side effects are often debilitating, gives this news a particularly awful poignancy.

In the fine-dining world, we carelessly use tragedy to describe a fallen souffle or a slump in business. Today, we received a heart-wrenching reminder of what that word really means.

Our thoughts, hopes and prayers go out to Achatz and his extended Alinea family.”

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