My grandfather, John Henry Peoples, died of colon cancer at the age of 72. His son, my father, died of brain cancer at the age of 55, in 1987.
I’ve already been to a dermatologist twice. In 1999, I had a biopsy for something that ended up being nothing more than an “age spot” that disappeared with a cream treatment. Last year, I found out that the spot on my scalp was “actinic keratosis”, a common pre-cancerous growth caused by the sun’s UV rays. It was froze off.
However, in 2002, I had a scarier experience when my doctor discovered a mass in my scrotum. An ultrasound concluded that it was testicular calcification, which affects about 2.4% of American men, mostly white. While there is no treatment for it, there’s not enough evidence to conclude that it might lead to testicular cancer.
As I approach my 50th birthday this October, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t think about getting cancer.
With my family history and my own scares, I wouldn’t be shocked to develop cancer one day. If that diagnosis ever comes, I now have Grant Achatz to look to for inspiration and courage.
Many of you probably haven’t heard the name.
I didn’t know who Grant Achatz was until I saw an article in the April 2011 “Men’s Health” magazine about how to make the ultimate burger. Since I don’t eat beef, I likely read the article because he was attractive and that stopped me long enough from flipping through the magazine to read the feature.
However, I didn’t even read this magazine article until a couple of years later. (Yes, a stack of magazines sat in my closet that long before I got around to them.)
And, this spring, I finally read his 2011 book, “life, on the line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat”. While I loved Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On” that I read earlier this year, Grant’s book is hands down the best autobiographical book I’ve ever read!
From the title of the book, you probably gather that he almost died.
The book doesn’t waste anytime going there with Grant describing how he was peeling out his inner throat in the book’s first written page in the preface. You were drawn in and were rooting so hard for this young man to beat the odds.
I promise I’ll get to the point of my blog and how Grant’s book touched and inspired me, but I want you to see what this young, amazing man accomplished in a short period of time.
I loved reading about his early life of being raised in his family’s restaurant business in Michigan and jello being the first food he learned to make. He then became a line cook as a teenager, went on to the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1993, and did his six-month externship at a hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Grant would be welcomed back there after his externship and then he thought he was ready to experience Chicago where he worked for renowned chef Charlie Trotter for a couple of months.
With the high pressure environment and degradation from Trotter to his chefs, it didn’t end the way Grant thought it would. When he left Trotter’s restaurant, Trotter told Grant that since he didn’t last a year, that Grant couldn’t use the famed chef as a reference and that he “simply would not exist” to Trotter.
He went back home dismayed and planned a trip to Europe with his girlfriend at the time, Cindy. They saw London and Paris, where they ate at “3 Michelin stars” restaurants and Grant was disappointed. They traveled on to Rome, Venice, and Florence.
It was at a winery that featured a little bistro-like eatery where Grant said he had the “best meal of my life” and it was there that he realized the one thing that every restaurant needed: passion.
Grant came back from Europe with passion and he landed a four-year stint at chef Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry” in California’s Napa Valley.
While there, Grant worked his way up from an entry-level position to sous-chef, the second-in-command and direct assistant to Chef Keller.
He took a position as the Executive Chef at Trio, located outside of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. In his three years there, Grant took the restaurant from a four-star Mobil Travel Guide to a five-star rating.
But, he wanted more and in May 2005, he opened his own restaurant, Alinea, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The 64-seat restaurant quickly earned rave reviews for featuring a small tasting menu with about 18 or so courses.
The food that Grant and his team created were nothing short of gastronomical art.
I could just sit and stare at Grant’s incredible creations for hours. Actually, I did with Grant’s hardcover coffee table book, Alinea, which features more than a hundred of his recipes and photographs.
One of Alinea’s first major achievements was being named “Best Restaurant in America” by Gourmet Magazine.
This would be followed by the AAA Five Diamond Award (2007-2014), the Jean Banchet Award for Best Celebrity Chef and Best Fine Dining (2007), the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef (2008), the “3 Michelin stars” in 2011 and 2013, and countless other awards.
Grant’s dreams of opening his own restaurant were made possible by Nick Kokonas, a regular customer with his wife, Dagmara, at Trio, the restaurant that brought Grant to the Chicago area. Nick was so impressed with Grant that he defied his friends’ advice of investing in a restaurant since so many fail.
Grant and Nick’s business partnership with Alinea also developed into a strong friendship and that friendship would end up saving Grant’s life.
Before moving to Chicago in 2001, Grant had a health scare while he was living in California. Doctors thought it might have meningitis, but it wasn’t.
In early 2004, Grant noticed a small white bump on his tongue that wouldn’t go away and the accompanying pain became more intense over the next few months. He finally had a biopsy done and it came back negative.
One day, after not seeing his business partner for days, Nick came into the restaurant and Grant looked very sick and he told Nick of the pain that his tongue was causing him. When Grant showed Nick his tongue, Nick instantly knew there was a problem and demanded that he go see an oral surgeon.
On July 13, 2007, Grant was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. The man who was making a career of creating the most exquisite dishes was faced with two dire realities: an invasive, destructive, and painful surgery that would take away 75% of his tongue or death.
I shed many tears reading Grant and Nick’s accounts of the fear and the sadness they both felt after the diagnosis and Grant facing the fact that he was dying. My heart was breaking for this young man (only 33-years-old) and his two small sons, Kaden and Keller.
After meeting with specialists in New York City and Chicago, including the surgeon that operated on famed movie critic, Roger Ebert, for thyroid and salivary cancer, the news wasn’t good for Grant.
Ebert knew the hell that Grant faced with battling cancer and having part of his jaw removed. Ebert’s surgeon, Dr. Harold Pelzer, recommended that Grant have surgery. However, Dr. Pelzer did mention another surgeon, Dr. Everett Vokes, at the University of Chicago, that had a less conventional approach to surgery.
Dr. Vokes was working on clinical trials that avoided surgery as the first option. Instead, chemotherapy would be administered first, along with a medication that would interfere with the cancer growing and spreading throughout the body. That would be followed by radiation, which was intense, devastating and painful.
The non-conventional approach worked and in December 2007, Grant’s cancer was in remission.
Cancer has touched all of our lives.
Whether you’re living with it or you’re a survivor, whether you know someone who is living with it or is a survivor, or if you’ve lost a loved one to cancer, “life, on the line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat” is the most honest, encouraging, thoughtful, and touching book I’ve ever read.
If I ever develop cancer, I hope I have the courage of Grant Achatz, a friend like Nick Kokonas, and a visionary like Dr. Everett Vokes.
I hope that Grant lives a long and healthy life and that he keeps making gastronomical art in his kitchens. And, since I only live three hours from Chicago, I hope one day to visit Alinea to view the work of this culinary genius in person.