Many wonderful things can be said about Grant Achatz. He is an amazing chef, a revolutionary entrepreneur, a cancer survivor, and a driven human being with a thirst for greatness. Unfortunately for his book, Life, on the Line, a great writer isn’t one of them. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad read as long as you keep in mind that Achatz’s main focus is food… not words.
If you don’t know his story, it is a compelling one. Achatz was ridiculously young when he landed a job at French Laundry (one of the top restaurants in the nation at the time) and then was still ridiculously young when he launched his own restaurant in Chicago, Alinea (which has subsequently become the top restaurant in the nation). And, yes, he was also pretty young when he was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. (Shout out to my former employer, the University of Chicago Hospitals… er Medical Center, where Achatz received some pretty aggressive treatment that not only saved his life, but also his tongue and sense of taste.)
Without being too melodramatic, there usually isn’t any coming back from the form of cancer Achatz had. At the best, you lose your tongue and parts of your jaw along with your ability to speak and eat. At the worst, well… you get the idea. So, the crack staff at U of C really did some miraculous work. A chef who faces losing the very sense he relies on most for his career. The irony isn’t lost on Achatz (you know this, because he mentions that it isn’t lost on him several times).
If you’re interested in the story of how Achatz faces his cancer, you’re not going to find it until about three-fourths of the way from the end. If you’re interested in what influenced him to start Alinea, skip ahead to chapter 12. In fact, the first 12 chapters read a bit like listening to a 5 year old tell a story. “And, then I did this. And, then I did this. And, then we went here.” But, then Achatz lands at French Laundry, and he comes out of his shell a bit as an author. You can tell that food is what drives him. The rest is just getting the story sorted out.
The remainder of the book is about his journey from California to Trio in Evanston and then to Alinea. Interspersed with Achatz’s narrative, Nick Kokonas (his partner in Alinea) tells his view of how they built the restaurant. It’s an interesting story, but the telling is a bit dry—even when taken over by the much easier to read to Kokonas. And, when there is dialogue, it can be painful to read. (As a side note, I really wonder what the draft versions of this memoir looked like before they landed on the editor’s desk. Because either the authors were saddled with an indescribably lackadaisical editor or this manuscript was one bleeding mess.)
Overall, the book felt guarded and cautious. It’s as if Achatz said, “I’m going to let you in, but you only get a peek.” For me, if you’re going to write a book about your life, you’re pretty much throwing the doors open for a public viewing. If you don’t want that scrutiny, don’t bother writing a book. Of course, there were some bold moments: When his girlfriend gave birth to their second child and he went back to work the next day. I have to say, Mr. Achatz, to openly write about that kind of douche baggery is daring. If my husband went back to work after I gave birth, I don’t care what sort of revolutionary food prep he was up to in his kitchen, he wouldn’t be setting foot back in mine anytime soon.
I guess I had just hoped for something more from Life, on the Line. I mean, if your subtitle is “A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat,” I had hoped for a bit more of an epic tale. Instead, I got an OK read and a wee bit of a glimpse of what behind-the-scenes culinary genius looks like.