Life, on the Line

At Alinea, America's best restaurant, the food speaks to more than the tongue. Plates are served on pillows of air that slowly deflate as you eat, the scent they release refining the dish's flavor; the table ornament turns out to be a piece of rice paper inlaid with leaves of marigold, a wrapper for a rich pork belly preparation; the inch of clear liquid at the end of a Champagne flute embodies the spicy sweet of Thai basil and curry. Some bites you eat without your hands, as they dangle from elegant metal. Even the restaurant's entryway seeks to disorient, drawing the diner in on an Escher slant. All the senses are engaged, played with: the eye is shocked, the nose seduced, and finally the tongue and belly simply lie happy. By the end of a meal at Alinea the senses seem retrained, newly calibrated.


Grant Achatz was making this food before he was diagnosed with oral cancer; before the chemotherapy and radiation that saved his life also took his sense of taste; before that sense slowly returned to him. The Oprah-level irony is not lost on him. In his memoir Life, on the Line, he jokingly admits he was expecting the call that eventually came from the famous talk show.  


The deeper ironies though, the ways in which his real life trials oddly mirror the unique experience his art offers, seem to escape the chef. In Life, on the Line, Achatz is unwilling to examine his cancer as a dark journey toward the same light he leads his diners, a light in which the upended senses seem newly opened. He denies us the great drama, the master chef teaching himself what he's taught so many others—how to taste. Much like his food, his withholding here might seem subversive. His food, though, is never so unsatisfying.


Like a line cook in the weeds, Achatz tries to do too much in Life, on the Line, and the finer details suffer. Anecdotes are told in the same style, with the same emphasis, regardless of their importance; every epiphany shares the same momentary glow, so none stands out as truly essential. A long passage that takes Achatz and his mentor Thomas Keller (chef and owner of the former best restaurant in America, The French Laundry) to Hawaii only serves to reinforce a well-established fact: Keller's standards are impossibly high. Less time is spent discussing the moment he found himself breaking from his mentor's aesthetic, the pivotal moment he realized he had to make his own food. Inspired by a trip to elBulli he offers Keller a foamed lobster parfait. Keller agrees to serve it; Achatz realizes it's not really for The French Laundry.


It is in these kinds of passages that Achatz is at his best as a writer, opening up on his creative process and the development of his singular style. The type of food Achatz makes (called molecular gastronomy by many) is dismissed by some as mad science, soulless technique. The chefs grouped under the umbrella use liquid nitrogen and cryovac machines to achieve new textures and to deepen flavors; and some indeed might confuse style for substance. But Achatz never lets his training get in the way of his instinct, in his cooking or his thinking. On a whim he adds hyacinth flowers to scent a seafood dish; tasting it he remembers fishing with his father and eating lunch beside some wildflowers. "Fish and flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but a sentimental one … I began to veer off course and play with ideas of place—rabbit 'in the field' or frog legs 'in the woods'—and of childhood—burning oak leaves, fireside Christmas morning. I recognized that even when a diner did not have an awareness of why these pairings worked, they still stirred their emotions and enhanced their experience." For Achatz, the technical is always in service of the sensual. At least in his cooking.


Awkwardly, a second writer is introduced at the mid-point of Life, on the Line; Nick Kokonas, the main investor in Alinea, helps detail the founding of the restaurant and provides a third-party account of Achatz's cancer treatment. Kokonas is neither a writer nor a chef; even if they share a restaurant, a friendship, and a tin ear for dialogue, Kokonas shares in none of Achatz's genius. It is hard to justify the amount of ink he's been allowed to spill when key creative collaborators are given none.


It's not that Kokonas's stories are particularly boring. It's simply that they're not Achatz's. What makes Life, on the Line worth reading are the moments where a brilliant chef relives the flashes of revelation and invention he transforms into a menu. In those fleeting moments when Achatz writes about his process, he draws you into the mindset you leave his restaurant with—thinking not about food, but how the senses interact.

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