Meeting News

World-renowned chef, cancer survivor encourages dermatologists to push the envelope

Grant Achatz
Grant Achatz

CHICAGO — For world-renowned chef Grant Achatz, attaining the title of best restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine was his second greatest challenge compared with fighting the stage IV tongue cancer which nearly cost him his life.

Achatz, who has received accolades for his one-of-a-kind molecular gastronomy from the James Beard Foundation and Time Magazine among others, was the guest speaker here at the opening session of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery annual meeting.

“You may be wondering why they invited a chef to give the keynote,” Achatz said. “Aside from my cancer history, I think more importantly, there’s some more creative parallels to what you and I do. I may use a knife a little bit differently than you all, but I think there’s some core foundational elements that we all share.”

Finding his culinary voice

He was raised in a small farming community in Michigan where his parents owned and operated a diner. His tenure in the kitchen began by washing pots and pans while standing on a milkcrate at a young age. Working at the diner taught him that through cooking, he helped provide people with a sense of community.

Achatz graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. From there, he cooked in Napa, California for 4 years. There he solidified a foundational principle of his cooking: that food can tell a story.

“I can make you laugh. I can tell a narrative, make you intimidated, food can evoke elements of nostalgia ... it’s a very powerful tool,” he added. “Now, I was very confident that I could cook, and I had a very strong vision of what I wanted my culinary voice to be.”

At age 26 he decided he wanted to run his own kitchen; he wanted carte-blanche to do the avant-garde cooking that interested him. In 2001 he began cooking “very strange things” like beef scented with tobacco, making food clear or float in the air at a restaurant called Tria.

Proving the critics wrong

In 2004, he was ready for a bigger platform for his work, so he moved to Chicago to create Alinea at age 29.

“I wanted to change fine dining and literally change the landscape of eating in the country and hopefully the world — that was my ambition since I was a child — to own the best restaurant in the country,” Achatz said.

Two weeks after opening night, a full page spread in the New York Times called his cooking “smoke and mirrors.” A famous Chicago chef was quoted saying his food was “nonsense upon stilts” and that in a year Alinea would be closed.

At the time, Gourmet Magazine published a list of the 50 top restaurants in the country every 5 years. Its former editor, Ruth Reichl dined at Alinea in 2006. A month later nothing happened, there was no article.

Finally, he received a phone call from Reichl who said she was naming Alinea the best restaurant in the country.

“We are only a year in, and my dreams have come through,” Achatz said. “We dispelled the notion that only good food could happen on the coasts.”

A small dot that was life changing

While on a personal note, something was nagging him. Since his days at Tria he had a white dot on his tongue, which progressively worsened.

Eventually, it became very temperature sensitive, and it was getting hard for him to chew and swallow. After seeing two dentists about a year apart, it continued to get worse, and the experts told him not to worry and chalked it up to stress.

A year and a half after his first dentist visit, someone suggested he seek another opinion from an oral surgeon.

After tests and a biopsy, the doctor was nearly in tears with this prognosis: Achatz had stage IVB squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, it had metastasized into both sides of the neck and into the lymph nodes. The doctor recommended removal of the majority of his tongue, radical neck dissection and gave him about a 30% chance of survival.

“The doctor tells me I won’t be able to talk or taste and I’ll lose the ability to do what I love,” Achatz added.

He then sought opinions from other medical institutions in New York, Chicago and Texas.

“So now I’m faced with the choice of either dying or I could potentially live for a little longer but not be able to do what I love,” he continued. “At 33 years old, cooking, running the restaurant and changing gastronomy were the only things I cared about. I was done, I was giving up.”

A clinical trial at the University of Chicago

Three days later, Alinea released a press release at the request of Achatz’s business partner to alert the culinary world to his health concerns. Two days following the release, the University of Chicago called and claimed to have a different treatment to offer.

Achatz explained the meeting with University of Chicago, “a doctor there said, ‘we have a clinical trial. We think about medicine the way you think about food, we push boundaries, we break apart the existing model and we put it back together in a more meaningful way. Instead of going in with the knife first, we’re going to give you radiation treatments and chemotherapy and then maybe, we’ll have to cut. We think that this is the path of organ preservation and quality of life that might help you hang on to your passion.”

A week into radiation therapy, it became clear that he would lose his ability to taste. He continued to work through treatment and learned to trust his sous chefs for their sense of taste. If a dish needed more salt or vinegar, he had to rely on them.

“It was humbling. It was sad for me, but we kept going,” he said.

A year after treatment, he was pronounced cancer free although swallowing was still difficult and he had lost weight.

Sweet was the first taste that returned which he tasted in his morning coffee, loaded with sugar for the calories. Later, he regained the taste of salt. Each taste came back to him slowly, in bits and pieces.

Today, Achatz has a few more restaurants in Chicago and a medical team at the University of Chicago working to keep him healthy.

“Five years ago, I was back in the same situation. Doctors at the University of Chicago are watching me like a hawk,” Achatz said.

His care team encouraged him to see a dermatologist due to his skin tone and regular vacations in the Caribbean.

The dermatologist found an early invasive melanoma. This time it was caught early due to diligence and patient advocacy, and it was surgically removed.

“When we look at cooking creatively, trying to do something new and special, I find that there are all these similarities in medicine. In order for us to move forward, I encourage everyone to look at things differently; there’s probably always a better way.” – by Abigail Sutton

 

Reference:

Achatz G. Keynote speaker. Presented at: American Society for Dermatologic Surgery Annual Meeting; Oct. 24-27, 2019; Chicago.

 

Disclosure: Achatz reports no relevant financial disclosures.

 

Grant Achatz
Grant Achatz

CHICAGO — For world-renowned chef Grant Achatz, attaining the title of best restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine was his second greatest challenge compared with fighting the stage IV tongue cancer which nearly cost him his life.

Achatz, who has received accolades for his one-of-a-kind molecular gastronomy from the James Beard Foundation and Time Magazine among others, was the guest speaker here at the opening session of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery annual meeting.

“You may be wondering why they invited a chef to give the keynote,” Achatz said. “Aside from my cancer history, I think more importantly, there’s some more creative parallels to what you and I do. I may use a knife a little bit differently than you all, but I think there’s some core foundational elements that we all share.”

Finding his culinary voice

He was raised in a small farming community in Michigan where his parents owned and operated a diner. His tenure in the kitchen began by washing pots and pans while standing on a milkcrate at a young age. Working at the diner taught him that through cooking, he helped provide people with a sense of community.

Achatz graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. From there, he cooked in Napa, California for 4 years. There he solidified a foundational principle of his cooking: that food can tell a story.

“I can make you laugh. I can tell a narrative, make you intimidated, food can evoke elements of nostalgia ... it’s a very powerful tool,” he added. “Now, I was very confident that I could cook, and I had a very strong vision of what I wanted my culinary voice to be.”

At age 26 he decided he wanted to run his own kitchen; he wanted carte-blanche to do the avant-garde cooking that interested him. In 2001 he began cooking “very strange things” like beef scented with tobacco, making food clear or float in the air at a restaurant called Tria.

Proving the critics wrong

In 2004, he was ready for a bigger platform for his work, so he moved to Chicago to create Alinea at age 29.

“I wanted to change fine dining and literally change the landscape of eating in the country and hopefully the world — that was my ambition since I was a child — to own the best restaurant in the country,” Achatz said.

PAGE BREAK

Two weeks after opening night, a full page spread in the New York Times called his cooking “smoke and mirrors.” A famous Chicago chef was quoted saying his food was “nonsense upon stilts” and that in a year Alinea would be closed.

At the time, Gourmet Magazine published a list of the 50 top restaurants in the country every 5 years. Its former editor, Ruth Reichl dined at Alinea in 2006. A month later nothing happened, there was no article.

Finally, he received a phone call from Reichl who said she was naming Alinea the best restaurant in the country.

“We are only a year in, and my dreams have come through,” Achatz said. “We dispelled the notion that only good food could happen on the coasts.”

A small dot that was life changing

While on a personal note, something was nagging him. Since his days at Tria he had a white dot on his tongue, which progressively worsened.

Eventually, it became very temperature sensitive, and it was getting hard for him to chew and swallow. After seeing two dentists about a year apart, it continued to get worse, and the experts told him not to worry and chalked it up to stress.

A year and a half after his first dentist visit, someone suggested he seek another opinion from an oral surgeon.

After tests and a biopsy, the doctor was nearly in tears with this prognosis: Achatz had stage IVB squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, it had metastasized into both sides of the neck and into the lymph nodes. The doctor recommended removal of the majority of his tongue, radical neck dissection and gave him about a 30% chance of survival.

“The doctor tells me I won’t be able to talk or taste and I’ll lose the ability to do what I love,” Achatz added.

He then sought opinions from other medical institutions in New York, Chicago and Texas.

“So now I’m faced with the choice of either dying or I could potentially live for a little longer but not be able to do what I love,” he continued. “At 33 years old, cooking, running the restaurant and changing gastronomy were the only things I cared about. I was done, I was giving up.”

PAGE BREAK

A clinical trial at the University of Chicago

Three days later, Alinea released a press release at the request of Achatz’s business partner to alert the culinary world to his health concerns. Two days following the release, the University of Chicago called and claimed to have a different treatment to offer.

Achatz explained the meeting with University of Chicago, “a doctor there said, ‘we have a clinical trial. We think about medicine the way you think about food, we push boundaries, we break apart the existing model and we put it back together in a more meaningful way. Instead of going in with the knife first, we’re going to give you radiation treatments and chemotherapy and then maybe, we’ll have to cut. We think that this is the path of organ preservation and quality of life that might help you hang on to your passion.”

A week into radiation therapy, it became clear that he would lose his ability to taste. He continued to work through treatment and learned to trust his sous chefs for their sense of taste. If a dish needed more salt or vinegar, he had to rely on them.

“It was humbling. It was sad for me, but we kept going,” he said.

A year after treatment, he was pronounced cancer free although swallowing was still difficult and he had lost weight.

Sweet was the first taste that returned which he tasted in his morning coffee, loaded with sugar for the calories. Later, he regained the taste of salt. Each taste came back to him slowly, in bits and pieces.

Today, Achatz has a few more restaurants in Chicago and a medical team at the University of Chicago working to keep him healthy.

“Five years ago, I was back in the same situation. Doctors at the University of Chicago are watching me like a hawk,” Achatz said.

His care team encouraged him to see a dermatologist due to his skin tone and regular vacations in the Caribbean.

The dermatologist found an early invasive melanoma. This time it was caught early due to diligence and patient advocacy, and it was surgically removed.

“When we look at cooking creatively, trying to do something new and special, I find that there are all these similarities in medicine. In order for us to move forward, I encourage everyone to look at things differently; there’s probably always a better way.” – by Abigail Sutton

 

Reference:

Achatz G. Keynote speaker. Presented at: American Society for Dermatologic Surgery Annual Meeting; Oct. 24-27, 2019; Chicago.

 

Disclosure: Achatz reports no relevant financial disclosures.

 

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