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Life, on the Line

A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat

By Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas
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Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas

Life, on the Line (2011) tells the remarkable story of Grant Achatz, a fiercely determined chef whose drive to become the best found him redefining American cuisine before he was even 30 years old. His dreams came true when he opened his own restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago, but just as the awards and accolades came pouring in, a bigger challenge presented itself: he was diagnosed with advanced mouth cancer and faced the possibility of either dying or losing his tongue.

Key idea 1 of 10

Grant grew up working at his family’s restaurant before moving on to culinary school.

At just five years of age, Grant Achatz was already cooking. Well, perhaps stirring a bowl of cherry Jell-O isn’t exactly “cooking,” but food was a big part of Grant’s life for about as long as he can remember.

In fact, Grant grew up in a family that owned a series of successful small-town restaurants.

The first one was the Achatz Cafe, a tiny place in Marine City, Michigan, where, from an early age, Grant was given various jobs.

His responsibilities increased as he got older. He started out peeling vegetables and washing dishes; at the age of ten, he was already happily cooking eggs for regular customers.

In March of 1983, the family upgraded to the Achatz Family Restaurant. A much bigger place, with a capacity of 165, it was an even bigger success. Grant worked there as well, and by the time he was fourteen years old he’d moved up to the position of line cook and was given the responsibility of the opening shift and preparing the restaurant for the day ahead.

So, when Grant left Michigan to attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York City, he was more experienced than most students.

Grant took CIA’s eighteen-month associate degree program, part of which required students to perform an internship at an accredited restaurant. Grant sent out a bunch of letters to different restaurants, but the only response he got landed him at Cygnus, a restaurant at the Amway Hotel in Cedar Rapids, Michigan.

Luckily, Cygnus had a friendly head chef named Jeff Kerr who was willing to show Grant some fundamental techniques, such as how to break down various animals: game birds, fish, and entire pig. On one occasion he even taught him how to make prosciutto.

After three months of preparing soups and salads and taking care of mise en place (the putting together of ingredients for a line cook’s workstation), Grant was already showing great promise.

Chef Kerr took notice and introduced Grant to something that would change his life forever.

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