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BOOKS: Chef Memoirs, Grant Achatz and Gabrielle Hamilton

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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, on Time’s 2011 list of 100 most influential people (Gotham Books/Penguin)
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House)

Chef’s Memoirs 

Both Gabrielle Hamilton (chef/owner Prune) and Grant Achatz (chef/owner Alinea, and Next) devote intense passages in their memoirs to cleaning out the abandoned hulls of former restaurants before they can get down to business. Of her first viewing of what would become Prune, Hamilton writes in Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef “It looked like the restaurant had desperately done business right up until 12:01 a.m., when the city marshal came and padlocked the place, leaving the coolers full of lamb shanks, dairy, and creme brulees…The pastry station had black shriveled pastry in the coolers, and the espresso machine had hard, spent pucks of powder fossilized into the ports…When I opened a door on the saute station reach-in refrigerator, I was hit by a blast of fetid warm air coming from decomposed lamb shanks and chicken carcasses. There were legions of living cockroaches.”

Achatz writes in Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat  about a family restaurant space his parents bought for a successful expansion in 1983, “I helped my parents clean the filthy kitchen and declared the walk-in refrigerator my personal project…The previous owner had only been gone one day, but what I found there made it seem like it had been months. Five-gallon pickle buckets sat one-quarter full of tomato sauce with a thick moldy crust on the surface. Iceberg lettuce heads were liquefying  in the cardboard box they came in. Then I came upon a partially unwrapped hotel pan of what seemed to be a meatlike substance that smelled so bad I ran out of the cooler to keep from vomiting…The smell haunts me to this day. Some people just don’t have standards.”

These accounts demonstrate what readers familiar with their work already know: these chefs aren’t afraid of hard work; they don’t ask their crews to do anything they wouldn’t do; and restaurant life isn’t nearly as glamorous as the current celebrity chef culture would have you believe. Along their career paths, both chefs put in educational stints in hotel/catering line work in the Midwest (Hamilton gets her writing MFA from the University of Michigan; Achatz grew up in Michigan and did his CIA externship at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids). In their young, formative years, they both experience the best food of their lives in the Italian countryside (unfortunately those passages are the stuff cliches are made of and invariably involve — as they do in all culinary lore — some Italian grandmother stewing up white beans on a rusty grate in the middle of a nowhere hillside.).

But those wreckage-cleaning passages also underscores in a profound way something that neither memoir spends very much explicit time on, and that is the fact that most restaurants fail. Sometimes they fail in the dead of night, and the owners are never heard from again; some just quietly wither on the vine until a Starbucks comes along to use the space.  Most chefs — even those who work very hard and put in those back-breaking early years — will never get their own place, much less a James Beard nomination, or a spot on Oprah or Martha Stewart. Many will be lucky to get a gig opening and re-heating the riblets at Applebee’s.

To say that these two chefs beat the odds, is an understatement of what the odds were in the first place. The “why” is what makes their stories compelling.

Gabrielle Hamilton grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the child of wildly dramatic parents (an ex-ballerina and a set designer) who abruptly divorced in her tweens. Of their creative, artsy, left of mainstream childhood she writes, “Most people ate Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks and Kraft macaroni and cheese and Oscar Mayer bologna, but we ate coq au vin, sesame bread sticks, and le puy lentils for less money than the store-bought stuff.” But everything goes off the rails when her parents split. “It probably took over a year, or almost two, to dismantle the family. But I was eleven turning twelve, and I felt as if I fell asleep by the lamb pit one night and woke up the next morning to an empty house, a bare cupboard, the leftover debris of a wild and brilliant party, and only half an inch of Herbal Essence left in the bottle on the ledge in the shower.” From there, she embarks on confused teen years of shoplifting, stealing cars, and drugs, supplemented by dishwashing and waiting tables. She then discovers the lucrative and illegal “sidework” that accompanies cocktail waitressing in a bar culture based on a cash economy. She writes, “I took home more than ninety thousand dollars that year and spent most of it on drugs.” Ultimately, she’s busted for the elaborate cons, but escapes serious punishment when the bar owners decline to press charges when her real age — seventeen and selling alcohol — comes to light.

She manages five semesters of college before dropping out, forming a nascent identity of sorts as “a staunch Marxist feminist, a budding lesbian, a black nationalist sympathizer, and a literary advocate.” She eventually graduates from college on the third try and “stopped stealing things,” followed by “ten years as a grunt putting together a living as a freelancer in New York City catering kitchens.” After twenty years of kitchen work (counting the adolescent diner dishwashing), and a few Thoreauvian summers cooking for a children’s camp, she lands at University of Michigan’s MFA program with a lifetime of notebooks, where she immediately acquires a kitchen job, working for Misty, who would become a mentor. “My resolve to start a new kitchen-free life was further weakening in the direct warmth of Misty’s home style of cooking, her bumpy, misshapen tomatoes ripening on the back steps, her cabbages shredded and broken down with salt and vinegar…Unwittingly, she was untethering me from my ten-pound knife kit, propane torches, and ring molds.”

When she returns to New York with her girlfriend, her first disclaimer is, “I was not looking to open a restaurant. That was never on my mind.” But on the strength of 20 years in the kitchen and her hostel travel (which she sometimes refers to as “hostile”) of Europe, she creates Prune in the East Village, where “there would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.” It thrives. Prune does “almost $2 million a year in sales.” She writes, “I know that is nothing compared to my colleagues who have hundred-seat restaurants and four branches, but for an independent, thirty-seat ‘joint,’ with no single wine over $39, I am very proud of this volume.” Her stories glow with this pride.

The final, less interesting, third of the book is devoted to her path as a mother and wife, having come “to possess, of all things, a husband. This didn’t make sense for the longest time, to anyone, myself included, but that was before I had met his Italian mother.” But even though she makes a compelling case for falling in love with his extended Italian family and the summers they spend at the family’s shabby-chic, formerly grand Italian villa (“in Puglia, at the tip of the Italian boot heel”), she never quite addresses how a self-professed lesbian (with a live-in girlfriend) ends up in a decidedly odd marriage to a fairly traditional scientist, complete with two children. They don’t live together, and he did need a green card, but still. She refuses to see her mother for decades, and surprisingly finds her demystified once she packs her husband and children into the Volvo to go visit her in Vermont — but the 20 years of anger and rage and bitterness that she alludes to assumes the reader is in on a Hatred she never fully (or even partially) explains.

The family chapters are the ones that scream Writers’ Workshop and MFA, but the food narratives hold up with some of the best.  “Everyone thinks cooking is ‘fun.’ Everyone who doesn’t do it professionally thinks it’s fun. And it is fun, but not for the same reasons they think it will be. They think it’s the same as trying out a new recipe for brownies like you do at home, with the radio on.”

She is nominated for the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef New York City (a triumph, given her aversion to consistently being labeled one of New York’s “Best Women Chefs.”) Her Beard on Books talk at this year’s JBF has been rescheduled for April 27 at 2:30 pm.

By now, everyone knows Grant Achatz’s story, superbly chronicled in the Chicago Tribune, a story that is often distilled to “Alinea’s award-winning young chef/owner nearly dies of tongue cancer.” Of all things. It was such a cinematic and cosmically unfair story, his battle frequently made the real news, not just the food news. He just made Time Magazine’s 2011 100 most influential people list, and the profile’s written by none other than Chef Thomas Keller. The famed French Laundry visionary says that the world has many cooks, “but not many chefs in the true sense of the word,” and he believes Achatz is a chef.

His memoir, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat (with its far too-long subtitle) tells the rest of his complex story, or at least more of it than the headlines do.

Achatz started cooking in the family restaurants at the age of 5. By the time he’d graduated from the C.I.A., he infamously earned a spot in Charlie Trotter’s Chicago kitchen — infamous because he quickly abandoned it as a bad fit and Trotter told the young chef that he didn’t exist with anything less than a year on his line, and he certainly wouldn’t be allowed to use it on a resume. (Technically, perhaps he didn’t, but he’s certainly told everyone about it, and now there’s the book.)

His next tutelage under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry (interrupted briefly by a foray into winemaking) launched his career, including a brief  “stage” at el Bulli, which was then setting the stage for what would come to be known — for better and for worse — as molecular gastronomy. When he left Keller to run his own kitchen at Trio in Illinois, he said, “I want to create an experience that is based on emotions. I want people to be excited, happy, curious, surprised, intrigued, and even bewildered during the meal.” (Trio is where he ended up with the famed “essence” of pepperoni pizza — “the visual pun of a tiny, tiny stamp of food packed with so much flavor was a great riff on the bad rap that haute cuisine has among some people: tiny portions.” This is, no doubt, precisely the sort of “intellectual” fare Hamilton is mocking in her memoir, but there’s no doubt that Achatz knows what he’s doing.)

Though the preface includes the usual obligatory disclaimers, Achatz refreshingly names names, starting with Charlie Trotter; on through Thomas Keller; Ruth Reichl (who gave Achatz’s career a boon at both French Laundry and Alinea);  William Rice; Dana Cowin; David Shaw; Frank Bruni (who screwed Achatz by reviewing Alinea’s opening night); John Mariana (pre-kickback scandal exposure) who wrote his review notes on one of Alinea’s hand-constructed steel-crafted wine lists; and a promising French Laundry extern (Richard Blais, who went on to become 2011’s Top Chef). The intern who ruined the crab mixture “that was the filling for the clear lemon raviolist garnishing the snapper dish” on Trio’s first night of service? That was Jesse. “He simply decided not to pick them [the shells] out.” That was July 7, 2001. 

Along the way, Achatz lives with a fellow French Laundry alum he doesn’t love but eventually briefly marries, and has one accidental, inadvertent son with her, and then a second (named Keller), almost as if he didn’t know what caused the first one. He admits to being a lousy husband, and probably isn’t winning any father-of-the-year awards, acknowledging a tendency to “compartmentalize” (the second son is conveniently born on a Monday, when all fine dining is shuttered). But as a chef, he was gathering momentum. Food & Wine magazine named him one of the best new chefs in America, and he won the James Beard “Rising Star” chef award.

At Trio, he meets Nick Kokonas, the man who will invest and find the funding for Achatz’s dream,  Alinea (translating to “a new train of thought”). At this point in the book (nearly 200 pages in), entire chapters are turned over to Kokonas to narrate, and then the book begins alternating between his accounts and Achatz’s. It’s initially disruptive and jarring — like reading a Lincoln autobiography, and suddenly the typeface changes and the new author is now Lincoln’s accountant, or his banker. While Kokonas has valuable insights and perspective (he was told repeatedly “you’ll never see your money again!”), an appendix, or a foreword/afterword would’ve provided ample means for his contributions to the narrative. The two may be equally visionary — as many suggest — but their stories are not equally compelling. (The two partners self-published Alinea, the coffee-table food book, and reportedly sold 65,000 copies, so it seems unlikely a mere editor would have much influence over either of them.)

The process of opening Alinea is fully as detailed as Moby Dick‘s monkey-rope — up to and including reprints of Kokonas’s investor updates — and it’s as riveting as any fictional thriller. Will they open on time? Will the liquor license come through? It’s a privilege to get a glimpse behind the curtain at sourcing, and costing, and Chicago bureacracy. Alinea doesn’t have tablecloths because Achatz hates them and the fact that they’re used in fine dining to cover crappy cheap tables. MOMA-level experiments go into the furniture and service ware at Alinea. Although the detail is endless, it is surprisingly never dull. The book could’ve climaxed successfully with the opening of Alinea, or with Alinea being named the number 1 restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine, or the release of the book, Alinea … but Achatz had a third act.

In 2007, he was diagnosed with Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma — tongue cancer. The proposed surgical treatment might buy him a better prognosis, but at what cost? The removal of his tongue and tastebuds, along with likely radical disfigurement. Kokonos got him to the best doctors in the world at Sloan-Kettering and they proposed surgery. Second and third opinions advised the same. Eventually, (fellow Chicagoan and cancer survivor) Roger Ebert got Achatz in to see his doctor, and it was Ebert’s doctor who suggested a University of Chicago team that might be willing to try something different, a clinical trial. And “different” was a philosophy Achatz had been espousing since the age of 5.  They opted for a brutal course of radiation, chemo, and drugs, and the rest is history.

He worked throughout treatment, and instructed his partners to tell the media, “Say I have cancer and am going to die, but will be working here in the meantime.”

He didn’t just survive, on June 8, 2008, he accepted the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef. He and Kokonos are up to their elbows in their new project, Next/Aviary. A documentary and feature movie are in the works (making it a pity that Ethan Hawke is just too old to play Achatz, because the resemblance is uncanny).

Curtis Duffy (Chef de Cuisine, Avenues at the Peninsula, Chicago) a fellow Trotter alum, is up for this year’s James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. He served as an award-winning pastry chef under Achatz at Trio, and served as Achatz’s chef de cuisine when Alinea opened.

The legacy continues.

Click here to purchase
Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat  by Grant Achatz, (Gotham Books/Penguin)
Click here to purchase
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House)

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