“Life on the Line” by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
“Life on the Line” by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
A Book Review by Gary S. Smolker
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A LEADING EDGE COMPANY ?
“Life on the Line” is an intense book written by Chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas.
It is the life stories of two men who had a dream and did everything possible to make it come true.
Because of their intense focus on being “true to themselves” they had the inner strength to make the right choices when faced with life on the line decisions.
Chef Grant Achatz fell in love with cooking at the age of 5 when his mother gave him the task of stirring cherry Jell-O into hot water as the powder dissolved “like magic.”
Grant Achatz’s entire life from that point forward has been spent chasing one goal, to be a great chef-owner of a restaurant.
He invested everything he had in pursuit of that goal. He dismissed relationships for it. He sacrificed many aspects of what other people consider a normal life for it.
Being a great chef and owner of his own restaurant is who he wanted to be and is who he became.
Being a great chef became his identity. Grant and his great friend and business partner Nick Kokonas, thought they had reached the pinnacle of their lives when their restaurant ALINEA was named the best restaurant in America by “Gourmet” magazine.
Then, while positioned firmly in the world’s culinary spotlight, Grant was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Grant was told by doctors at world renowned medical facilities that his entire tongue, part of his jaw and part of his throat would have to be removed in order to save his life.
The easy response would have been for Grant to say “go-ahead.” But, Grant figured if he allowed his tongue to be cut out he would no longer continue be a great chef, his identity would be ripped out of his being.
Grant decided he would rather die than have his tongue removed.
“Life on the Line” is the story of what Grant did next.
“Life on the Line” reveals what a peak performer does, what it takes to create and lead a leading edge business, to succeed as a leading edge enterprise and to stay “leading edge.”
GRANT’S BACKGROUND EXPERIENCE TRAINING AND DRIVE TO SUCCEED
As a boy Grant had the dream of one day becoming a great chef and owning his own restaurant.
As a young boy he started his culinary career as a pot and dish washer then progressed to a vegetable peeler, and then to chief egg cracker in his Grandmother’s cafe. His Grandmother’s cafe consisted of eight bar stools, and was located in the little riverside town of Marine City, Michigan.
In February 1980, when he was seven, Grant’s parents borrowed $5,000 from his grandmother to open their own restaurant, a dinner, Achatz Depot.
His father worked 18 hours a day. Grant came in whenever he could during the week and all day on the weekends.
His parents’ dinner became a success. Over time they moved their dinner to larger facilities. Eventually the Achatz Family Restaurant had its first $1 million gross revenue year.
Grant’s parents wanted Grant to learn every aspect of the business.
At age 12 Grant became an actual employee in the restaurant. He was allowed to do some basic food prep. When he was 13 he was moved up to making and buttering toast. At age 14 he graduated to cooking on the line.
Grant worked after school until closing.
Grant learned that in order to be a successful line cook you needed to keep your cool and be highly organized.
In the summer of 1991 Grant was given his first opening shift.
The restaurant was now solely his responsibility: All the produce and meat deliveries that arrived early had to be put away, the kitchen had to be cleaned, and everything had to be put in place for the breakfast run.
As high school was coming to an end, Grant decided he wanted to cook fancy food and one day own his own restaurant — a great restaurant.
Grant decided he wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America. His friends wrote him off as a deluded dreamer.
His father tried to dissuade him. His father told him, “…you see how hard your mom and I work. It’s not easy and you don’t make a ton of money for the amount of time you spend on it. And it’s hard to have a good family life, too.”
Grant replied, “That’s okay. I don’t want a family.”
Grant’s mother interjected, “We will support you in whatever you decide. We’ve put aside some money for school, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
After graduation from high school, Grant continued to work in his parents’ restaurant and applied for admission to the Culinary Institute of America.
After an acceptance letter came, in February 1993, Grant packed his things and moved to Hyde Park, New York from the small village (St. Claire) in Michigan where he grew up.
Grant had never been exposed to fine dining.
While attending culinary school Grant started buying culinary magazines.
Suddenly his awareness of the scope of the gastronomic world was vastly expanded. It was a huge world he wanted to explore.
Grant began to realize that just because he had worked in a diner since he was five didn’t mean that he knew the right way to do things.
While attending culinary school, Grant worked as an extern at a fine-dining restaurant in a massive hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
As an extern he worked his way through assignments at the prep station, making soups, salad dressings for about a month, and then moved to the roast/grill station on the hot line.
Grant got along. The head chef agreed to recommend Grant if Grant would come back to work for him for a year after graduation.
The head chef told Grant, “I want to prepare you personally if I am going to recommend you.”
On October 28, 1994 Grant graduated from culinary school.
Thereafter he moved to Grand Rapid to work in the hotel restaurant where he had been an extern.
While working in the hotel, Grant read a cookbook written by Chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago.
Grant became infatuated with Trotter’s philosophy. Grant wanted to work for Chef Trotter.
Grant wrote a cover letter to Chef Trotter and sent in his resume.
Trotter called Grant. Trotter asked Grant, “Why should I hire you?”
Grant answered: “I am a highly motivated cook and will do whatever it takes to do things right.”
Trotter chuckled and replied, “I have an entire restaurant full of people like that. What makes you different?”
Grant muttered something about being ready every day.
Trotter invited Grant to try out at the restaurant.
Grant was told the chef de cuisine would give Grant a box of ingredients and Grant had to produce four courses for four people – chef Trotter and the three sous chefs – in three hours. Trotter asked if Grant had any questions.
Grant asked, “Is there anything special I need to bring.”
Chef Trotter replied, “Your A game.”
Grant passed the test, was hired and briefly worked for Charlie Trotter.
At the time, Charlie Trotter was considered the best chef in the United States.
Grant had an emotionally and physically demanding job with sixteen-hour high intensity non-stop shifts.
While working for Chef Trotter Grant heard lots of criticism given to others and received lots of criticism.
Grant did not like the personality of Trotter’s kitchen and eventually quit.
Grant went home to St. Claire, Michigan.
Grant told his father, “That was my shot and I blew it. I have no idea what to do now.”
Grant’s father replied, “Restaurants are like girl friends; you gotta find the right one. You didn’t fail, you just haven’t found the right partner yet and were smart enough to realize it. You’ll figure it out.”
Grant then took a culinary tour of Europe, to experience amazing famous restaurants worth traveling to find.
He didn’t find such restaurants in Europe. Meals at famous restaurants were just okay at best, nothing revelatory or remarkable; the service was unremarkable and condescending.
Finally, he had a great meal at an out of the way simple restaurant (that is not listed in any guide) while taking a bike tour in the Tuscan Hillsides.
He ate and drank for two hours at this simple restaurant. He didn’t want to leave. When he finally left this restaurant, he left in a daze. He realized that he had just had the best meal of his life.
The meal in Tuscany was a wake-up call to what was most important in a kitchen — passion. Grant felt that fine dining must meet with a genuinely passionate chef.
Grant read an article about Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley and knew he had to work there.
Then Grant wrote fourteen letters to Thomas Keller in twelve days, figuring that Chef Keller could not ignore Grant completely because Chef Keller would realize that the letters would keep on coming.
After two weeks, Grant got a call from Chef Keller himself inviting Grant to come to Napa Valley for a two-day tryout. Grant passed his tryout.
In “Life on the Line” Grant tells the following story about an event that occurred while he was trying out to work for Chef Keller at The French Laundry:
One day, while Chef Keller was cooking and simultaneously talking to Grant, a front-of-the-house member ducked in the kitchen and said, “Chef, up on ten.” That meant that someone at table number ten had gotten up from the table for whatever reason, probably to use the restroom.
Chef Keller glanced at the tickets and, realizing that was the table where the foie gras he had just cooked was headed, calmly picked up the plate and handed it to Grant. “You like foie?” he asked.
“Yes Chef.” replied Grant.
If a diner gets up from the table, the food at The French Laundry doesn’t go under a heat lamp somewhere. It gets thrown out and the process starts again when the diner returns to his seat. This time however, Chef Keller gave Grant the plate.
Chef Keller’s passion, discipline, dedication, intensity, and “here we do things the right way” method made a big impression on Grant.
In Chef Keller’s kitchen the food was perfect or it was wrong; failure was not an option.
At The French Laundry the cooks lived by the standard set by Chef Keller and everything else was meaningless and superflous. To insinuate that another cook was compromising the quality of the food was the ultimate insult.
While Grant worked there, The French Laundry was the pinnacle of gastronomic excellence in America and in the world. It had a mythic aura.
One day the cover page of The New York Times dining section featured a review, by Ruth Riechl, of a meal in The French Restaurant: “IN NAPA VALLEY, A RESTAURANT SCALES THE PEAK. Today his (Chef Keller’s) restaurant in Yountville, still called The French Laundry, is the most exciting place to eat in the United States.”
Quoting from the “Life on the Line”:
The praise from Ruth and the Outstanding Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation that followed in May catapulted chef Keller and The French Laundry to legendary, destination-dining status. The phone rang and did not stop. Reservations became impossible to get for lunch and dinner, a total of ten services per week. It became common to have a hundred patrons for dinner and eighty for lunch.
Eventually Grant left The French Laundry in order to work in a small winery in the Napa Valley that had its own vineyards — to gain experience in the wine industry and wine trade.
Grant left The French Laundry after he realized that he was never going to get experience in the vineyards as long as he worked 14 hour days at The French Laundry because outside of work he barely had time to lift weights, wash his clothes, and try to catch up on sleep.
After working for the small winery, Grant went back to work for Chef Keller.
Eventually, Grant realized it was time to leave The French Laundry in order to find his own kitchen to run.
Grant discussed this with Chef Keller.
Chef Keller told Grant that Grant would have to find a find a restaurant owner willing to let Grant (who had no experience running a kitchen and no reputation) have carte blanche.
Grant writes: “One night, while scanning the fine-dining category on a job site, I stumbled across an ad for a tiny restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, called Trio. I had never heard of the place. According to the ad, Trio was a nationally acclaimed restaurant formerly run by Rick Tramanto and Gale Gand. It went on to describe the food as eclectic-fusion, offering some of the most innovative and visually dazzling presentations in Chicago. I copied all of the info down and wrote a cover letter to the owner, Henry Adaniya.”
Grant was hired to be the head chef at Trio. The rest is culinary history.
Here is how Grant describes a conversation with Henry:
Four and a half weeks after my interview with Henry he e-mailed me to see if I was still available. I didn’t even finish reading the e-mail before I picked up the phone and called him. ‘Hi, Henry. It’s Grant. I got your e-mail.’
‘Here’s the deal, I have gone through all of the applicants that I had scheduled and your food blew them all away. It wasn’t even close. The food has been haunting me. I can’t get it out of my head. You are a talent and you are driven by a vision. So much so that I am willing to entertain the changes you want for Trio. That is, if you’re still looking for a job.”
Grant wanted to turn Trio, a tiny restaurant on a sleepy street forty minutes outside of Chicago, into a world-class establishment. Grant was of the belief that if he built Trio up, customers would come. He was optimistic that he could turn Trio into a globally known temple of gastronomy.
When he started at Trio, Grant explained how Trio would have to evolve and what his and Henry’s collective goals were for the incarnation of Trio.
Grant explained his philosophy to the people he would be working with as follows: “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.” Grant wanted dining at the new Trio to be akin to enjoying participatory theatre.
Grant succeeded in turning Trio into a world-class restaurant. A review of food served at Trio, written by food critic Phil Vettel, published in the Chicago Tribune, reported: “With the installation of its third-ever chef, Trio has definitely re-embraced the wild side. Grant Achatz is the most dynamic, boundnary stretching chef to hit town in a long, long time. If you’ve been putting off luxury-dining lately, let me suggest that now is the time to jump back in the game.” And that is what people did.
In “Life on the Line” Grant reports: “The energy in the restaurant was palpable.”
A “wealthy” dinner (Nick Kokonas) couldn’t stop coming back to eat there.
Eventually, Grant and Nick started a restaurant (ALINENA). They planned the average check per person was going to be about a hundred and sixty-five dollars.
In “Life on the Line,” Nick reports that before meeting Grant, Nick had largely attained his goals professionally. He was tired, burned-out, and increasingly unable to enjoy anything. Meeting Grant changed all that.
Nick reports that after eating at Trio, every time he went out to eat somewhere else with his wife it felt lesser in every respect, so he and his wife kept going back to Trio, “… despite the cost and the sometimes awkward feeling of being a regular at a restaurant of this type.”
On October 1, 2003, Pulitzer Prize — winning writer – and chairman of the James Beard restaurant committee – David Shaw wrote a feature article on Grant and Trio for the L.A. Times, in which he described his experience at Trio:
“Welcome to Trio, the most avant-garde restaurant in America.”
“It was a truly amazing experience. What Achatz is doing in his 13-table restaurant is nothing less than redefining fine dining in this country.”
“Risky and delicious.”
“Every course at Trio seems as much intellectual exercise as culinary experience — as much theater as restaurant. Take our 19th course. The waiter brought to our table a large, glass vase filled with long, green, leafy angelica branches. The bottom 6 inches or so of each branch had been hollowed out — and filled with apple puree.”
While working in great restaurants Grant observed that the chef at those restaurants never let the bar drop no matter what the situation in their pursuit of excellence:
The food in those restaurants was perfect or it was wrong. Failure was not an option.
The only way to do things was the right way. Every day in those chefs’ kitchens was about striving for perfection
RAISING START-UP CAPITAL FOR ALINEA
Nick brought in investors who realized, after eating at Trio, they would be part of something great.
Nick told potential investors there was no business plan. “It’s not really a restaurant. Its going to be more like a performance-art-theatre, something no one in this country has really done before.”
Nick was told over and over again, “This is a rich man’s folly.” “Look you’re gonna be feeding people, right? In my book that is a restaurant. And in the real world, investors get screwed when they invest in a restaurant.”
Investors came forth who invested in the spirit determination and vision of Grant albeit Grant only had a dream.
Over time, each of Nick’s and Grant’s investors contributed ideas, time, expertise and other kinds of assistance beyond financial support.
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A PEAK PERFORMER
Before reading this book I knew nothing about being a chef. I knew nothing about what it takes to run a top-of-the line restaurant.
While reading this book I learned about the discipline, the dedication, the intensity, the tenacity and drive required to be a great chef running a great restaurant.
Below are some of the rules for running a great restaurant discussed in “Life on the Line”:
- Bring your “A” game.
- The only way to do it is the right way.
- Here we do things right.
- The food is perfect or it is wrong. Failure is not an option.
- Always think the “big picture.”
- Be a talent driven by a vision.
- By working hard you appreciate it when you finally get there, when you make it all happen.
- Be willing to outwork everyone else.
- Learn how to learn and the rest will take care of itself.
- Business plan is irrelevant compared to the vision you have in your head.
- Make everyone realize they are part of something great.
- You cannot let your guard down.
- It is impossible to try to innovate. You can’t decide to turn creativity on or off. All you can do is present yourself with interesting problems and try to find solutions. Then you refine those solutions again and again.
- You have to push to overcome the tendency to grind to a halt.
- Know the most important aspect of what you do comes from within.
- Make “MIH”(make it happen) be your mantra.
Things did not come easy for Grant. Below are descriptions of Grant’s mental and emotional state of being, his daily life and his relationship with his wife Angela:
- “Everything that I see, hear and feel, I relate to food.”
- “I was a terrible spouse, I had no emotional time for Angela, and in many ways my feelings vacillated between appreciation and something else.”
- “I had no schedule other than to wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. The restaurant was always in my head and there were no days off, no moments off.”
- “I had invested no time or thought in my personal relationships. My waking time and dreams were of restaurants and food and my career.”
- When Grant’s partner Nick asked Grant where they should locate their new restaurant, Grant replied that he didn’t know any of the neighborhoods or streets because he had spent his entire life in the kitchen.
- Grant told the staff in his new restaurant: “This is not a restaurant, or a paycheck, or just your job. This is our statement, our measure of what we can be. This is my dream. I am lucky enough to have a shot at it. And it will require all of us working together in a singular fashion to pull it off.”
When Grant found out he had cancer, Grant didn’t want to live without his identity. Grant couldn’t stand to have his identity as a chef taken away by having his tongue cut out.
Grant met a doctor who advised Grant to have chemotherapy and radiation instead of having his tongue cut out. Grant followed that advice.
During chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, skin peeled from Grant’s mouth and throat.
He lost his sense of taste.
The chemotherapy left him bald, pimpled, scaled, and sore.
The radiation burned his tongue and face from inside out.
The lining of his esophagus shed like a rattlesnake and he was forced to peel it out of his throat while choking and vomiting.
He couldn’t taste a thing.
Food was cardboard and salt was just sand in his mouth, dissolving slowly with no purpose.
Eating was a horrific and painful ordeal.
While receiving treatment Grant stayed engaged. Grant’s reaction to the awful ordeal he was going through was, “there is no sense in wasting the day.” Grant didn’t stop cooking.
Grant learned to cook with his other senses smelling wonderful smells that he couldn’t taste, seeing food he used to love that he couldn’t eat.
He wanted to run away. Instead he kept on cooking.
He started treatment at 172 pounds. At the end of his treatment he weighed 127.
At some point Grant stopped worrying about the future and actually began to believe that he might have one.
Grant cultivated optimism by adjusting his vision to see where he had control rather than passively suffering the shocks of life.
BEING DECLARED CANCER FREE
Five months after beginning treatment Grant was declared cancer free.
A few months later Grant received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America for 2008 Award at an award ceremony in New York.
Grant didn’t know he was going to receive that award when he arrived at the Award Ceremonies.
He looked terrible. He had a scraggly goatee because he was unable to shave without peeling his skin. The tuxedo he was wearing draped over his shoulders like it would on a hanger.
He could barely talk. His tongue was half the size it used to be. The muscles that control it had been atrophied by radiation. His lips didn’t go where he always wanted them to, and his speech sounded slurred and distorted.
The discipline, the dedication, the intensity, the tenacity and the drive Grant saw in the fine restaurants where he worked during his career and which Grant had pulled in thinking it would make him a good cook and ultimately a great chef became a part of who he was and ultimately helped him get through his battle with cancer.
Grant reports that after winning the award, “I returned to Alinea the next day, stepped into the kitchen, and worked with a vigor I have never felt before.”
“Life on the Line” is a statement of who Grant is. It reveals his values.
It is book about choice, identity, survival, determination, creativity, profound friendship and how cooking not only influenced Grant’s professional career but also saved his life.
“Life on the Line” demonstrates that everything about life is an opportunity.
Everybody pursues these opportunities of life differently.
Once Grant developed a coherent identity for himself he made choices in ways that reinforced it.
Grant’s decisions defined him, define who he is.
He did whatever he could to avoid losing the things that were most important to him.
If you suspect “Life on the Line” is fiction, look up the restaurant “ALINEA” online.
Choice allows us to actively participate in our own making, to be architects of our future.
That being said, choice is a way of writing our lives.
Through choice we assert what we do matters.
Alinea opened on May 4, 2005.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Gary S. Smolker
All rights reserved.