Life, On the Line is a memoir by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, founders of the Chicago restaurant Alinea, which in 2006 was named the best restaurant in America by Gourmet. The book covers Achatz’s rise to fame, from culinary school to working under Thomas Keller at French Laundry to opening Alinea. It also discusses his ordeal with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma—tongue cancer. Achatz has been in remission for three years now, and recently talked to Cooking the Books from Chicago. Gotham will publish Life, On the Line in March.
How did writing this memoir compare to writing a cookbook?
It was totally different. When we wrote the cookbook, people would say, ‘You’re an author now.’ I’m like, ‘No I’m not!’ A cookbook is not like being an author. It’s writing down recipes; it’s not writing. This was writing.
What about from a publishing standpoint—how did the two books differ?
We self-published the cookbook and Ten Speed Press distributed it. We wanted to have control of the content. We felt very strongly that we had a very clear artistic vision that would express Alinea in the best possible way, and if we went the mainstream publishing route, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. In this case, though, we went with a more traditional type of publishing deal. But this is a memoir, not a cookbook. What is the content of a memoir? It’s a story. We didn’t hire a ghostwriter. We controlled the content by writing the book ourselves. It came directly from us.
Why involve Nick?
This is something we felt very strongly about from the beginning. A lot of people said we couldn’t do it. They said, ‘It’s not going to flow well. It’s very hard to have two voices.’ But the team at Gotham, once they read the proposal, they said, ‘We think this can work.’ One, the book is largely about Alinea and cancer--my cancer. And Nick was so heavily involved in both. And two, when you’re writing a story about yourself, there are things you can’t say about yourself that other people can. There are things I would have never felt comfortable saying, but that moved the story along and gave colorful details. But I simply couldn’t say them.
Can you give an example?
I think the section where I’m in New York at Sloan Kettering and I call back to Alinea to tell the staff [on speakerphone] that I in fact have cancer. It was more colorful because we told that anecdote from Nick’s perspective: he was looking at the staff huddled around him and reacting to the news. Or when Nick talks about [Esquire restaurant critic John] Mariani coming in to the restaurant and writing on our wine list [the restaurant only had four of the custom-made wine list binders, and Mariani wrote in one, using it as his notebook]—I would rather not talk about that.
Was it hard for you to write about certain aspects of your life?
It was part work and part therapy. My life has been such a blur since I was 18, 19 years old. I haven’t even had time to contemplate my own life. By forcing yourself to write your life story you learn a great deal about yourself. Nothing in the subject matter of the book was very difficult for me. It’s far harder to live through something like that than it is to reflect on it, at least for me. The difficulties weren’t hard for me to express at all. In fact, [writing about my cancer] was probably the easiest part. It was so fresh in my mind. The hardest thing for me was writing about my childhood. I had to interview my own mother and father to jog my memory.
Any plans to make an Alinea app or do something to enhance the memoir in e-form?
We have a strong video component to the memoir, with some informal interviews and stories that didn’t make it into the book. We’re currently finishing up an iPad app for the cookbook. And we’re in the midst of a movie deal.
I just read that. What are your thoughts on your life being turned into a movie?
It’ll be really weird to go to the movie theater--if they do this--and see my life on screen. But it’s Hollywood: how much do they embellish? All of a sudden I’m going to be played by Tom Cruise? It’ll be really interesting if it comes to fruition.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This project has made me realize I really enjoy writing. I was a completely below-average high school student. I never went to college. I had D minuses in chemistry and all of the sciences and now I’m known as a molecular gastronomist. Same thing with English and lit; [I got] C minuses, D minuses. I had no interest in it. But I’ve been writing for the Atlantic and the New York Times Diner’s Journal, I did a piece for Gourmet, and now this book. It’s my hope that I will write another book in the not so distant future. I hope to put something out there again someday.