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Chef’s Table S2E1: Grant Achatz

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Horrific Looking Shapes

More captivating than most thrillers can hope to be, this opening episode of Chef’s Table second season is terrific. Faithful to the series formula, it’s just a talking head and some intenses dishes lavishly filmed, the chef telling his story and placing the spotlight on some on his signature recipes. Chefs are all passionate, but in the case of Chicago’s Grant Achatz, this passion takes a Christic form. The man has gone through hell and back, to cook us a storm.

Litteraly born in a diner (his father was a greasy spoon cook), Chef Achatz experimented with omelets before following his true call, learning how to cook with star American chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) or during a brief internship at Fernando Adria’s El Bulli. He then opened his first restaurant, Trio, in suburban Chicago, where he met a financial partner, who put up the money to open Alinea, his current table. Alinea was successful from the get-go, with three pages in the New York Times two days after opening. The kid from the fast food joint had become a star chef and Alinea was elected the best restaurant in the USA. Pictures of an ideal preppy son-in-law are sowewhat hard to connect with the emaciated 40-something chef who’s interviewed, though.

One is always suspicious about molecular cuisine, and a plenty of that is a work here. This is why at first some of Chef Achatz’ creations look downright over-indulging, like his floating sugar balloon or his idea to serve a dish on a pillow. But then something fascinating occurs. First, the chef has a beautiful voice and an extremely fluid body language; this elegance also characterises the way he talks about his craft. Most would sound aloof and desperately pretentious aiming at “a dish that would float”, but Mr Achatz’s intensity and unflinching amenity make him a powerful narrator. One could listen to him for hours describing what “horric looking shapes” resulted from the initial experiments with floating sugar.

But horror just started, and didn’t end there. Mr. Achatz matter-of-factly narrates how he was diagnosed with Stage IV mouth cancer, which should have led to mutilating surgery. A super-brand of chemotherapy saved him from the ordeal, but at the price of his taste buds, so he became “the chef who can not taste”, a conceptual artist with a sure-fire brigade, carrying on in spite of such a monumental loss it would have driven any less gifted chef in a hard concrete wall, fast.

His taste buds eventually came back and Mr. Achatz is now more dedicated to his craft than ever. Miracles happen. The lesser of those miracles is not that in the course of the interview one has completely changed the way one looked at the Sugar Ballon: what has first appeared as a molecular tour de force and some kind of a vanity piece is now a perfect depiction of the strength of dreams and the power of resilience. One takes a bow to the chef.

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