Young Chef Battles Cancer

One of the nation’s most daring chefs, 33-year-old Grant Achatz of Alinea, was diagnosed last week with a rare and advanced form of mouth cancer. The Chicago-based chef first shared the sad news on the eGullet boards before sending out a statement to the press, and Gulleteers were right there with words of sympathy; food writers and bloggers quickly followed. Achatz, for his part, has been nothing but positive in the face of the setback; as he wrote on eGullet:

I remain, and will remain, actively and optimistically engaged in operations at Alinea to the largest extent possible. Alinea will continue to perform at the level people have come to expect from us—I insist on that.

Unfortunately, Achatz’s ability to oversee his staff by tasting and helping fine-tune recipes may be curtailed even if the cancer is stopped, the Chicago Tribune reports:

If chemotherapy is successful, there remains a possibility that Achatz will lose all sense of taste.

‘It’s Shakespearean,’ said Nick Kokonas, Achatz’s friend and co-owner of Alinea. ‘This is like a painter whose eyes are taken from him, a pianist who has his fingers cut off.’

I hope for Achatz’s sake that his friend’s dramatic pronouncement is premature; but as the Ethicurean notes, treatment for this aggressive cancer could limit his ability not only to taste, but also “to work the long, long hours required of a chef.”

Meanwhile, in another eGullet thread, members discuss whether Achatz’s line of work might actually have increased his chances of developing this kind of cancer. User robyn mentions that she is friends with another young chef who was recently diagnosed with an oral/nasal cancer: “Our friend told us that one of his doctors told him that one of the possible causes of his cancer was working in restaurant kitchens for years and years,” she writes. User gfweb found one study of cooks who’d spent 40 years or more working in kitchens that cooked with fossil fuel or wood and apparently had roughly double the risk of oral cancer. While this is only one study, other users were quick to point out the many health hazards of kitchen work, including ultrahigh stress levels and exposure to dangerous cleaning chemicals.

Whether Achatz’s disease is linked to restaurant working conditions, it’s definitely important to ask whether kitchens could be made more hospitable to their employees; and hopefully one positive outcome here will be an increased attention to the health of cooks and chefs.

As it happens, I booked my first ever reservation at Alinea a few days before Achatz announced his sad news; my boyfriend and I will be dining there next week on our vacation in Chicago. It’s undoubtedly a strange time for the restaurant, but I’m confident our dinner will be a memorable experience no matter what. I hope we’ll be able to make plenty of return visits in the coming years.

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