April 1, 2009 Evanston, Illinois
I was running a little late, and the parking was terrible. Urgh! I circled around a couple of times, found a spot a few blocks from my destination and walked in Manhattan speed. I arrived at the door of Now We’re Cookin’, a culinary service center that my friend’s friend owns, precisely at the starting time of the event. Luckily, they were running late too. The cooking demo/lecture room was quite full, some 150 people had taken seats already and it looked like there was no chair left for me, but they were still waiting for more people to arrive. It was a beautiful space—former warehouse, perhaps, with high ceiling, exposed pipes and brick walls, and a large modern light fixture of glass and steel hung right in the middle of the airy room. White wine and three kinds of appetizers were circulating among the crowd. The air was abuzz with anticipation. I spotted Chef Grant Achatz, standing and talking with a couple at the far left side of the room, under a stream of natural light from a triangular skylight set at the corner of the building. Whoa, déjà vu, I thought.
He had also been standing in a halo of light the first time I met him. It was in his brand-new kitchen, a month and a day after he opened Alinea 4 years ago. The light in the gleaming kitchen had created a stark contrast with the dark tones of the restaurant, and he had looked almost otherworldly in his chef’s white. My husband Dave and I had been fans of his food since when he was at Trio, but we had never met him before. His use of some Japanese ingredients in one of the dishes that night had made me wonder what he would do with other Japanese ingredients I knew of. I truly don’t know what had gotten into me, other than several glasses of wine, for I had never, ever imagined myself talking to a chef after a meal, let alone suggesting new things to try. And this was not just an ordinary chef; this was the Wunderkind of modern cuisine, the Super Star of the gastronomic universe. I was so nervous that I thought my face would start melting. But he had proved to be more than just a culinary genius. He is a genuinely charming, cordial, and remarkably generous person. He had listened to me that evening with utmost curiosity, asked questions occasionally, and made me feel quite welcome and important. I had gone home feeling buoyant, despite the considerable dent in our house budget the dinner had inflicted.
Then I did something Dave thought was insane: I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation, so two days later I drove about 20 miles from my house to the largest Japanese supermarket around the area, found some of the ingredients I had suggested to the chef, packed them up in a Styrofoam box and sent to Alinea. Dave said, “You did WHAT?”—He thought they would put us in their blacklist for sure. I plunged into a total panic and had been spending a couple of days down there, when Grant sent me a thank-you email and lifted me right up to the stratosphere. One of the items even found a place in his next menu, he said. The box seemed to have secured my seat as the official in-house Crazy Japanese Lady at Alinea, and when we went back 6 months later all the front-of-house staff knew about it (“Oh, yeah, you are the Box Lady!”).
Fast forward a year and a half and a couple more Alinea visits, in late July of 2007, we read the devastating news of Grant’s cancer diagnosis in the paper. Dave happened to have reserved a table for us on the first service day after the announcement. Grant came out of the kitchen to say hi at the mid point of our dinner. He seemed to be in good spirits, but it got me: I could only imagine how horrified he must have been. On the way to the restaurant Dave had warned me not to cry. I knew if I got emotional I wouldn’t be able to taste well, and not tasting well wouldn’t do, for it could very well be the last taste of Grant’s food, I wouldn’t dare think it but I knew, and I tried to stay calm, but my armor broke when he appeared at our tableside. All I could do was to hold it together until he disappeared back to the kitchen. Tears came, and ruined half of my dinner.
Five days later, I received an email from the supervisor of the preschool where I was teaching at the time: “Keller’s dad has stage IV cancer in his tongue and lymph nodes and will be starting treatment soon. Keep an eye on Keller this year.” —Grant’s younger son was in my class! That school year I saw Grant almost every week, for he is divorced and the preschool was the hand-over location between him and his ex-wife: he came to pick up Keller on Monday, and dropped him off on Wednesday. As he went through the ruthless treatment to save his life, I saw him losing hair, losing weight (he is slim to begin with; he became paper thin at one point), his face burned red by the radiation, losing voice. I met his mother and her husband when they were in town to help him when he was really sick from the treatment. On top of it all was the divorce. It was still fresh and raw, and his ex had a lot to tell about it. She was a really nice person, I liked her a lot, but understandably she was hurt. I had to ask my teaching partner not to swallow everything his ex said about Grant, because we never knew what exactly had happened between them so we couldn’t judge by one side of the story, and also because Grant I knew was a lot nicer person than the one in his ex’s stories. I guess I was trying to protect myself from the grapevine crawling up on me. Keller was a delightful young man with intense curiosity, robust creativity and a caring soul, like a miniature Grant, but he got sad and mad about the family situation sometimes. I felt for everyone in that broken family, for their broken hearts. For Grant to have to deal with something heavily emotional like a divorce when he was trying to cling on to life was especially hard to witness.
But I also saw him gradually come back, re-grow hair (it was a lot darker than original at first), and start to look like a vivacious human again. His doctors declared he was cancer-free right before the winter break. I was thrilled that he didn’t lose his tongue, or life, and I thought it was incredible that the cancer was gone only 5 months after Grant had made that announcement of his diagnosis. But he told me how frustrating it was to be sick for so long, and the prospect of slow recovery and life-long side effects seemed to be not sitting well with his endless creative energy that demanded physical vigor. He also lost his sense of taste for a period of time. As a chef, it must have been utterly exasperating, not to mention harrowing. My heart went out for him, but I was happy to feel sorry for him: he was alive.
During that year I started sending him anything I thought might cheer him up: a funny thing Keller said in the class, Dave’s meager attempt at mimicking an Alinea dish, the way I thought Coldplay sounded like his food, even a silly woolen hat. This habit has been hard to break, and I am still sending him stuff, checking in how he’s doing. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just bothering him with all the weird thoughts I tend to throw at him. I might be just a freaky groupie. But he still keeps me posted and I feel very lucky to know someone as extraordinary as Grant.
I went to say hi. There seemed to be a line, as if for a king’s audience, leading up to him. But as I moved up closer, I realized that most of the people in the line were there to get wine, and perhaps a little closer look of him, but not really seeking his audience. After an elderly lady and her friend said their hello, I got my turn.
He was rather chatty. After the school year when Keller was in my class, I hadn’t seen Grant by myself without Dave at my side. And because Dave also gets excited to see him and tends to dominate the conversation, I don’t get to talk with him much. It was a treat for me to have a little chat with Grant about life in general: not about Alinea or what his next project was, but about everyday things like ordinary people.
As some appetizer trays went around us, however, he looked at the food and told me they weren’t his. I guess he is a chef through and through. He says all chefs are egomanias. I don’t think he is, but I do think he is a control-freak (I mean this as a compliment).
“If I knew they were doing this, I could have planned and brought our food…”
“But that would have been a big production for you!” I said. I’ve been to a couple of his book events last fall and seen how hard it was to recreate anything Alinea outside of the Alinea kitchen, even for the Alinea chefs.
“Yeah, it would have been,” Grant readily agreed.
“By the way, aren’t you Ethan Hawke?” —I had read this in his Twitter: someone asked him if he was the movie star when he visited LA. He wanted to say yes and sign an autograph, but his girlfriend gave him away. After a good laugh about it, he told me that there was this computer game character that looked very much like him and everybody was making fun of him. I asked how the boys were. He reported Keller’s tear ducts seemed to be wrecked at the moment (“He cries about everything! Even when I ask him to put the shoes on!”), and Kaden, Keller’s big brother, was maturing quickly at age 7. He said, “I thought of bringing them tonight, was going to just pick them up (they were at his ex’s house, less than 2 miles from where the event was held), but didn’t know what this place was like, so I opted not to. I wanted them to be up in front with me and help. Maybe I will get you up there instead…” I said, Oh no, you won’t.
Nell, my friend’s friend who owns the place, brought a photographer from the Chicago Tribune, a scruffy little guy who looked he would be more comfortable covering the war in Iraq than a posh cooking demo, and asked Grant how close the camera could be during the demonstration without making him uncomfortable. I made a mock camera with my hand, placed it right in front of Grant’s nose and said, “Right here,” while Grant unbuttoned his chef’s coat and said to him, “Do you wanna come in here?”
Nell welcomed everyone, and Mary, Nell’s business partner and a wonderful dessert chef, gave a little bio of Grant. She was working at Trio, a legendary restaurant that had produced a number of chefs that contributed to Chicago’s dining scene renaissance, when Grant applied for the Executive Chef position (“Oh, he was very young and clean-cut!”). One of the things he made for the “audition” was Black Truffle Explosion: he blew away everyone and got the job. Mary was among the very first few to taste Grant’s creations in the Chicagoland. My first encounter with Grant’s out-of-this-world yummy-ness was July of 2001; I later found out that it was only two weeks after he started at Trio. Dave and I are hooked ever since. Mary then gave up the stage to him, in her nasal, sexy voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, Grant.”
“Thank you for coming. As you all know, my name is Charlie Trotter, and this here is my brother (pointing at his assistant cook),” he opened.
(Grant doesn’t have any sibling, in case you are wondering.)
(So, no, “I’m his brother” doesn’t work as a tactic to secure a reservation at Alinea.)
[Part 2: the demo, Q & A, and reflections]