Life, on the Line

Life, on the Line

A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat

Book - 2011
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"One of America's great chefs" ( Vogue ) shares how his drive to cook immaculate food won him international renown-and fueled his miraculous triumph over tongue cancer.

In 2007, chef Grant Achatz seemingly had it made. He had been named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine in 2002, received the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2005 he and Nick Kokonas opened the conceptually radical restaurant Alinea, which was named Best Restaurant in America by Gourmet magazine. Then, positioned firmly in the world's culinary spotlight, Achatz was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma-tongue cancer.

The prognosis was grim, and doctors agreed the only course of action was to remove the cancerous tissue, which included his entire tongue. Desperate to preserve his quality of life, Grant undertook an alternative treatment of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. But the choice came at a cost. Skin peeled from the inside of Grant's mouth and throat, he rapidly lost weight, and most alarmingly, he lost his sense of taste. Tapping into the discipline, passion, and focus of being a chef, Grant rarely missed a day of work. He trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. As Kokonas was able to attest: The food was never better. Five months later, Grant was declared cancer-free, and just a few months following, he received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America Award.

Life, on the Line tells the story of a culinary trailblazer's love affair with cooking, but it is also a book about survival, about nurturing creativity, and about profound friendship. Already much- anticipated by followers of progressive cuisine, Grant and Nick's gripping narrative is filled with stories from the world's most renowned kitchens-The French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's, el Bulli- and sure to expand the audience that made Alinea the number-one selling restaurant cookbook in America last year.

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Publisher: New York : Gotham Books, c2011.
ISBN: 9781592406012
Characteristics: x, 390 p., [16] p. of plates :,ill. (some col.), ports. (some col.) ;,24 cm.
Additional Contributors: Kokonas, Nick


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Jul 31, 2018

I came to Grant Achatz’s story via the remarkable Netflix series Chef’s Table, which means that I came to this fascinating book with some presuppositions about what I might find. I expected (and found) a book that explores an otherworldly creativity. Achatz is, after all, still firmly entrenched at the forefront of the American molecular gastronomy, itself an interstice connecting the fluidities of culinary art, memory, emotion, and magic. His Chicago restaurant Alinea ( is still at or near top of almost every list of the best restaurants in the world, often alongside those of his mentor Thomas Keller. This book captures in detail many of the trials, decisions, mistakes, and great achievements that shaped Alinea. In this sense it becomes a must read for anyone drawn to the supposed glamour of the restaurant business.

I also came to this book expecting (and finding) the tale of a truly impressive ego, with all the benefits and detriments that statement implies. A genius in the kitchen and increasingly an astute businessman, Achatz draws what I sense is a relatively clear picture of himself as aloof, obsessively focused on his art, and willing to sacrifice everything (relationships, health) to achieve his goals. This is not a criticism. Having had the privilege in my life of knowing some world-class writers, performers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, I am well aware of the single-mindedness that it takes to imagine the unimaginable, and to achieve the never-before-achieved. I have seen firsthand the curse that such intense and unyielding creativity can become on a life. Achatz allows a look behind the curtain into the mind of one-such genius. The view is compelling.

And finally, I came to this book with knowledge of Achatz’s struggle with potentially life-ending tongue cancer. Framing the book, this particular struggle provides a deeply ironic counterpoint to the tale of Achatz’s somewhat meteoric rise to prominence in the culinary world. One of the world’s truly great chef’s can no longer taste. As Achatz writes upon his initial diagnosis, this news was a devastatingly disruptive moment:

“My whole life has been chasing this one goal [of building the best restaurant in the world.] I have invested everything I have into it. I have dismissed relationships for it. I have sacrificed many aspects of what other people consider a normal life. I can’t let that go. It’s who I am. That is my identity, and if the surgeons rip that from me, then my spirit is done and I’m no good to anyone.”

At times clumsy in its execution and self-indulgent in tone, Life, on the Line is nonetheless a rich and rewarding read that provides insight into food, into art, and, of course, into life.

amandamonkey Mar 20, 2013

I enjoyed the story, but Chef could've used a ghost writer. It took a while for me to get into it because I found his literary voice to be annoying. I still recommend it if you're a fan.

Jun 24, 2012

Compelling, fun read. This really helped me understand my chef and restaurant owners a little better. The author really seems to have a singular obsession and even cancer couldn't hold him back.

mmwilkes May 22, 2012

I could not in good conscience give this book any more stars. It was highly readable especially if you are either a foodie, a wine drinker or an entrepreneur. However, as a mother, halfway through the book, I realized Grant achieved his success at the expense of his family. They are given the bare minimum mention in the book which I found almost offensive. I'm not a fan of narcissists who achieve at the expense of others around them.

debwalker Jul 29, 2011

An award-winning chef describes how he lost his sense of taste to cancer, a setback that prompted him to discover alternate cooking methods and create his celebrated progressive cuisine.

meggielvdl May 03, 2011

A great read, part biography, part business plan, friendship story, but mostly inspirational. Just wish I could afford to eat at his resturants.

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