When Grant Achatz was a young boy, one if his uncles often played pranks on him, and Grant could never tell if he was being serious or not. One day, his uncle wrapped French fries around a pickle and popped it in his mouth. Grant wasn’t sure if it was a prank or not, but he decided to try the concoction—and it was delicious. Grant’s young mind couldn’t understand why it tasted good because it sounded gross. That’s when his uncle walked him through why it tasted good; starch, fat, acid, salt, and everything in between that balanced it out. It was in that moment that Grant fell in love with cooking.
“It wasn’t about physical cooking. For me, it was about curiosity. About toying with things.” What a lovely metaphor for meditation. I see so many people trying to make something happen in meditation, when really it’s about letting go, being open, and being curious enough to seek out the divine—without any expectations or forcing outcomes.
As you’ll learn from this story, Grant is a mystic in his own creative way, merging ideas and traditions to create something greater than dogma. His dishes are doorways to dimensions where things are not as they appear—in one dish, the patron cuts into a pillow to reveal a scent that compliments the course. In another, the patron roasts food over the coals of a fire delivered to the table, but the main course is actually cooking beneath the coals. In yet another dish, what appears to be a balloon is delivered to the table, but in fact, it’s dessert.
In Episode One, Season Two of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Grant says, “The thing that is important to me is when the guest has the aha moment—when they discover something. It’s like being a kid and opening the present at Christmas. Until you lift that lid and peer inside, you don’t really know what’s in there, and then there’s the reveal—and then there’s the reward. It’s a magic show.” Again, we could liken this to the aha moments of revelation that occur in meditation, when we’re not actually looking for aha moments. The cool thing is, it’s the present moment that changes how we were thinking and feeling moments before.
When Grant graduated from culinary school, his first job was nothing like he had imagined or idealized in his own mind. He worked for a famous chef, and yet the kitchen was cut throat and his coworkers wanted to see others fail to make themselves look better. It caused Grant to question everything about his dream—perhaps he made the wrong career decision.
After some time, Grant read a review of a restaurant he found interesting, so he went to seek it out. He walked in and asked the man washing the floor if he could meet the chef, to which the man replied, “I’m the chef.” It was just the departure Grant was looking for. His new boss had won a James Beard “Best Chef in California” award, then the following year won James Beard “Best Chef in the United States.” Grant felt like he was learning from a master and dedicated himself to learning from the chef. It was at this point that Grant’s passion shifted from cooking, to the pursuit of cooking. After learning all he could, Grant set out to go deeper in his craft.
He found himself at a restaurant that had no limitations and entrusted him with responsibility, and this allowed Grant to establish his own style. One evening a patron asked the waiter why the food seemed better than ever. The waiter told the patron about Grant, and later that evening the man who would become Grant’s future business partner gave him his card. He told Grant that if he ever wanted to open a restaurant, the man was interested in helping him achieve his dream.
After much deliberation, four days later Grant emailed him at 5:30 am and said, “If you’re serious about this, I’d like to talk.” And just like that, a student had been given the freedom to become a master.
Grant searched endlessly for a name for his restaurant. He wanted to find a symbol he could make into a logo, and that’s when he found the alinea symbol. The alinea is what a paragraph break looks like as a symbol. He found it intriguing, and then he saw its definition; “The beginning of a new train of thought.”
On opening night at Alinea, Grant said to his staff, “Everyone just needs to believe the fact that we’re about to open the best restaurant in the country.”
As it tends to occur when you’re in alignment with your dream, the right people showed up at the right time. It just so happened that on opening night, one of the most important food critics was dining in the restaurant, and two days later there was a three-page story about Alinea in the NY Times. Not before long, the #1 restaurant critic in the world called Grant and told him Alinea had been selected as the number #1 restaurant in the United States. Grant had realized the dream of his ten-year-old self—and he was only 28.
While all of this was going on, for a few months Grant had a white dot on his tongue and most foods caused it irritation. The dentist said to him, “You’re 28-years old, you work 18-hours a day, and you’re stressed out beyond belief. You’re career driven and you’re biting your tongue.” But the irritation turned into pain to the point where he could barely eat, drink, or talk. But he kept telling himself that he was creating his dream, so he swept it under the rug…until it was unavoidable.
His business partner, the same man who helped him create his dream, told him to see an oral surgeon. Two days later the biopsy revealed stage 4 cancer. Grant assumed there were 10 stages, but instead his physician told Grant they needed to remove three-quarters of Grant’s tongue, his left mandible, and both sides of his neck—and there was only a 70% chance he would live. In the doctor’s opinion, there were no other options.
Two days later the restaurant released a press statement, and as it happened, doctors at The University of Chicago saw the press release and told Grant to come see them. They confirmed the diagnosis, but said they had an experimental clinical trial they could perform without surgery, and that he had a 70% survival rate. In a matter of days his diagnosis and his perspective had a complete inverse. These doctors were thinking differently, pulling apart the model, and putting it back together.
For twelve weeks Grant received chemo. He would arrive at the hospital at 5:30am, then go back to the restaurant to prep, go back to the hospital for round two of chemo, then return to the restaurant for service.
During his medical care, Grant never gave up on his passion or his vision, which was his pursuit of cooking and love of innovation. But throughout the process, he lost his taste buds, and there was no certainty that he would ever be able to taste again. How could he be a chef and not be able to taste? Grant went through a dark night of the soul.
Still determined to show people he was capable of innovation, he decided he couldn’t give up. He realized that to make a world-class restaurant, you can’t do it yourself, so Grant would sketch the concept for a dish on a pad and write up the details, then send it to his team. In the process, Grant relearned his craft from an angle he never imagined, ultimately making him a better chef.
Without using the most important sense related to his craft—his taste buds—think about the type of creativity (in the present moment) that Grant had to develop in order to fully experience those new dishes (his future)—before they were experienced by the senses? He had to literally live in that future, create a new neural architecture, and combine those existing circuits in new ways to create a new level of mind. He never stopped creating, and as a result, he never stopped changing as well. In fact, he relied on his inner world of thoughts and feelings to create better outcomes in his outer world. That’s how we master our lives.
Eventually, Grant was pronounced cancer free. This was cause for celebration, but not so much as when a few months later, he poured sugar in his coffee out of habit and realized it tasted sweet. A month later he was throwing pinches of salt on his tongue. His taste buds finally had come back completely. Another way to say this is that his body finally caught up with his mind. He had rewired his brain and reconditioned his body to a new mind through the process of mental rehearsal. Grant changed his brain and body by thought alone. Whether Grant knew it or not—his continuous focus and determination was so consistent that his brain and body did not know the difference between what was happening in his inner world of thoughts and feelings and what would be happening in his outer world of the senses. His entire state of being moved from living in the same past reality to living in a new future reality.
Now that’s great service!