Twelve years ago, Grant Achatz was a rising star in the culinary world. Inside an unprepossessing building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, Achatz was laboring day and night to make his restaurant Alinea the Michelin-starred destination it is today. Dining at Alinea is more like an experience of performance art with food and drink.
But a diagnosis of stage 4 tongue cancer shook the foundations of Achatz’s world. Doctors told him they would have to remove his tongue, and he was only too aware of the irony involved in a chef without the means to taste food. Yet his renown also made the news known to a group of specialists at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who urged Achatz to come in for a consultation. Achatz agreed to a then-experimental treatment that involved chemotherapy and radiation, one that would allow him to keep his tongue, his livelihood, and his life. Today Achatz, who has created two other restaurants, The Aviary and Next, is cancer free and free to follow his passion.
In 2017, my own piano teacher was also diagnosed with late stage tongue cancer and told she would have to have her tongue removed. A former opera singer who taught voice as well as piano, her diagnosis had a similarly chilling effect on her future. But Achatz’s fame and his cancer story led her to the University of Chicago, where by now the protocol for treating cancers of the head and neck has become standard procedure. Although the process was grueling, my teacher also came out the other side healthy and cancer free. This December, she hosted her first recital for piano and voice since her diagnosis two years ago.
Vision and artistry are the guiding principles of these two very different individuals. And it was the vision of the cancer team, led by Dr. Everett Vokes, that helped them create a treatment for cancer that would improve outcomes and quality of life. At Christmas, I’m grateful for the gift of life given to my friend and others who are, as a result, still free to use their singular talents in our world.