Cheat-Seeking Missles

Friday, August 31, 2007

Beethoven Redux

With its thunderous, soaring highs, its sweet, subtle lows, and its glorious cry of praise and wonder to God, who could imagine the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven was composed by a deaf man?

It is perhaps the foremost wonder of the world of art. Forever, man will ponder the heart of Beethoven as he confronted his deafness, and confronted his God in light of his deafness, and then went on with his gift by simply (and most likely angrily) listening to the sounds within.

In today's WSJ (subscribers only), Janet Adamy tells a modern parallel story that leaves one breathless:

A year after chef Grant Achatz opened Alinea [in Chicago] in 2005, Gourmet magazine named the restaurant the best in the country, and the prestigious Mobil guide gave it its highest rating of five stars. The young chef's exotic, lavishly presented creations -- a mango duck dish is served on a deflating pillow that releases lavender-scented air -- have connoisseurs lining up to book meals that cost an average of $240 a person.

But last month, doctors gave Mr. Achatz, 33 years old, devastating news. A cancerous tumor was growing inside his tongue. The disease was so advanced that three doctors told him the only way to cure it was to cut out part of his tongue, leaving one of the world's most celebrated chefs to ponder life without the ability to taste.

Achatz (pronounced ACK-etz) is feeling not only intense pain, but certainly must also feel the intense irony of his disease. His tongue is so swollen and painful, he can't eat. Already a trim young man, he has lost ten pounds.

Let's take a moment, though, to consider the Beethovenesque creativity of Achatz:

In 2004, Mr. Achatz detected a tiny sore growing on the side of his tongue. A dentist told him it was probably from unconsciously biting at the spot, and fitted his mouth for a night guard. That year, he left Trio to open his own restaurant in Chicago's tony Lincoln Park neighborhood.

He decided to call it Alinea, after the name for a typographical symbol that indicates a new train of thought. His ambition wasn't only to present his food as art, but to make the entire dining experience into a form of theater that would appeal to all of diners' senses and elicit emotional responses. For instance, Mr. Achatz had an architect design Alinea's entrance so that people would walk in, not be able to see the dining room and briefly think they were someplace other than the restaurant, creating a moment of tension.

As soon as Alinea opened in 2005, critics began heaping praise on the hypermodern cuisine and eclectic dining experience. Meals consist of as many as 30 small courses and have taken diners more than seven hours to consume.

To evoke autumn, Mr. Achatz served a piece of pheasant breast on an oak-tree branch lit on fire so it would be smoking as it arrived at the table. For a dish called "Hot potato, cold potato," Mr. Achatz skewered a marble-size potato and suspended it over a paraffin wax bowl of chilled potato soup so the palate would sense the temperature contrast.

One can imagine a parallel tension, like the one he created in his restaurant's doorway, as Achatz dealt with the increasing pain at the doorway to his sense of taste. As his success and fame grew, so did his inability to, quite literally, taste the fruits of his success.

Adamy only quotes Achatz twice in her story, once on the discovery of the tumor, and once on his one day of brooding before setting out for an alternative to surgery.The alternative is questionable, involving new chemo medications and radiation, but if it works, he'll return to Alinea with all his senses, including taste, about him.

Even if he doesn't, those who know him think he could become the Beethoven of chefs:

Dr. Vokes says it's too early to predict exactly what might happen if doctors removed the tumor from Mr. Achatz's tongue. Typically, removing a significant part of the tongue leaves a patient unable to taste and interferes with his or her ability to speak and to swallow. The sense of smell isn't usually affected.

But other senses contribute to Mr. Achatz's talent. Much of his acclaim derives from the way his dishes look. Before he cooks a new creation, he writes down the ingredients he wants to use and how he'll manipulate them. Then, he sketches what it might look like on the plate before discussing it with the chefs who work under him.

"He has such a spiritual connection with food and the visuals, and the taste is just a part of it," says Rick Tramanto, executive chef at Tru in Chicago. "He's way too connected to what he's doing to have [a loss of] one of the elements deter him at all."

God grants us gifts, but does not guarantee them. Whether the gift is a talent like Achatz's, or a child, or a fortune, we must always remember that they may be temporary. Losing them may destroy us or may make us stronger, more resolute, more directed, more able to create our smaller personal version of the Ninth.

Will Achatz be gifted with a lifetime of taste, or will the sense be like the puff of lavender air from one of his creations, here for a moment, then gone as a fragrant memory?

That is not really the question. The question is, will Achatz, will we, keep our will strong in the face of adversity? Will we focus not on our pain, but on the wonder that we had the gift in the first place?

Photo: Janet Adamy, WSJ

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