Chicago chef named nation's best at food 'Oscars'

June 9, 2008 7:00:21 PM PDT
A Chicago chef known for his ethereal cooking ? as well as the tongue cancer that nearly ended his life ? was named the nation's top chef Sunday by the James Beard Foundation.

The award marked another victory in a tumultuous year for Grant Achatz, who last July was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer, underwent aggressive treatment to save his life and sense of taste, and by December was cancer free.

Achatz told the crowd of food world elite gathered for the awards he credits lessons learned when he was 22 and working at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., with teaching him not just how to cook, but also how to survive.

Those lessons were going to "make me a good cook and ultimately a great chef. What I didn't know was that it was actually going to save my life," he said.

"That drive, that tenacity, that dedication that I took in at that restaurant ... it became a part of who I am 12 years later and helped me get through a pretty ridiculous battle."

Achatz' cooking at his 3-year-old restaurant, Alinea, has come to define the so-called molecular gastronomy movement, an approach to eating about as similar to home cooking as particle physics is to a junior chemistry set.

His ultramodern style has crafted menus that read like the shopping list of a culinary mad scientist, with items such as "black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan" and "transparency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt."

Achatz thanked the many chefs in the crowd for their offers to help during his battle with cancer.

"I didn't let any of them come to the restaurant and cook as they suggested. I couldn't do that to the cooks," he said with a laugh.

Alinea was named the nation's top restaurant by Gourmet magazine in 2006, and Achatz previously won Beard awards for rising star chef in 2002 and 2003, and for best chef in the Great Lakes region last year.

The James Beard awards are known as the Oscars of the food world, and honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985.

Business partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich also were honored at Sunday's ceremony as the nation's top restaurateurs. They oversee a cadre of restaurants, including New York's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca and Del Posto.

New York's Gramercy Tavern was named the nation's Outstanding Restaurant.

Gramercy Tavern, which since opening in 1994 has been nominated for and received numerous Beard Awards and cemented the careers of culinary luminaries such as Tom Colicchio, is known for its contemporary American cuisine.

"If you can judge a restaurant based on the quality of its alumni, I don't think there's a richer restaurant that I could have dreamed of being a part of," said owner Danny Meyer.

Gavin Kaysen of New York's Cafe Boulud was named Rising Star Chef, while the award for Outstanding New Restaurant went to Michel Richard's Central Michel Richard in Washington. Richard was named Outstanding Chef by the foundation last year.

Frances Moore Lappe, whose nearly 40-year-old book, "Diet for a Small Planet," has been the blueprint for eating with a small carbon footprint since long before the term was coined, was named Humanitarian of the Year.

Described as the Earth's champion, Lappe was honored for her work to highlight the need for affordable, quality food for all, and for promoting the notion that small-scale, not industrial, agriculture is best at providing it.

"I'm hoping that food can be one of the great openings for people to say 'No! No! No! No! No! We're in the wrong place,'" she said. "That's what keeps me going, the realization that things could quickly go in the right direction."

Among books to be honored was British import Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "The River Cottage Meat Book," which took two awards, Cookbook of the Year and Single Subject.

Paula Wolfert's 1973 cookbook "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco" was named to the foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame, and Barbara Kingsolver's account of eating local food, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," received an award for general food writing.

The organization's Lifetime Achievement award went to microbrew pioneer Fritz Maytag, of San Francisco's Anchor Brewing.