Book Review: Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Life has a way of subtly telling you what it is that you’re supposed to do. At least this is how my life works. When I am lost and trying to figure out what to do next, I try my best to turn off my brain and listen to the world around me. Maybe it’s a really hippie, dippie way of looking at life, but I’m a hippie dippie kinda gal and it works for me.

I’ll give you an example: when I see a lot of lady bugs, I know something big is going to happen. I love lady bugs and I don’t see them that frequently, but when I am on the precipice of a large change, they appear everywhere. I have seen them appear in one form or another since the end of July. I haven’t seen them in a few weeks, but I think the surge of lady bugs was supposed to serve as a warning of things to come. I rest assured knowing that I am prepared for whatever change is coming because of those lady bugs. After all, there are only so many times that I can be smacked in the face with something before I perk up and pay attention to it.

That’s what happened when it came to “Life, on the Line” by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. In late July, I read about the book in People magazine. I thought it looked good, but I didn’t have time to read another book because I was so busy prepping for the classes I was scheduled to teach in the fall. This summer, I started working at my local library and the book and I crossed paths two more times. I remember being so taken aback by the image on the front. The cover art is two pictures of Chef Achatz: one from the profile and one from the front. It’s the profile picture that strikes me. He stares at you from the cover of the book. It’s like he’s staring into your soul and daring you to open the book and see what’s inside. The third time I saw the cover, I opened it and started reading it. I really liked the chapter or so that I read, but I stopped and put the book back on the shelf where it belonged. A few weeks ago, the book was mentioned again, but this time in church. It was at that point that I realized that I needed to read this book. I still didn’t have time to read, but I do have a lengthy commute to the University where I am teaching classes, so I ordered the book on CD and I am so glad I did.

I am a purist when it comes to books. There is nothing that compares to the physical feel of a book in my hands. I love it, but listening to the book on CD was ideal for my situation. My iPod broke and I was growing weary of making a new mix CD every time I left the house. The audiobook served the purpose of reading me a book and simultaneously keeping me calm in the event of a traffic jam, which comes with the territory when one commutes. (Again with the everything happens for a reason thing.) As I was listening to this amazingly well written book on the way to and from classes where I teach writing (see?), the book began to motivate and inspire me. “Life, on the Line” (which is a double entendre, by the way) is an amazingly written book. It tells the story of how Grant Achatz came to be the chef owner of Alinea, one of the best restaurants in the country. Chef Achatz, as you may already know, is a survivor of tongue cancer. Tongue cancer in the mouth of a world-renown chef is the cruelest of ironies. I mean, really. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Chef Atchatz worked his ass off to get where he was only to be diagnosed with a cancer that threatened his livelihood. The reader is invited into his world and given a first hand look into his life, his choices, and his relationships. Though personal relationships seems to be an area in which he struggles, his friendship with Nick Kokonas is undeniably solid. Mr. Kokonas, co-founder of Alinea and close friend to Achatz, seemed to have met his match when it came to the young chef. For as much as Achatz pushed his creativity and talent to realize his goal, Kokonas pushed back with practicality and logic. Together, they have the perfect balance. Grant had the creative vision and the talent, but he fell short on how to make his restaurant work on a business level. Kokonas had the business savvy, but didn’t understand why it was important to Achatz to have top-of-the-line tables for Alinea. When they joined together in this partnership, they built a foundation that was able to grasp the abstract concepts and the philosophical underpinnings of business. In short, it just made sense.

I fully admit that my love of fine dining is theoretical because the confines of my budget severely limit my access to such establishments as Alinea and The French Laundry. Without access, my love is more an admiration and respect for the art form. What I do fully understand, however, is a well written story from people who are passionate about what they do. “Life, On the Line” is a very well written memoir in which the reader is given intimate information about the subjects. To me, it’s written more like a journal that Achatz started when he was younger and handed to Kokonas at the beginning of their friendship. And they passed it back and forth as their relationship blossomed and Alinea came became a reality. You get both sides of the line in this book. You get both reactions to the situations that arise and it’s beautiful, intense, and kind of perfect, which I think was the point.

My favorite part of the book was the epilogue. Not just because it was the end of the book, but because it was the place where the reader is given the most unfiltered view of the Achatz and Kokonas. I sincerely appreciate any person who dares showcase the depths of their humanity. I am not the kind of reader who needs a happy ending. I have spoken to many, many people who need it in order to feel like the time they invested in the book was worth it. I respect that, but I am not that kind of reader. I don’t feel the need to put that much pressure on an author because writing a book is hard enough as it is. Trust me on this one, I know. “Life, on the line” has an appropriate ending, which I found deeply satisfying and, again, perfect.

I am glad I kept seeing this book come across the desk. I am glad I was haunted by the cover for days after shelving it. If I had ignored the signs, I am sure I would have eventually sought it out, but I am happy I read it when I did. The timing was perfect and the fact that the book was so well written gave me hope during the week that I spent grading poorly written papers from my college freshman. The book will keep me motivated this semester as I teach and continue to work toward getting my first novel published.

Next up: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.