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Take Five with Chef Grant Achatz, on His New Memoir Chronicling His Brave Battle Against Tongue Cancer

Tuesday, 22. February 2011 5:26

Grant Achatz's new book. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Next is the prophetic name of the new restaurant expected to open this spring in Chicago by acclaimed chef, Grant Achatz, of the James Beard Award-winning, Michelin three-starred Alinea.

Like his first Chicago ground-breaking sanctum to molecular gastronomy, Next also will challenge and provoke the defiinition of what a restaurant is by completely reinventing itself every three months with period-themed menus and decor, along with an audacious non-refundable ticketing system as the only option to snag a table there.

It’s bold. It’s daring. And it’s a miracle that it’s even possible.

After all, if you know Achatz’s story, you already realize that the odds were stacked against him far higher than the city’s iconic Sears Tower when he was diagnosed with tongue cancer four years ago at age 32. By the time it was caught, his squamous cell carcinoma was at stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Doctors told this chef and father of two young sons that he would die a painful death in mere months if he didn’t undergo radical surgery to remove his tongue and part of his jaw, which would leave him disfigured, unable to talk and without the ability to taste. Despite conventional thinking, Achatz decided to gamble on an alternative, experimental and brutal treatment of intensive, targeted chemotherapy and radiation that ended up saving his life.

His stunning story is recounted in his new memoir, “Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat’’ (Penguin), which debuts March 3.

You can meet Achatz on March 17 in San Francisco, when he and his business partner and co-writer, Nick Kokonas will be signing copies of the book at 12:30 p.m. at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. Later that day, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., they will also sign books at Omnivore in San Francisco. The talk they will hold afterward at Omnivore sold out days after it was announced.

Last week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Achatz on what it was like to reveal so much about himself in this book; his relationship with rival Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter; and his feelings on who might portray him in the feature film-version of his memoir, which may be directed, surprisingly, by David Dobkin of “Wedding Crashers” fame.

Q: Has your sense of taste returned fully now?

A: I believe so. Taste is a funny thing, though. If you go to an ophthalmologist, they can tell if your eyes aren’t working correctly. They can give you a prescription for glasses or contacts. Same with hearing. But taste is something you can’t measure.

To me, at least in my memory, my tasting ability is the same as it was pre-cancer. I would even argue that certain aspects resulting from the treatment helped me to taste better now. It doesn’t have to do with the physiology of it. It’s the mental thing. It’s learning what taste is and how it’s composed.

My ability to taste came back in pieces. I was down to under 130 pounds and I never used to drink coffee with sugar in it. But I did then to get calories. I’d put three giant tablespoons of sugar in my coffee. One day, I took a sip and I could actually taste the sugar. Up to that point, I couldn’t taste sweet at all. Then, three months later, I’d drink my coffee and say, ‘Damn, this coffee tastes bitter.’ And so, I could taste bitterness again. Having tastes come back in stages like that really teaches you about how they all relate to one another as they come together on the palate and function in relation to one another. It was a very informative process. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. (laughs) But it works for me.

Alinea's hazelnut yogurt, curry saffron, freeze-dried corn in edible tube. (Photo courtesy of Penguin)

Q: How did your fight against cancer change you as a person and as a chef? Do you look at life differently now?

A: It does make you look at life differently. You have to make fundamental decisions. Different people handle things differently. Some people might say, ‘I need to reprioritize my life, spend more time with loved ones, and work less.’ When you face mortality, you undergo a self-evaluation of your life. I’m pretty happy with my life. I didn’t feel like I had to change anything. How lucky am I to get to go to work for 14-16 hours a day to do something I love? I probably do focus more now on my two young boys. And I make a more time now for relatives, and for my girlfriend. But on a whole, I really didn’t change anything.

I don’t think it made me more driven. My trajectory pre-cancer was such that I think I would be exactly what I am now even if the cancer had never happened.

Q: Did you ever think, ‘Why me?’

A: I had maybe a couple moments of that. But it was not a consistent feeling.

In the book, I reveal how I was sitting on the couch with my mother and she started to cry and I started to cry. She asked me what was wrong. And I thought, ‘What’s wrong??!’ I guess you could call it self-pity. I guess it was then that I thought it was unfair, that I was too young for all of this, that this was supposed to happen to old people. There was a sense of helplessness. That was my low point. I did nothing to deserve this. I wasn’t a chain-smoker; I wasn’t an alcoholic. So, I did ask myself, ‘Why me?’ It was probably only twice. That time with my mother and then when I was sitting with Heather (Sperling, his girlfriend who is the editor of the Tasting Table Chicago e-newsletter) after the diagnosis. I felt bad for her and for my boys.

Q: In the book, you state that your experience in working at the French Laundry in Yountville as a young cook essentially helped save your life. Can you expound on that?

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Category:"Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Restaurants, Thomas Keller/French Laundry/Et Al | Comments (22) | Author:

Take Five with Yigit Pura, On His Sweet Victory on “Top Chef Just Desserts”

Friday, 17. December 2010 5:25

Yigit Pura dishes on his victory in "Top Chef Just Desserts.'' (Photo courtesy of Pura)

If you tuned into the insanely wild first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Just Desserts,’’ you know that Yigit Pura brought sweet victory home to San Francisco. The executive pastry chef of Taste Catering and Event Planning triumphed over formidable challenges and plenty of histrionics to win a cool $100,000.

A native of Turkey, Pura has felt at home in the kitchen ever since he was a tot, helping his mom make dark caramel and other sugary goodies. Self-taught, he worked in New York at Le Cirque 2000 and Restaurant Daniel, before moving to San Francisco, where he now works on a variety of events that range in scale from a dinner for eight in a private home to a Major League Baseball fete for 5,000 people. Following his win, the board of supervisors even proclaimed Nov. 17 as “Yigit Pura Day’’ in the city.

This week, I had a chance to talk to the 30-year-old Pura, about life before, during and after the show.

Q: I’ve watched ‘Top Chef’’ since its inception and I have to say I’ve never seen such drama as on ‘Top Chef Just Desserts.’ Is the world of pastry really that over-the-top?

A: (laughs) Pastry chefs tend to be more meticulous creatures, and with that comes a need for more of a sense of control. We’re definitely more eccentric than the savory side.

Q: Why did you want to do the show?

A: I got approached by Bravo. I had always watched ‘Top Chef,’ so it was a tempting offer. I couldn’t say ‘No.’ I thought it would be an interesting platform to showcase pastry chefs’ work instead of just having it be an afterthought after the savory courses, as it usually is.

For one of the challenges, Pura created this elegant hazelnut dacquoise with milk jam and salted caramel ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Bravo TV)

Q: What was the hardest challenge?

A: There were a few of them. The ‘Celebritea’ challenge, where we had to create a dessert based on a celebrity couple. (Pura chose Madonna and Guy Ritchie.) I had a hard time grasping that in my core. I felt I wasn’t in my body then. After the restaurant wars challenge, I was a mess. I tend to be pretty grounded, but with the lack of sleep, I just felt the floodgates open. It was definitely not my finest moment. But I finally was able to channel all of that to just get re-inspired in the competition.

Q: What surprised you most about doing the show?

A: I tend to plan things a lot in my work when I create recipes and do events. Confronted with such time constraints and limitations on the show, I was amazed I could be so spontaneous under such conditions.

Q: Of all your competitors, whose pastries/desserts would you most want to eat on your day off?

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Category:"Take Five'' Q&A, Bakeries, Chefs, Chocolate, Food TV, General | Comments (24) | Author:

Take Five with Ming Tsai, on His Experiences on the “Next Iron Chef”

Wednesday, 1. December 2010 5:27

Ming Tsai (photo courtesy of the chef)

He’s only 46 years old, but Chef Ming Tsai of the 12-year-old Blue Ginger restaurant in Massachusetts was an early pioneer of modern-day cooking shows with his innovative East-meets-West flavors that are more relevant today than ever.

Indeed, he’s now doing Season 8 of his “Simply Ming’’ show on public television. And he just missed winning this season’s “Next Iron Chef’’ competition on the Food Network, coming in third.

Yesterday, I had a chance to talk to him by phone about how the landscape of food television has changed, as well as his timely new cookbook, “Simply Ming One-Pot Meals” (Kyle Books).

Q: When the lineup for ‘Next Iron Chef’ was first announced, a lot of folks were surprised to see your name. In fact, my friends thought that the Food Network should have just made you an Iron Chef, that you’d already earned it after all these years.

A: I wish your friends worked at the Food Network. (laughs) It would have saved me a lot of work and time.

Q: Why did you want to compete on the show?

A: For fun. I enjoy competition and cooking. It’s the only format out there that’s legit. I think the judges were fair, though, I didn’t always agree with what was said. But Michael Symon was spot-on for the most part.

I wasn’t out to prove to the world that I could still cook. But I was out to prove to the rest of the world that I still had game. This seemed like the perfect format. I had enough staff at the restaurant to cover for me since we were shooting for five-plus weeks. It was a huge time commitment. But it was a blast.

It was as hard as I thought it would be. You have 30 minutes to do one dish or 60 minutes to do several dishes. You just have to put your head down and go for it. The hardest challenge was the Vegas buffet. It was brutal. People were getting delirious.

I’m certainly glad I did it. I made some great friends for life. Marc Forgione and Bryan Caswell are solid guys. Those are guys I probably would have never hung with. They’re 10-15 years younger than me. I tend to hang out with Jean Georges (Vongerichten) and Daniel (Boulud) — guys like that.

Q: I heard that some of the other chefs such as Duskie Estes were calling you, ‘Uncle Ming’?

A: Some of them did say that. (Marco) Canora called me that and he’s 43! I was the oldest there. But I was not in the worst shape of any of them. I loved the fact that they were thinking about me so much for the first couple of shows that they weren’t even concentrating on their own food.

Q: Did you like the way you were portrayed, i.e. the comments about your plating being stuck in the 1980s and the scene with the messy sous vide machine?

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Take Five with Chef Duskie Estes, On Competing On “The Next Iron Chef” Despite Never Watching the Food Network

Friday, 1. October 2010 5:25

Tune in to watch Duskie Estes of Bovolo and Zazu restaurants in Sonoma County. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

When the third season of “The Next Iron Chef’’ premieres on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 9 p.m., 10 chefs will compete to win a chance to stand alongside Michael Symon and Jose Garces as the newest Iron Chefs on that smoke-billowing platform.

Among them will be Duskie Estes of Zazu Restaurant + Farm in Santa Rosa, the only Northern California chef in the competition, who is gunning to follow in Cat Cora’s footsteps to become the second female “Iron Chef.’’

I had a chance this week to chat by phone with Estes, a former vegetarian who went over to the pork side, who feared she nearly blew the interview when she was first asked to do the show.

A believer in “snout to tail’’ cooking, the 42-year-old Estes, who grew up in San Francisco, is also chef-owner with her husband of Bovolo in Healdsburg and the Black Pig Meat Co., purveyor of salumi and bacon in Sonoma County. Estes has worked at such top restaurants as Al Forno in Rhode Island, Bay Wolf in Oakland, and Dahlia Lounge in Seattle. She and her husband, John Stewart, who studied salumi making with Mario Batali, met while working together at Etta’s Seafood and Palace Kitchen, both of which are Chef Tom Douglas’ restaurants in Seattle.

Cheer on Estes as she goes up against: Marco Canora (chef and owner of Hearth, Terrior, and Terroir TriBeca, in New York), Bryan Caswell (chef and owner of Reef, Stella Sola, and Little Bigs, in Houston), Maneet Chauhan (chef at Vermilion in Chicago and New York), Mary Dumont (executive chef at Harvest in Cambridge), , Marc Forgione (chef and owner of Marc Forgione in New York), Andrew Kirschner (executive chef of Wilshire in Santa Monica), Mario Pagán (chef and owner of Lemongrass in Puerto Rico), Celina Tio (chef and owner of Julian in Kansas City, MO), and Ming Tsai (chef and wwner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass.).

Q: You had an Easy-Bake oven when you were growing up. I’m so jealous, as my Mom never let me have one because she thought I’d burn down the house with it. Was this the start of your love for cooking?

A: I was 5 when I got mine. I have a photo of me baking a birthday cake for my grandfather with it. I was very proud of it.

I got one for my older daughter when she was 5. They have so many added safety features on it now. You can’t get in there and get the stuff. It’s less fun now. It was better when it was dangerous. (laughs) So, I let my older daughter, who’s 9 now, just use the real oven instead.

Q: Is Duskie a nickname or your given name?

A: It’s my given name. It’s a testament to my California hippie parents.

Q: Since you grew up in San Francisco, you must have had a pretty foodie household?

A: My father was a scientist, and scientists are all closet chefs. After my parents divorced, my Dad would take me out once a week to a restaurant in San Francisco. So, from the time I was 10, I had a great exposure to what great chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower were doing.

I’m also the youngest in the family. Growing up, I was the one who cooked for the whole family. I loved it.

Q: You graduated from Brown University. How did you go from that to cooking professionally?

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Category:"Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, Enticing Events, Food TV, General, Meat, Restaurants | Comments (21) | Author:

Take Five with Chef Jennie Lorenzo, On Cooking with Bad Boy Chefs and Life After the Fifth Floor

Wednesday, 15. September 2010 5:25

One of the best meals I’ve had this year can’t be experienced again.

Not in all its totality.

It was on Sept. 4 at San Francisco’s tony Fifth Floor restaurant, on what was the last night that Executive Chef Jennie Lorenzo was in the kitchen.

Although, I had eaten at the Fifth Floor a few times over the past few years under the reign of other top toques, I had yet to make it in there to try Lorenzo’s cooking. I had planned on doing so some day. But some day came all too unexpectedly when Lorenzo emailed me that week, inviting me to come in as her guest, as she was about to depart the restaurant after cooking there on and off for five and a half years.

My husband, who is happy enough with a burger and gets jaded after one too many fancy tasting menus, sat back in his chair that night, looked me square in the eyes, and said emphatically after only the second course, “I am SO glad we came. This is really good.”

How good? Even our server, who had worked with Lorenzo for the past few years, came in to dine on his day off a few days before because he wanted to experience Chef Lorenzo’s dazzling cooking one last time before she left.

You might be scratching your head right now, thinking how it’s possible you’ve never heard of this talented, 35-year-old Filipino-American, who has worked for some of the most legendary chefs in the United States, Europe and Japan. It’s not your fault. For whatever reason, Lorenzo never garnered the buzz she should have. She took over right after the restaurant was remodeled — its wild, flashy animal prints toned down to a sleeker, simpler contemporary look.  But the public seemed confused about what the restaurant had become. Some thought it still fine-dining; others turned their back, thinking it had morphed into a bistro of all things.

The pity of that.

Especially  because Lorenzo decided to leave the restaurant to take a much needed break. Although the restaurant will continue, it’s unclear yet who will be named as her replacement.

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