Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Culinary Creativity...via Cancer?

Please excuse the alliteration, I couldn't resist. 

Chicago Chef and owner of Alinea, Grant Achatz (34) was diagnosed with stage B-4 tongue cancer in July of 2007. The cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and his prognosis was very grim. As a non-smoker and occasional wine consumer, a tongue cancer diagnosis was quite unexpected. He tells Food and Wine magazine about his trials with finding an oncologist who could provide any positive outlook on his situation. He found hope at University of Chicago Medical Center and proceeded to get a new combination of chemotherapy drugs and radiation, which eradicated his cancer. 

Unfortunately, this intense cure came with a price: his sense of taste. 

One could only begin to imagine the affect this might have on a popular Chicago chef, in the midst of opening a restaurant no less. Here is where we get to the creative part. Achatz begins to make up his menus the same way he usually does, going through seasonal ingredients and making detailed outlines of what to do with each ingredient. His final steps, taste tests, were clearly not possible because the radiation had so severely burned and damaged the tissues in his mouth and throat. Luckily, his chef de cuisine (right hand man), had been working with him for so long that their palates were virtually indistinguishable "I could give him something and go 'Does this need salt?' He would taste it and go 'Yes, a pinch.' I knew that it was basically me saying 'it needs a pinch of salt'".

As Achatz's sense of taste began to come back (one "flavor" at a time, much like a baby), his menu items began to exhibit the radical taste experiences he was having. It is worth noting that the author of the article in Food and Wine admits that Achatz was a creative chef before; unique presentation, ingredients etc. However, the author says that Achatz's unfortunate brush with cancer took his cuisine to the next level.  Here is an excerpt from the article describing one of the many unique dishes that Grant Achatz came up with after his radiation treatment:
"He cooked two dishes for me that he said had been occasioned by the loss of his taste buds. One was a dish of sweetbreads served with chestnut puree and a puree of burned bread. 'Creatively, I'm understanding the way bitter and sweet work well together. So what can I put on the plate that's going to be very, very bitter? Whenever you burn something it's bitter, and I think of burned toast. So I crumble bread into crumbs and burn them in the oven. Then I puree them with water and salt and a bit of sugar. You taste a spoonful of that burned-bread puree alone and you just want to gag, because it's so bitter. I would never have had the confidence to put a component  like that on the plate, I don't think, before this whole ordeal. But now I understand how the bitterness of that burned-bread puree works with the sweetness of the chestnut puree, and balances with the fattiness of the sweetbreads. You find complexities and balance and depth of flavor that you wouldn't normally find, because you have these extremes. It comes together in the middle somewhere, and that's very satisfying and unique. Before I went through treatment, I don't think I would have had the confidence to intentionally burn food'"

Achatz also presented the author with a dessert made from chocolate and soy sauce. Granted it wasn't the average Hershey/Kikoman combination, but that still sounds pretty odd right? But Achatz's perception of "sweet" and "salty" was so acute that he was able to refine the dish to a very palatable combination.

The Food and Wine author Andrew Solomon took the end of the article to another direction but I would like to end my post with some questions about origins of creativity and what happens when things change. Would Achatz have come up with unique dishes like the burned bread dessert if he had not been deprived of, then slowly regained his sense of taste? Maybe something "like" it, but probably not. Solomon addresses this but takes it to a fluffy end about resilience and trauma. 

What I want to know (hopefully you do too) is what connection deprivation of normalcy (be it senses, a particular environment, etc) does to ones measurable creativity? And how does reassembling that normalcy (when possible) affect creativity as well? In Achatz's case it served him well because it provided him with new understanding of his creative medium.  If the creative "seed" is already there do changes truly affect its germination and growth? 


Please read the article Cancer and Creativity
Here is a link to one written for The New Yorker in 2008 


  1. You brought up a very interesting question! If Achatz did not experience the therapy which he had to recover his taste from, would he have ever come up with such creative, taste-bud intriguing recipes? I guess that makes me wonder whether he would be considered a creative person for any of his other accomplishments, and if not, then was his creativity was a product of his illness? I guess that brings up the idea that creativity can be circumstantial, and that makes sense if we use the working definition that says in order for something to be creative, there has to be a need for it. I guess creativity is sometimes a product of circumstance.

  2. I think this is one of the most interesting cases of creativity and constraints brought throughout the blog so far. I really like the discussion and observation of how constraints can actually help elevate creativity and the creative process, even if under very unfortunate and life-threatening circumstances such as Achatz's were. He was obviously a brilliantly innovate chef and restauranteur prior to his battle against tongue cancer, but his constraint really pushed to create and understand his work in a totally new way. It's very difficult to say that cancer is ever beneficial, but in some ways Achatz was rebirthed unto the culinary world and able to use all of his massive preexisting knowledge with a brand new tongue to create even more unique dishes.

    Speaking of constraints - this does seem to have some relationship to Stravinsky (among others, I'm sure). Stravinsky early in his career had to fight against his family and father that he did not want to attend law school but instead pursue his musical passions. Obviously, in the long run, Stravinsky ended up quite prolific for his contributions to modern music. Gardner does even outline Stravinsky's tremendous work ethic in regards to learning and composing music throughout his life. Perhaps his constraint early on had something to do with how hard he worked later and thus his immense musical accomplishments?


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