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Excerpt: 'Life On The Line'

Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz


I entered the French Laundry kitchen and saw a tall lanky man sweeping the floor. His back was toward me and he didn't hear me enter, so he kept doing his job for a few seconds. I peered past him looking for chef Keller, waited a few seconds for the sweeper to notice me, and when he didn't, approached him. "I'm Grant Achatz, here for a tryout. Is chef Keller in?"

"Yeah. That's me," he said, letting out a laugh. "You're early, Grant."

He stuck out his hand and shook mine vigorously with an exaggerated up and down motion.

I thought to myself, "Holy shit. He's the first one here, and he's sweeping the floor. What kind of restaurant is this?"

"I'm going to set you up with Kevin. He's in the back putting away produce, but he can show you around and get you started."

"Yes, Chef." My tryout had begun.

"We're going to cut some brunoise. You okay with a knife?"

Kevin demonstrated the tiny dice, pushed the pieces over to the far corner of my board and said, "Leave those there for a reference."

I began cutting the turnip, carrot, and green leek tops into the miniature cubes at a good clip. Another cook approached my cutting board, looked at my work, then back at me. He spoke very slowly, making sure the others around us heard him. "Hi. I'm Josh."

"Grant is from Trotter's," Kevin spoke up on my behalf.

Josh immediately looked down at my board, poked his finger into a pile of my carrot brunoise and pulled out a single piece from the hundred that was cut on a slight angle to form an inconsequentially uneven cube.

"Kevin, you had better watch this guy. His knife skills aren't so good." Josh looked me in the eye and said, "You might want to start over." He slowly walked away.

As we finished up the brunoise, Kevin headed over to chef Keller, who was busy cleaning foie gras for torchon, and inquired what he should have me do next. "Have him peel and slice tomatoes for Eric," he said.

Eric Ziebold was manning the garde manger station, working on the components for a sliced tomato salad. We exchanged introductions and he instructed me to blanch, peel, and slice the Early Girl tomatoes using a deli meat slicer.

I made quick work of peeling them and headed to the slicer.

With every stroke across the slicer the tomato juice would run down toward the bottom of the blade then violently spray at me. I sliced thirty tomatoes, seasoned each layer with minced shallots, olive oil, sel gris, and black pepper, then meticulously stacked them back together so that they would appear to be a whole tomato. In the process, I looked like an ax murderer, my chef coat covered with tomato-juice splatter.

Chef Keller walked by, looked me up and down, and deadpanned with a wry smile, "Hey. Next time why don't you try to get a little more tomato all over yourself?" He paused a few beats for effect and smiled again. "Go change your coat."

I couldn't help but smile, even though I was embarrassed.

This place felt different. It felt good.

Excerpted from
Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. Copyright 2011 by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. Published by Gotham. All rights reserved.

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Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas