Grant Achatz, at age 33, was well on his way; Gourmet magazine named his Chicago restaurant Alinea the best in the nation in 2006, and Achatz received the James Beard Foundation’s award for outstanding chef in 2008. Then came the devastating news: Achatz had advanced cancer of the tongue. The standard treatment would involve radical surgery, with removal of his tongue, lymph nodes and a portion of his jaw, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. He might survive the disease, but his career as a chef would be over. However, Achatz rejected this idea, and with his business partner, Nick Kokonas, finally found a pioneering program at the University of Chicago, which would use intensive chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor first, so that radical surgery would not be necessary. The regimen was grueling, but it worked and now Achatz has been cancer-free for three years. Although the treatment completely destroyed his sense of taste, it has been coming back slowly, one flavor at a time. In an interview with NPR, Achatz says:
“I started from zero, and the first thing back was sweet,” he says. “So my palate developed just as a newborn — but I was 32 years old. So I could understand how flavors were coming back and how they synergized together. … It was very educational for me. I don’t recommend it, but I think it made me a better chef because now I really understand how flavor works.”
Achatz, with partner Kokonas, has written a book recounting his battle with cancer and difficult road back. Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat hit bookstores yesterday.
How does our sense of taste work?
Our ability to taste occurs when tiny molecules released by chewing, drinking, or digesting our food stimulates special sensory cells in the mouth and throat. These taste cells, or gustatory cells, are clustered within the taste buds of the tongue and roof of the mouth, and along the lining of the throat. Many of the small bumps on the tip of your tongue contain taste buds. At birth, we have about 10,000 taste buds, but after age 50, we may start to lose them.
When the taste cells are stimulated, they send messages through three specialized taste nerves to the brain, where specific tastes are identified. Each taste cell expresses a receptor, which responds to one of at least five basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
Umami, or savory, is the taste we get from glutamate, which is found in chicken broth, meat extracts, and some cheeses. A common misconception is that taste cells that respond to different tastes are found in separate regions of the tongue. In humans, the different types of taste cells are scattered throughout the tongue.
Taste quality is just one aspect of how we experience a certain food. Another chemosensory mechanism, called the common chemical sense, involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings give rise to sensations such as the coolness of mint and the burning or irritation of chili peppers. Other specialized nerves give rise to the sensations of heat, cold, and texture. When we eat, the sensations from the five taste qualities, together with the sensations from the common chemical sense and the sensations of heat, cold, and texture, combine with a food’s aroma to produce a perception of flavor. It is flavor that lets us know whether we are eating a pear or an apple.
Many people who think they have a taste disorder actually have a problem with smell. When we chew, aromas are released that activate our sense of smell by way of a special channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. If this channel is blocked, such as when our noses are stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors cannot reach sensory cells in the nose that are stimulated by smells. As a result, much of our enjoyment of flavor is lost. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have no flavor.