American restaurateur Grant Achatz was named the top U.S. chef on Sunday in a set of awards known as the Oscars of the culinary world after a year in which a battle with oral cancer threatened to end his career.
Achatz, 34, beat four other chefs with wide-ranging culinary styles — Suzanne Goin, Frank Stitt, Jose Andres and Dan Barber — to win this year’s James Beard Foundation’s outstanding chef prize.
Achatz, a leader in molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine, runs one of the most respected restaurants in the United States. Alinea, which opened in Chicago three years ago, has been a showcase of his inventive techniques and artful presentations.
The award comes after a tough year for Achatz. Just 12 months ago, his tongue had swollen so badly that he was not speaking clearly and had lost much of his taste.
Then he received the devastating news — a tumor on his tongue — for which the standard treatment is the removal of two-thirds of the tongue.
But Achatz, instead of accepting a fate that would have ended his career, chose a less drastic if unproven combination treatment that included radiation and chemotherapy. He announced last December that he was free of cancer.
During his treatment, he barely stopped working at Alinea and was writing a cookbook on his laptop in the hospital which will be published in September. He is also planning to open a second restaurant in Chicago.
While Alinea stakes claim as the new kid pushing culinary boundaries from the U.S. Midwest, two standard bearers in New York City were recognized in other top James Beard prizes this year.
The outstanding restaurant award went to Gramercy Tavern, which was opened in 1994 and is known for its new American culinary, while celebrity chef Mario Batali and wine expert Joe Bastianich were selected as top restaurateurs for their lauded 10-year-old Italian eatery, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca.
Bastianich’s mother, Lydia, nabbed the top chef award in 2002. Only she and two other female chefs — Judy Rogers and Alice Waters – have won this title.
Other notable winners included the eatery Central Michel Richard in Washington D.C. as best new restaurant and Gavin Kaysen as “rising star chef,” an award which Achatz won five years ago.
Actress Kim Cattrall from “Sex and the City” and celebrity chef Bobby Flay served as hosts of Sunday’s award ceremony.
The James Beard Foundation awards, which began in 1990, span 52 categories that include chefs, books, journalism, design/graphics and broadcast media.
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