In 2007, Achatz lost his own ability to taste. He was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer, which metastasized to both sides of his neck. His surgeons told him they were going to cut out his tongue and replace it with muscle from another part of his body. With the surgery, Achatz only had a 50 percent chance of surviving beyond two years. But, he says, he was even more afraid of losing his ability to taste and eat.
"I lived my whole life in the kitchen," he says. "Not only that, but it's the passion, it's the love for cooking and food. It's dictated my entire life — every aspect of it. So, in some ways, the thought of not being able to do that anymore radically affects your life."
Achatz found a clinical trial at the University of Chicago that agreed to treat him with radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation treatments burned his tongue, shed the lining of his esophagus — and completely destroyed his taste buds.
"It was very strange to not be able to discern any flavor at all," he says. "It's funny because, clearly, you know you have to eat to live. But even knowing that, for me, there was no reason to eat. I had no interest in eating whatsoever. I would put something in my mouth — say a vanilla milkshake — and it tasted like nothing."