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Continued: Great Chefs: Patrick Atanalian adds a personal touch

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 30, 2014 - 11:34 AM

Seven years later, Sanctuary remains Atanalian’s cooking refuge. His culinary imagination continues to be no less fevered but seems far more refined, his fascination with — and enthusiasm for — the what-happens-next aspect of seasonal cooking still burning bright.

He’s still standing

Seeing Atanalian standing at his stove in his spotless white German chef shoes is something of a miracle these days. (“I’ve got a shoe fetish,” he said with a laugh, making the international symbol for shhhh, don’t tell.)

He remembers the date as if it were a grim version of his birthday: Nov. 6, 2012, when he “was smacked by a big wave” while surfing in Mexico. He didn’t give the incident another thought, despite developing an increasing number of headaches. Shortly after returning to Minnesota, he headed to a nightclub on his night off. The next thing he remembered, he was waking up in a hospital, two days later.

That freak surfing accident had jolted his brain into a different position. Emergency surgery relieved pressure on his brain caused by blood buildup. He regained consciousness and realized that his left side was paralyzed.

“All I could think was, ‘I’m never going to walk again; I’m never going to cook again,’ ” he said. “It was very scary. But I didn’t work this hard all my life to be like this, so I challenged myself.”

He started over, literally. “My body felt like it was 100 years old, but my brain was brand-new,” he said. “It was like being a baby again.”

Months of grueling physical and mental therapy followed. He relearned how to walk, to write, to hold a knife, often working into exhaustion after a frustrating 10 or 20 minutes. “Like everyone else, I wanted it now,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I’d be butchering a fish and oops,” he said. “What else could I do, but practice more?”

While adapting to newfound sensitivities to light and sound, he returned to work, gradually regaining his stamina in increments (first 15 minutes, then 30, then 60, and so on), measured by a kitchen timer: ting, and it was time to go home. Within a year — and embraced by support in every direction — Atanalian eventually restored his pre-accident presence at the restaurant.

“Everyone has been so incredible,” he said. “My wife, the doctors, the therapists, the guys in the kitchen, everyone.”

Adapting has become his new mantra. He sold his cherished Yamaha motorcycle (“Such a fast little beast,” he said) and turned to Courage Center to relearn how to drive a car. His nightlife days have evaporated (“I used to go out, a lot,” he said), but he’s happy to be traveling again.

Fearful of the effects of pressurized air on his brain, it took more than a year before Atanalian could stomach the idea of getting on an airplane. His first outing was a trip to Corsica to visit his brother, and to his great relief, he arrived unscathed. “Now I’m like, ‘Where are we going next?’ ” he said.

Small quarters, big thinking

At the moment, his most satisfying journeys take him from his northeast Minneapolis residence to his near-the-Guthrie restaurant, a six-days-a-week gig in a kitchen so diminutive that food truck operators might consider it cramped.

There’s barely room for Atanalian and his staff of four, who make do with a half-size grill, two ovens (one doesn’t get much hotter than “warm”) under a 10-burner stove, a pair of side-by-side refrigerators — he dreams of a walk-in cooler — a small fryer and a dishwasher. “You name it, we don’t have it,” he said. Still, Atanalian is nothing if not pragmatic.

“We just do,” he said, tossing off a quintessentially Gallic shrug. “It’s not like we have a choice. You have to work with what you have. You figure it out.”

His age? “Twenty-seven,” he said, with a straight face. Despite the accident — or perhaps because of it — Atanalian radiates a youthful energy, but late 20s is still a stretch. “Nobody knows,” he said. “Not even my wife. I’m going to be like my grandma. When she died, no one knew her age. It runs in the family.”

Not that he’s unaware of the cruel if inevitable effect the passage of time has on kitchen professionals. “There comes a time when your knees give out, or you get carpal tunnel, or you hurt your back or your neck and you have to step off the line,” he said. “You have to teach the guys, then let it go.

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