After she lost her sense of taste, Kristen Trattner found her calling at a diner.
Kristen Trattner stands over a table at the Nickel Diner in Los Angeles, aiming a chef's blowtorch on the quivering meringue atop a slice of s'more cake. "It's just like a campfire," she says as the sweet, smoky redolence of toasted marshmallow wafts up from the dessert. "The power of smell is so important."
Important enough, in fact, to be Trattner's solace when a cruel trick of fate nearly destroyed her health. On her 36th birthday, in April 2000, Trattner, who'd never smoked, was diagnosed with stage III tongue cancer. For eight months, a twice-daily regimen of radiation treatments burned her tongue and throat; she survived on liquid proteins, delivered through a stomach tube. During her convalescence, Trattner says, "I got addicted to cooking shows, because when you can't eat, food is your obsession." She began preparing elaborate meals, relying on her sense of smell as a barometer for flavor. One weekend she made batch after batch of brownies, just to revel in the scent of chocolate. "I couldn't taste, kiss, or speak," she says, "but I could smell!"
By late 2001, Trattner was cancer-free and recovering the use of her taste buds. She'd also returned to her career as a visual effects artist on Hollywood films such as City of Angels and Seabiscuit. "It sounds glamorous, and the money was good, but I sat in a dark cubicle for ten to 12 hours at a time," she says. After a few years, Trattner walked away. "Every moment had become precious to me."
She moved to a loft in an artsy but bedraggled patch of downtown L.A. and fell in love with Monica May, the owner of a neighborhood café. In 2008 the duo opened the Nickel Diner, which specializes in gourmet makeovers of greasy-spoon standbys. Best known for its maple-glazed bacon doughnut, the Nickel, a critics' favorite, is always packed; Trattner can often be spotted greeting customers and showing off the diner's old-timey dessert tray, which includes their homemade spins on Pop-Tarts and Ding Dongs. "What I get out of this restaurant is heart," she says. "If it wasn't for the cancer, I'd never have had the courage to step out and do this." —Monica Corcoran Harel
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