Before Graham Elliot explains "the philosophy and mindset of what it is to be a chef," he points out his futuristic silver sneakers and, later, his tattoo honoring the band Jawbreaker. Stations around him buzz with activity. Sticky smells waft from "Sweet", the burners await fresh orders at "Sea", and mise-en-place at "Land" is ready for the night's approaching dinner rush. This is clearly not a one-size-fits-all kitchen. Each station, and each person occupying it, is assigned to a certain section of the menu. Everyone in Chef Elliot's kitchen is a specialist, taking food we love to a new level. Put simply, they make the great even greater.
It's as indicative of the restaurant as of the chef himself. Original, creative, and unabashedly whimsical (Pixie Stix cocktails!), Graham Elliot caters to every crowd without losing its rock n' roll attitude. Rock n' roll is decadence, and you'll find that here - with just a hint of humor under its elegant surface. Chef's favorite meal? Mac n' cheese with optional diced-up hotdog, "if I'm feeling it." Less is truly more.
caesar romaine lettuce / white anchovies / parmesan fluff / brioche twinkie croutons
Thirsty: Tell us a little about your culinary background?
Graham Eliot: I went to Johnson and Wales University on the east coast. From there I worked at Star Canyon in Dallas. Then came to Chicago and Charlie Trotters and Tru, and did that for a total of four years, four and a half years. Then I went to Vermont to run a little bed and breakfast, a 15-room inn, and while I was there I was named one of Food and Wine's top ten best new chefs. That was 2004. That opened a lot of doors and I knew that I really wanted to be back in Chicago, and I had an opportunity to come back as the chef of Avenues at the Peninsula hotel. So I did that and under my tenure we achieved five diamonds from AAA, four stars from Chicago Magazine, the Tribune, and the Sun-Times. So a lot of critical acclaim which was beyond our wildest dreams, but I always had the idea that I wanted to do my cuisine. But in a less formal setting, and make it a little more approachable, more down to earth and more hip. So when the time got around to doing to my own place, you know, we started looking for spots that kind of have that feel and we found this place in the gallery district - this 1890 warehouse, so its 120 years old. It has all the original woodwork and brick and everything else, it just really lets the space speak for itself. Very minimal design and decor. I wanted natural colors. The lights, the aroma, the displays - all of those change with each season, as well as servers shirts, their undershirts - we'll have orange for fall, white for winter, green in spring, yellow for summer. So we do all those things because there's no art or anything in the restaurant. No flowers. There's nothing manmade or things that aren't needed. It's very pure, very simple - the same kind of philosophy we have in kitchen, it comes through in the food we do. So less is more. The music we play is a culmination of our different iPods in back in the kitchen. We listen to that music, we play it out here and we really hope that it stays true to what we're trying to be. It's not an 'us or them' philosophy, but we think that by staying true to who we are, that separates us from a lot of other places that are very much following kind of an old standard path of 'this kind of uniform, this kind of bread and butter, this music playing in the background.' We wanted to get rid of that and make it as original as possible.
Thirsty: What would you most like to change about the way Americans eat?
GE: I think the trend that I would like to see, and I think that we're on it, is that each restaurant represents the person behind it, you know, you go to Alinea and that's Grant's food, things like that. Where instead of just going to a restaurant and not having any clue about what's going on in the back, where it's "customer is right, I'm ordering this well-done with this sauce on the side," that philosophy going away, and seeing it more as an art as opposed to a craft. Just like you wouldn't go and listen to a band play and tell them you want to hear these six songs and you want them in this order, you want them to do what they do as an artist and you embrace it for that. So I think that that's what I'd like to do, much more than people eating organic or local. I'm a big an of capitalism and free markets, and I think where people can get the best food at best price, that's great. Everyone has their own cause and I applaud them for that, but I think trying to get people to open their eyes more to the idea that, whether its ethic, five star, anywhere in between, there's so many options where you can eat at more of an independent place and get the better experience.
Thirsty: So it's not so much about people needing to be more adventurous and be eating exotic things?
GE: No, nothing like that. I think just instead of going to Taco Bell, go to your local little taco (stand) down the street. Try something like that. When you walk into a space in Rogers Park and try something like that, the music that's playing, the decor, the people around you, everything kind of transcends... It takes you into this different place. It's kind of like being on vacation in Mexico or Peru, whatever restaurant you're trying out. I think that's a lot better than some big corporation that somehow took this idea and mass- marketed it across the world.
Thirsty: The first time I met you, you mentioned that you think of your menus like a playlist. How does music factor into the organization of the dishes on your menu? And you do listen to any particular music when you cook at home?
GE: Well, for the last part, I generally don't cook at home. I think it's almost like if you're designing shoes, you are at home wearing flip flops. I mean, this is home. I'm in here all the time. If not physically, then mentally.
With music I think that you can almost hear a song and know what that person's feeling and it kind of makes you cook in a different way. So sometimes where whoever gets here, to the restaurant first controls and gets DJing authority. Sometimes it's rap, sometimes it's rock, it's different things. And that music puts you in different place, and then you'll see that you'll cook a little differently. Sometimes the music in fall and winter it's really kind of that depressing Smiths acoustic slow stuff. And it's not sad like, 'I want to go jump of a bridge' music, but it definitely makes you much more mellow and cook slower, and with a little more romance maybe. In the summer you're listening to reggae and fun dance stuff or whatever it is, really good pop, it's the same thing. You're really happy and you enjoy things more, you're using bright colors. So I think all those kind of work together. One thing I would love to do is, I know you've seen restaurants do wine dinners and pairings and things like that. We've toyed with the idea of doing a pairing of maybe a five or ten course menu, with each dish being paired with a different song. And if we could figure out the time, maybe it's eight minutes per dish or twelve minutes, of finding a piece of music that kind of goes with each one of those things. And have the food paired to that, and build upon it and by the time you're done you've seen all these different dishes and you've heard this music, and then you go away with a CD of these different bands and expose people to different things. So instead of just sourcing food locally, we're embracing local bands, Chicago bands, bands from Milwaukee and different areas like that. Independent stuff that, again, we think falls in line with what were about.
Thirsty: Do you see matching a particular type of music to a particular type of food?
GE: Not really. I think that thanks to FedEx and the Internet, everything's global now. You get wine from France with fruits from Hawaii, and meat from Idaho, and I think music has that same ability, to more of taking some of the influences and using it to find your own voice in creating.
Thirsty: What do you think of the pop-culturization of the food industry, with things like celebrity chefs and Top Chef?
GE: I think it's really interesting because the bar has been set so low for celebrity now. Whether you're a chef or you're an extra on The Bachelor. Whatever it is, somehow you're known now. So I don't think it's relevant. But the ability, the end result of the Food Network being what it is has elevated the whole idea of being a chef in a restaurant to this rock star kind of thing, which is... I think you could, again, do the exact same thing and do a channel - a network - that's all about manufacturing cars, and be done with the tattoo stuff and motorcycles, and that's a celebrity thing. So I don't think its any different than any other career path. It's the level of passion that somebody puts forth. Whether you're a designer, an architect, or a poet, that will come through.
Thirsty: I noticed during the line-up that the team talks about the menu dishes like most people talk about their favorite songs. The passion is definitely there. How do you want to translate that passion into new ideas for the restaurant?
GE: My thing is by creating a vision that's sellable as well as something that everybody that works here can buy into and thus create a win-win synergy for everyone. So I can go and open Graham Elliot Steak, Graham Elliot Sea, different things like that where, again, the cooks, different leaders and front of the house people that followed that, are able to grow themselves as well as help us expand the business. So that's what we're trying to do right now is create a core group of people that understand the philosophy and everything else. What I'm about and the restaurant is about is the expansion of that and then be able to continue to grow.
Thirsty: There's a great story in one of Anthony Bourdain's books about the first food he ate that inspired his life as a chef. Is there something that you'd eaten at any point in your life that made you see food in a different way, or that made you want to become a chef?
GE: I think... my Dad was in the Navy, so I went to fifteen different schools, three different high schools, lived all over. And when we were in the Philippines, he was sent on a mission to the Middle East and was in Iraq and Kuwait and everything else, and he would come back and he would cook, but he wouldn’t just make one dish. He would do like a chicken curry and he would have ten different bowls of all these different garnishes - raisins, coconut, all this different things to add to it. So I know that was a big turn-on to me, that this was something that was delicious and all these different steps were involved and it was really cool and had all these different colors and ingredients.
But I think the thing that really changed my life is, I dropped out of high school, I was into music, and I was playing in a band and thought that’s what I was going to do. Cuisine became a way where I could provide for myself. I can use my hands to cook and get a job anywhere, then I worked in a restaurant in Virginia where I was exposed to the Charlie Trotter cookbook, and that’s where I realized cuisine could be a form of expression. All of these gorgeous, intricate creations that were about that big on a plate. So I promised to work for him one day. I wrote a million letters and finally I drove sixteen hours from Virginia Beach, stayed here and walked two miles to and from the restaurant, and worked these sixteen hour days just cleaning mushrooms and things like that. But you could get a sense of this throbbing, passionate work ethic going on in the kitchen, and everybody had a perfect, folded little towel and clean spoon and little copper pot and everything. I knew that was home. That’s where I needed to be. So that was the defining moment where everything started making sense and I became very goal oriented. Sous-chef by this age, chef by this age, opening my own place and cookbook by here, boom boom boom, and constantly working toward that.
Thirsty: So the cookbook is next on the list!
GE: Yeah, what we’re working on right now is two projects, one of which is going to be another food restaurant concept that would be even more accessible, more fun and also doing kind of a memoir look at the first year of a restaurant. Just everything that goes into planning and marketing, the pr, all the things that happen behind the scenes.
Thirsty: You opened in June (2008). How long before did you start the process of opening your restaurant?
GE: Oh, I met my investors two years earlier looking for a space. Trying to get things written on paper all that kind of stuff, and then from there once we finally had the lease done in November it was working to get it designed to be opened by May. We opened on time and on budget so its pretty great. We turned this whole place around and got a lot of new stuff for a lot less than what people probably think. And since then it has thankfully been nothing but successful so we’re really lucky, especially with all the economic stuff you hear going wrong in the world. I think because we’re fun and original and we’re not your standard cookie-cutter kind of restaurant, and that shows.
Thirsty: How do you come up with new recipes and how do you stay inspired?
GE: I think the biggest thing is to be aware of your surroundings. Being at a stoplight and seeing the red light will trigger something like, ‘ok, what’s in season? Beets or strawberries or rhubarb? What’s red?’ Seeing the way certain leaves are clumped up on a tree will lead me to start thinking maybe we can plate something this way, or again just being open to nature, going to trips to museums and seeing how artists have evolved through their tenure doing what they do. I think it’s a constant, nonstop journey and it’s this long and I’m right here, so again you never ‘make it’. You’re never a ‘chef’, you haven’t ever reached that pinnacle so you’re always opened to different things and getting inspired by all of that. So a movie, a book, things like that always just trigger new ideas.