Just a couple of weeks ago we interviewed Graham Elliot (the man) about Andrew Brochu stepping into Elliot’s shoes as the first executive chef at Graham Elliot (the restaurant). Now it’s Brochu’s turn at the mic; we talk with him about his journey from Alinea cook to the much-loved but sadly short-lived "elegant country food" restaurant Kith & Kin, which led to an interlude doing his own thing with Phillip Foss at EL Ideas before he got a phone call inviting him to walk into one of the highest-profile kitchens in town and take it over in his own way. Then see some of his (very flowery) new spring menu for yourself in the slideshow by our man Huge Galdones. Click the image to go straight to the pretty pictures, or click "read more" to go to the interview.
So the first thing we noticed in Huge’s photos was that there’s a lot of flowers in your dishes. A lot of flowers. What’s with all the flowers?
In my opinion, everyone should be cooking seasonally, and that’s what’s blooming right now. I really want to tell the story of the seasons in my dishes, showing what’s happening right now.
I’m also very intrigued with texture. I like textures a lot, and I think flowers add something unique, that vegetal crunch. It’s not for everybody, but I think it goes well on the dishes. That said, I’m not putting anything on the dish that doesn’t have flavor. (With the flowers, sometimes you have to tell people to eat them— they’re not just they’re to be beautiful.) When I get stuff from [forager] Dave Odd, or from Chef’s Garden, we’ll just sit and taste for half an hour, and think about what to do with it.
I think if you look at one of the strongest dishes texturally, which is the redfish which is inspired by fish and chips, a lot of the food is, not exactly deconstruction, but it’s looking at elements and why they’re there, and reinterpreting what flavors and textures you get from the original dish and providing a similar set of experiences in a new way.
Yeah, deconstruction was a big part of Graham Elliot when it first opened— the deconstructed Caesar salad and things like that. Is that something you’re trying to carry on?
No, not really. I think explicitly deconstructed dishes, dishes that call themselves that, that’s something that’s been done and it’s a little out of date. Something like the redfish, the servers aren’t describing it as a deconstructed fish and chips. We’re not waiting for you to put two and two together.
What I mean is, you’re looking at a classic dish and trying to think about what naturally goes together. In the redfish, you’ve got the richness of the fish, there are potatoes, there’s fat that cuts the pickled flavor of the ramps which are sort of like cornichons. You’re getting pickly rustic flavors and you’re eating them with this beautiful light, flaky fish, and the rich fattiness of the potato rounds everything out.
Basically you look at a dish and say, this works together, how can I make it completely different? How can I make it deeper, and more thought-provoking?
So let’s talk about taking over a restaurant that has somebody else’s name and personality all over it.
I dined here when Graham Elliot first opened, and it’s been an evolving restaurant, and part of his ever-evolving character. So I’m not trying to continue something. I just came in and did what I know how to do.
And he really gave me free will to put in my restaurant. There was never a conversation about, we need to be in this box, this is what we do. He said, our goal is to be one of the best restaurants in Chicago, come in and do what you do.
My first menu was kind of weak, to me. It was the end of winter and I started on February 1st and I had a new menu up on February 3rd. But he tasted it and was like, Wow, so that was encouraging to take it further next time. I said let me put that out there and then we’ll really blow it up for spring. I’m really happy with this new menu, the menu now. I really enjoy the collaborative process in the kitchen with my cooks. We’re constantly playing with things and evolving.
So how would you describe the food you’re making now?
(Pauses) That’s hard. I mean, I knew how to describe the food at Kith & Kin— elegant country food, basically. I worked for two years with that in my head. But I don’t know, I don’t want to sound too theatrical. I guess I’d say it’s very soulful, refined, progressive cuisine. It’s about trying to keep the soul in cooking, about feeling that there’s passion, and thoughtfulness, in the food. I grew up in the South, so I want the food to have that soul, without being some kind of fake upscale version of Southern food.
Where did you grow up in the South?
Oh, all over. My dad would open Red Lobsters, so we moved 13 times in 13 years. Mainly Florida, and Lawrenceville, Georgia. But that’s why I don’t want to do some take on Southern food. No fancy shrimp and grits, you know?
My big focus is precision. It’s about honing the craft of cooking, and trying to be as precise as possible. Coming from Alinea, and having that kind of indirect French Laundry training, I’m constantly pushing to have that level of precision in my kitchen. I mean, Grant, he’s the man and he’s my mentor, and I think for anyone who’s worked there, there’s a certain level of trying to push each other and make him proud.
And this is a place where I can do that. I’m extremely happy to be here at Graham Elliot. It’s a real cool opportunity, and humbling.
Click the slideshow button below to see some of Andrew Brochu’s new spring dishes.