Whether he’s being impishly funny or waging furious online battle with a critic, Graham Elliot always makes our food scene more colorful— as a chef speaking his mind and also, sometimes, as a big target for critics and bloggers. But for the last year or two, he’s been quieter locally as he’s focused his celebrity on his television gig on Fox’s Masterchef. Still, as he says, "Chicago is where I live… I’m in my restaurants always every night," and he’s got a lot happening here in the next few months, including a reconceptualization of his flagship, Graham Elliot, under new executive chef Andrew Brochu, a new casual restaurant, Graham Elliot Bistro, on Randolph Street, and for the third year, coordinating chef-driven food at Lollapalooza. When he called us, we admit we weren’t sure if he’d be jovial or in battle mode, and it soon became clear that he was also a bit wary of whether we’d be gunning for him in some way, but we soon fell into a wide-ranging, funny and thoughtful chat about his life and world, c. 2012. The first part, mostly about the soon-to-open Graham Elliot Bistro (and why it reminds him of The White Stripes), is below; the interview will continue tomorrow.
So what exciting city are you calling from?
See, man, that’s what people think and it’s not true. I’m in Chicago right now. I have two restaurants within six blocks of each other. Chicago is where I live and raise my family, I’m here 46 weeks out of the year. I’m in my restaurants almost every night. Even if I’m not cooking behind the stove, I’m at one of them nearly every day, I’ve got a big hand in. I designed the logos, I just recorded some new music for the website. I’m not jetting around like some guy with restaurants in Vegas. Who’s cooking when I’m not there is the same people who do it when I am there.
Okay, let’s start over. What do you want to talk about?
Mainly I want to talk about Andrew and what’s going on at Graham Elliot.
I’m really super happy about him being there. The food’s honestly better than it’s ever been. We’ve given it a new direction with the sole intent of making it as good as we can. It has nothing to do with Michelin stars or anything like that, I just want to make sure [when Graham Elliot Bistro opens] that we have two distinct entities.
So what is the distinction?
I guess I’d say that one is focusing on the artistry of cooking, and the other is on the craft. GEB is similar to what Graham Elliot was when it opened— only three ingredients per plate, really stripped down. It’s focused on technique and craft, where Graham Elliot is more artistic. More focused on every little thing.
GEB is like The White Stripes. You know, you’ve done all the fancy stuff, now you just want to put together a real simple band and play rock and roll. You want to let everyone know that you do know how to cook— it’s searing, roasting, grilling.
So Andrew is the first guy working for me to have the title of executive chef. And Jacob is going to have the same title at GEB. It’s important as a leader to let people do their thing, it’s a good opportunity for them.
Jacob Saben. He’s been at Graham Elliot since the opening. He worked at Herb Farm in Washington state, and then he worked at Spring for a while. He’s a classical musician. Everyone in the food world has some kind of music connection, don’t they?
Yeah, you almost want to draw an analogy between chefs and rock stars or something. So what’s GEB going to be like?
It’s like walking back in time. It’s pretty cute. Everything will have just three ingredients, real simple tasty stuff. Like there might be a salad with green, white and purple asparagus, and then we’ll top it with a fried egg. Or we might do a roasted chicken thigh with potatoes and sauteed greens. Or a pea soup with hamhock and pea tendrils.
There’s also going to be a section of the menu called Classics or Reissues that will have some of the favorite things from Graham Elliot, like the Caesar or the risotto.
It’s not small plates. It’s not sharing. The prices will be low— $6 to $12 for appetizers, $16 to $20 for entrees. Nothing over twenty dollars.
(I hate small plates, by the way. I’m a big guy and I need a certain amount of food or I’m not going to be happy. Don’t give me some little plate for four people where you can’t even get a whole bite, and then at the end of the night you’ve just had a bunch of little tastes of stuff. I want my own plate. Like I went to a place that’s famous for small plates, and I said to the people I was going with, you have to understand, I’m going to order a bunch of stuff, and it’s mine.)
Anyway, to show you the difference, we just spent a fortune on all these fancy new plates for Graham Elliot. And at GEB it will be a tin can holding your silverware with $2 hospital plates.
That’s how we got the whole church and rock and roll theme with the candles and all. We had a design for some banquettes and we loved them and they said, it’ll be $15,000 each. And we said, no way. So we went on Craigslist and got some church pews for practically nothing, and that’s our theme. There won’t be any seats at the bar, and there will be a kind of metal screen, like a confessional screen, between the bar and the dining room. And of course the candles [faux religious candles with rock and roll heroes, of which there will be about 200]. There’s no place that looks like it.
When will it open?
After NATO! We don’t want anybody throwing bricks at it. [He subsequently tweeted June 1.]
It’s a neighborhood joint, it’ll be open lunch and dinner seven days a week, and brunch on Sundays. It’s about 60 seats. It’s not some huge Randolph Street thing.
And we’ll have an outdoor patio— it’s this really cool space in between the buildings that Nellcôte and Brendan Sodikoff’s new place—
Yeah, we’ve seen it. It’s like a little side street in Paris or somewhere where all the cafes spill out into the street.
It’s really cool. There’s nowhere in the city like that.
You know, we weren’t looking for another place in the city. We were actually looking for a location for the burger place, which I don’t think is ever going to happen now, because who needs another burger. And we found this lease and location.
It’s kind of a great way to work— okay, you’ve got this lease, you’ve got X amount of time before you have to open, what are you going to do in the space? If Graham Elliot is trying to be one of the best restaurants in town, then let’s have something be the opposite. Let’s do a simple place that will be reviewed solely on the food.
We were thinking of calling it— well, we were looking at different names. It’s not a homage to me and my ego, I’m past that. But we were going to call it Primary— the whole idea of working with just three colors. The problem is, then you search the name and there’s some restaurant in Florida or somewhere called Primary that’s a piece of crap, and you don’t want to have them have your same name. So it’s just easier to call it Graham Elliot Bistro.