Graham Elliot on Graham Elliot, Grahamwich, and Lollapalooza

Yesterday we talked with Graham Elliot about his new Graham Elliot Bistro on the Randolph Street Corridor. In the second half of our two-part interview, we talk with him about hiring Andrew Brochu as Graham Elliot’s first executive chef; responding to customer input at Grahamwich; and his third year as culinary director for Lollapalooza.

So what else is going on in your world?

Well, there’s the whole Questlove thing. And there’s another project we may announce shortly, where we would go into an existing operation and tweak it and have a hand in it.

There’s a lot going on at Grahamwich. We’re bottling our sodas, and we’re looking at a second location in the Loop. We’re also changing the menu around. We’re going in a healthier direction. The feedback we get is that things are too heavy, too messy for weekday lunch, so we’re listening to that.

We’re making things lighter, adding some salads, and although we don’t say farm to table, that’s pretty much what we are, so we’re making things healthier. We’re not dumbing anything down or making it less creative, we’re just focusing on what people want.

Some people are embarrassed when they have to change stuff. I’m not worried about that. You have to constantly evolve. What we were a year ago isn’t what we’re going to be a year from now.

And how about Lollapalooza?

It’s good. I just got the list about two hours ago of everybody who wants to do it. So I’ll start whittling it down. There’s about 25 or 30 concession spots, and we have about a dozen of them to showcase food in Chicago. I don’t have anything to tell you, man, except I’m about to start working on that, and it will be awesome. As always.

All right, let’s talk about Graham Elliot some more. What made you pick Andrew Brochu?

The main selling point for Andrew was the beard. The beard screams creativity. It’s an amazing beard.

I loved what he did at Pops and at Kith & Kin, and his personality. There’s really no more of a story to it than that— we were opening a new restaurant, and we had a chef, Brian Runge [now at Premise] who was leaving to start a family, and we needed somebody.

So I called Grant Achatz, who’s always been kind of a sounding board for me, and I brought up Andrew who used to work at Alinea. And he said, I don’t think there’s anyone else in the city who’s the guy for you.

So it’s not like he had to interview or cook for us. We just met at Grahamwich and I said, what do you think? You’ll make your own schedule, create your menu, hire your team, really do your own thing. And so he came on board.

So were you kind of pushed to take Graham Elliot more upscale by the clientele?

Yeah. We had a lot of people say “I loved your food at Avenues, but this place is too loud.” And I felt bad losing that clientele, but I also wanted a more casual, accessible place.

I think Graham Elliot now is in the caliber of the best restaurants in the city. We didn’t actively look for a Michelin star or a Forbes 4-star rating, but we are going that direction without worrying about specific markers.

I mean, not to be cocky, but every accolade that it’s possible to receive, I already got at Avenues. I don’t have something to prove here. I look at other restaurants and I think, we can do what they do, but they can’t do what we do. Is there a way to say that without sounding dickish?

I think you just have to own it.

Well, we’ll do what we do, which is going to be totally different from what others do. We’re not just going to step out of the box, but go out on the ledge. Not just in terms of food, but everything, we can do that, because we don’t have a budget and a food cost to hit. It’s more based on our creativity. At Graham Elliot, I mean— it’s the opposite of Grahamwich, where we are listening to our customers and making tasty food that they’re asking us for. And not just serving giant fat boy food like I would want to eat.

I’m excited and proud to be in this city. We couldn’t be in better company than all the restaurants on Randolph. Chicago is the most creative food spot, without a doubt. San Francisco has access to greater product, and New York ranks higher in terms of actual quantity, but Chicago has the best mix of chefs and supporting locals. Other cities couldn’t get away with what happens in this city. Look at the Nuge, Chris Nugent, up on Lawrence, or Ada Street. You can open anywhere and people in this city will go to it.

Previously: Why Graham Elliot Bistro Will Be Like the White Stripes

Graham Elliot on Graham Elliot, Grahamwich, and Lollapalooza