Celebrity Skin: Master Chef USA's Graham Elliot

Published: 06 February, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 208, February, 2012

He’s the youngest four-star chef in America. The owner of the first bistronomic restaurant in Chicago, which just so happens to be Michelin starred. He’s a judge on reality TV show, MasterChef, and the culinary ambassador of Lollapalooza. We can only be talking about one man...

Chef Graham Elliot, owner of Graham Elliot, Grahamwich and Graham Elliot Bistro (opening this spring), has so many accomplishments to his name it’s hard to keep count. Known as much for his cooking as for his blatant honesty and ink adorned arms, Elliot may only be in his mid-30s, but he just keeps on impressing.

Sitting down with Elliot in his namesake restaurant in the heart of Chicago, I was set on discovering his key to success.

“I’ve always had a strong work ethic; the day I turned 15, I got a work permit,” he says, although his sights were originally set on a different goal.
“I used to sing and play guitar in a band and I thought that’s what I was gonna do, so I got a job as a dishwasher at a little café down the street from the house. Surrounding myself in that kitchen environment with a lot of music playing and prepping and working with ingredients, I realized it was a creative outlet similar to music... I actually dropped out of high school and got a GED so that I could go to cooking school early and ever since then it has been this love affair with cuisine.”

An affair that evolved in a number of cities. “My dad was in the Navy, so we moved all over the world. Working in the kitchen was great, looking at a lot of cookbooks, and I thought at least wherever I move I’ll be able to get a job and use my hands and make something.”

Living in Hawaii, the Philippines, California and Maryland due to his father’s service, Elliot didn’t ease up much on the travelling once he was on his own, working in Virginia, Texas, Illinois and Vermont after the age of 20.

Deciding “culinary school was not really for me”, he began drawing knowledge from books and from eating out. “I think I’m still paying off credit card debt from places I’ve eaten for the last 15 years,” laughs Elliot.  

Natural predisposition didn’t hurt either. “I always had this kind of ability to understand ingredients, like realize something’s rich and creamy, something’s crunchy, acidic, all those flavors and textures and how they have to balance and I could put dishes together in my head and on paper, even though I couldn’t execute ’em or cook them, so it was being able to be creative and then having to go and discipline myself and learn how to do the actual techniques.”  
Following stints at Charlie Trotter’s (the reason for his initial move to Chicago) and The Peninsula hotel, as well as some more moves – what did you expect? – it came time to go after the greatest goal of all. “I always said if I didn’t open my restaurant by 30 I’d quit cooking, so I signed the lease, like, a month before my 30th birthday.”

Graham Elliot was on a mission. “It was about flipping it on its head and saying, I don’t care if someone gives us zero stars or 100 stars, I don’t care if people like what we do or don’t, I want to prove that you can redefine fine dining so that there’s, you know, if people say you need flowers and linen and ten forks and knives, I’m gonna do one plate, one fork.” The top priority being “to show that food can still be beautiful and artistic, but in a setting that’s not making you feel suffocated. Food doesn’t taste better if you wear a tie.”

Spending time at the restaurant every day before opening and regularly popping in during dinner service – that’s when excited diners leap out of their chairs, cameras in hand, swarming towards Elliot, almost pouncing (trust me, I’ve seen it firsthand) – Elliot and his team work closely to create cohesive menus that change with the seasons, leaving only one constant: “there’s no recipes in our kitchen.”

Which, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t ever lead to culinary mishaps or mismatches. “I always use the music analogy, there are things that I like as an artist to put together, and this isn’t trying to speak negatively of anyone, but sometimes the public isn’t ready for that. If I say I want to make a lobster roe ice cream with sea urchin, in a cerebral sense it’s delicious, it works, there’s brininess with texture and sweetness, but people don’t wanna eat that, so really it’s finding that balance of scaring them enough, but giving them enough deliciousness that they kind of go along with you.”

Perhaps one of the most ingenious examples is his foie gras lollipop covered in Pop Rocks. “If you told someone you’re serving popping effervescent candy for ten cents on a $40 a pound piece of fat and force-fed goose liver, it doesn’t sound as good as calling it a foielipop!”

Going through a list of everything Elliot’s involved in makes me think he may be a full-blown workaholic; albeit a darn good one, juggling two other restaurants and two side gigs.  

Grahamwich offers “homemade sodas on tap, soft serves that change every season, a couple little snacks and sandwiches”, while GE Bistro will be “a place that’s really loud and really fun, with no rules and nothing over 20 bucks”.

In addition to which he’s culinary ambassador for music festival, Lollapalooza, and, just because there’s so much free time on his hands, a judge, along with Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich, on MasterChef, which recently wrapped up casting for its third season. A task that’s harder than it sounds.

“I can put away some food, contrary to my size, I know you wouldn’t believe it [laughs], but there’s so many different things, spices and richness and all of that, so after a while it can get overwhelming.”

And judging isn’t the easiest either. “I don’t think we disagree, but everything is real. It’s us tasting things and a lot of times we’ll have to stop and go off camera. Gordon might say ‘Absolutely not, it’s over seasoned’ and then I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but the idea behind it was amazing’... and then Joe will come in and say, ‘If I was dining at a restaurant and had this, or if I was serving and this happened, it wouldn’t fly’, so we all give that input and then decide. We get on the same page and then make the decision.”

Getting his first tattoo as soon as he turned 18, Elliot has gone from a design he drew himself – “It didn’t have any real meaning behind it like the first one I think for most people” – to band tattoos, to extremely unique works that demand a second (and third) look.

First things first: the music. Elliot’s left leg boasts a “maze with a man lost in the middle”, an ode to Face to Face, because “when you’re 18 and fighting the world, that’s what you’re all about.” While the four ‘F’s on his arm are a shout out to Jawbreaker, “which was like my favorite band and saved my life in high school by being on all the mixtapes.”

A father of two boys whose middle names are Ignatius, after Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, and Mathias, after a chef he worked under at Charlie Trotter’s, the two saints sit perched on his upper arms.

But it’s his forearms that are, without a doubt, the scene-stealers. The tattoo on his right arm was designed by his brother, showcasing “birds that can’t fly overcoming their obstacles, so it’s a kiwi with balloons, the penguin with the little propeller, a dodo with a jetpack and an ostrich with the giant fake wings.”
As for the left, “it’s all the states I lived in growing up with a thumbtack in the city I was in and a symbol for each state; so Washington, California, Maryland, Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont and the Philippines.”

Another story that could make anyone smile comes in the hand holding people, which looks like fire. “It’s from a book called The Prophet by Kahlil Gibranand; that was a big book that kinda set me in a direction of being focused on philosophy and life. In high school I tried to start my own religion, I was very much that guy, you know, like let’s fight and live off the land,” laughs Elliot.

“I also have ‘Innocence’ written down my arm in, like, prison-style font. That’s when I was 20 in Texas. I was straightedge for a month and had to get it... I don’t really like it now, but even if I don’t like it I can look back and see it and know exactly where I was at that point in my life, so I think it’s a cool little roadmap.”

Having work from a variety of people, Erik Gillespie of Tomato Tattoo is now his artist of choice when the need for ink kicks in.

“I get kind of an itch to get a new tattoo and then I start focusing on where I’m at at that point in my life and what I want. I think in the kitchen it has become so cliché, kind of like you have to have tattoos, you gotta get a sleeve of something because that’s what chefs have and it includes a pig and some vegetables and a bunch of shit like that. I have no food tattoos. There’s a pineapple and a ham, but it’s because in Virginia it’s what they make, and then Hawaii it’s pineapple.

As soon as John Mayer gets a sleeve tattoo they’re not fucking cool and that’s the deal, so I don’t know, I think that they need to be forms of expression, they need to tell a story and I have friends that have got tattoos lately who just, I don’t know where they got the idea, it means nothing, it’s just because it looks cool right now. It’s very sad to me as it’s such an important thing. Not even the permanence or the pain, but really it means everything to you, it’s who you are. Everyone’s gonna ask you what it’s about and the whole thing is you should be able to say, ‘I’m not gonna say a word to you, look at my tattoos and you’ll know who I am.’”

Decidedly telling me there won’t ever be “corn growing out of my wrists,” but calling avocados ‘super sexy’ makes me think an avocado backpiece may be the way to go.

So if tattooing had the opportunity to be turned into a delectable dish, what would it be? “I would start with a soup and think of how you can puree things and have different textures so when you pour ’em together and kind of plate them Jackson Pollock-style, you see all these colors and things melting together, so that the sum is better than each one on its own.”

Spoken like a true master chef.

Charlie Trotter’s Influence

I discovered this cookbook by a chef named Charlie Trotter based here in Chicago and that really opened my eyes to this idea that food could be a form of expression and that was the defining moment. From there, instead of complaining about having to work on weekends and the hours and all those things, it was, I wanna work 20 hours a day, I don’t care if I get paid or not, I have to do this.

Music, Music, Music

I wanna record something, I wanna do music. I’m always on GarageBand on my iPad. I play mostly acoustic things and I actually recorded stuff and put it on the playlist here in the restaurant, but nobody knows when it’s me playing. And it’s not an ego thing as much as it’s I want to have as much of a connection to the restaurant as possible.

Graham Elliot As A Dish

There was one that I think we did here that was a risotto, but instead of parmesan it was made with cheddar and it had crispy bacon and green apples and Cheez-Its on top and beer-braised onions, PBR braise ’cause they’re hipster style. The idea was based on a road trip through Wisconsin. Incorporating those things together I think is something that shows who I am, my approach.


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Graham Elliot