Anyone who uses the phrase “Butter is [INSERT FOOD NAME HERE]’s best friend” is a man after my own heart. That’s why talking bacon, branding, and yes, butter, with Graham Elliot was one of the most exciting experiences of my blogging career. The fact that he’s down-to-earth, warm, passionate and eloquent was the buttercream icing on my cake.
Better with Butter: What would you say to home cooks who want to go “off recipe”?
Graham Elliot: I think the most important thing is unlearn everything you’ve been taught, and that’s similar to anything that has an artistic bent to it—music, sculpture, poetry, etc., etc. To look at a recipe—a lot of people say, ‘Use it as a blueprint and build off of it.’ To me it’s like, tear the recipe up and throw it away. Understand cultures and regions, and the idea of ‘what goes together grows together,’ and really start putting things together that way. Almost like jazz versus classical—don’t read the sheet music, create it yourself. Understand the flavors that go together and build on it however you feel at that time—be spontaneous.
BWB: What about the crazy flavor and ingredient combinations you come up with?
GE: If you look at it similar to paint, for example: these two together create this, and that applied to this surface yields this type of visual result. It’s saying the same thing, but with your palate: OK, I’m going to use foie gras, and that’s really rich and creamy, I need something with texture, so I’m going to do walnuts. And it’s fall, so I’m going to do a pomegranate salad with it and a maple glaze or sweet potato puree. Knowing your colors, textures and ingredients and putting them all together.
BWB: My motto: Full fat is where it’s at. When it comes to using real butter and real ingredients in general, what’s your advice?
GE: In a kitchen, it all starts with great things. Anybody can hide behind truffles and caviar, but what can you do with a carrot? What can you do with a potato? We just had this discussion in the kitchen the other day about rutabaga. Butter is rutabaga’s best friend. You cut it and caramelize it and cook it in butter, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever had. And I think that most people that have had it haven’t had it the right way. Same thing with brussel sprouts—you tear the leaves up and roast it with some bacon and apple and with that fat it works really well. That’s why fish cooked in butter finished with a little lemon, there’s nothing better—and you’re talking about three ingredients. And that philosophy carries through everything: Using better ingredients allows you to not have to put as much on the plate to hide bad things.
BWB: How does that philosophy fit into your restaurants?
GE: I have a sandwich shop, grahamwich and then we have graham elliot, the flagship and that one is really focused on the hyper-artistry, avant garde, pushing the envelope with those weird flavor combinations, where as at g.e.b., it’s the exact opposite. It’s craft-focused, it’s using techniques like grilling and roasting and searing, very old-world if you will. And same thing with flavors. We’re talking about for the fall menu doing a huge roasted pork knuckle with sauerkraut, just that—two things. And I think that was very musically inspired. Jack White from the White Stripes said, ‘If you have 50 instruments, it’s very easy to come up with something; if you only have a drummer and a singer-guitarist, it forces you to see things differently.’ And so that’s what we do in the kitchen.
BWB: Best hidden secret in the Chicago, culinary-wise?
GE: I mean there’s so many: Devon Avenue with the Indo-Pak flavors that are amazing. Going into the market and seeing dehydrated lemons and limes and the different things you can apply. Same thing with going to Chinatown and seeing things like dried scallops, and we’re sitting here thinking, do you grate that into a powder and roll something in it and cook that, and what’s the flavor profile going to be? We’ve tried lizards, and everything you can think of, it’s amazing! It opens your eyes to the world and different cultures. Also, Argyle Street, there’s a hundred different things.
So, there’s always great restaurants opening up like Yusho and Vera and places that don’t have a humongous PR machine behind them, but good food attracts people—just like good music or good film. Chicago is so ethnically and culturally diverse, that that’s where I think people can get a lot of inspiration, you know going and finding different things … things that 99 percent of us have never eaten, and then buying it and going home and Googling it and seeing what you can make with it. That’s what makes cooking fun.
BWB: What’s the secret behind the success of the Graham Elliot brand?
GE: We don’t have a PR firm, we don’t have a marketing team. Everything from MasterChef to Top Chef Masters, Lollapalooza, everything came to us organically. And I think it’s only by being true to yourself, which can in turn can get you in trouble … but I think it does come across as genuine, and you know, I’m a nice guy to a fault. And I think a lot of that is my brand as well, just trying to teach and stay humble and do food that’s really whimsical and approachable.
BWB: As and entrepreneur, how do you juggle cooking and business?
GE: You start to think long-term—can I do a g.e.b. in six other cities? Or for the cookbook we’re doing, do you make it super-artsy and chef-driven or something extremely accessible and fun? With staffing, the chef I have here (at g.e.b.) and the chef I have running the company, they’ve all been with me since I opened GE five years ago. So you create this culture and realize that you don’t just want cooks, or servers, or managers. You want everyone to be a chef, and to lead, and to problem-solve on their own. And that’s what allows me to do what I want, to grow the brand and create other opportunities.
Recently, we had a staffing change and I’ve been thrown into the restaurant all of a sudden. I just created a new menu for fall and it’s like 16 dishes that are mine, that I’m doing, that I’m seeing get plated. So it’s fun getting thrown back into that and being in the mix where you are cooking and having more to do with it. It’s very fun and kind of reignites that initial flame of passion.
Check out the other highlights of my lunch with Graham.