At age 27, Graham Elliot became the youngest four-star chef in America. In 2008, Elliot opened his first venue, simply named “Graham Elliot”, a restaurant that would be the springboard into his restaurateur career. Graham Elliot has been mentioned in numerous newspapers and magazines including Best New Chef in 2004 from Food & Wine Magazine and listed in the MICHELIN Guide.
Since Graham Elliot opened his first “Bistronomic” concept restaurant in Chicago, he has received three James Beard Nominations. Graham Elliot continues to break the mold and exudes a passion in everything he does.
I was able to get an interview with Graham Elliot while he was between appointments to discuss the upcoming second season of Master Chef where, he, Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich take everyday people with a passion for cooking, a desire for excellence, and a dream for fame into the fast paced world of being chosen to be the next Master Chef.
First I want to start off by saying thank you for speaking with me today. It’s both an honor and a pleasure; I am a big fan of the first season of Master Chef, so it’s a special treat for me as well as an opportunity to do an interview.
Awesome, I’m looking forward to talking about our show.
Well, I would like to start with a more opinion-based question, being as the concept of the cooking show has gone from simple “how-to” on television to becoming a competitive “sport” where people have developed life-long dreams around climbing the kitchen ladder to greatness. As a professional chef, how does it make you feel about people looking to really become great in the culinary arts?
I had this discussion with someone in the kitchen about it just the other day, the whole genre of restaurants and cooking is changing so quickly, the idea of going to culinary school and working your way in the kitchen so you can eventually own your own restaurant – that does not seem to be the norm or the goal really any more. Now it’s “ I want to be a famous chef” or “ I want to have my own show” or a catering company, or wanting to be able to dabble in food but maybe not have all the responsibility of everything that goes with that – being a “chef”. So that makes us question what we do with the fact that so many people see cooking in different ways – even on Master Chef, some come because of beautiful organic artful experience, some – because of political reasons, environmental reasons – using organics and natural farm’s table, local, sustainable; then there’s people who come for the full cock-eye sport – “I just want to beat people, show them that I can cook and be better than everyone else”. There are all these different personalities that come to play now.
I’ve followed the show Hell’s Kitchen where Gordon Ramsay has taken professional chefs into a competitive environment, whereas in Master Chef, you take “everyday” people into a similar environment. How is it to work with people like this, finding that diamond in the rough and trying to bring out that culinary magic in that person?
It’s so fun, because during season two (I think because so many got to see Season One and what we are about) it was almost scary how good a lot of these people were – without formal training, without having worked in the restaurants for years, without the background and upbringing… It’s really awe-inspiring that they are so good and that they have such great understanding of all the fundamentals of cooking and use of the ingredients; and these are people of all different ages. It’s really cool to see that so many people are turned on to cooking in general.
Graham, is there anybody on this show this season that has great potential to be Master Chef?
Absolutely, there are numerous ones. When you finally get down to the last few contestants, there’s actual multiple choices. Gordon, Joe and I look at each other –“who do we pick for this one?” – It’s really hard, it’s not a clear, to find that one incredible winner, but more like you are splitting hairs. Because they are finding their own voice, doing great stuff and there are some that are competitive that are good only at beating each other, which is not very helpful. We find there are a special element in our contestants who know the intrinsic knowledge of the ingredients and how they work together, and they are great teachers, and super passionate; you start seeing the person behind the cooking. So, I personally think you will see many of them that could become a Master Chef, but we can only choose one.
Working with Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Bastianich., there is such an enormous difference between the personalities, It’s almost like a “clash of the titans”, how is it working with them?
Being so young, I have a picture of Gordon and I together, when I was twenty years old, I was working at a restaurant and we were cooking dinner together, but I was just “there”, – and now, years later I am presiding with him on the show, as an equal – I have to pinch myself, I would never take it for granted. Same with Joe: 20 + restaurants coast to coast. I feel that each one of us brings something special to the table – it’s amazing to be part of it. In Season One – we knew each other professionally, but had not “worked “ together , but being there on the set, six days a week, twelve hours a day – makes us more at ease with each other. Gordon seems to really connect with the people on an emotional level, bring out the passion, where Joe has a more “this is good, that’s bad,” – “stop wasting our time” attitude, we balance each other out and create a very special program.
If you put yourself in the lineup, between yourself, Gordon and Joseph, Graham, do you see yourself as Hard Line, Moderate, Relaxed?
I am the one that’s nice to a fault, I say” You should really try this”, or “You should not do that.” Joe says “, it’s @%&#(explanative), get off the stage”, and Gordon says ‘Come on guys, they tried to do this, it did not work, but they tried.” He’s the center guy – you can see him harping on Joe for being too aggressive and on me for not being aggressive enough. So he sets the tone for the show by being “the man.”
From what I can see, your ability to look at the person and find that “special something” in them where others don’t is incredible, showing people that put their lives on the line for a dream, deserves compassion. Some say “it’s just cooking show”, while others want to be there, on the set, and try to win. This show has diverse audience, just like it has diverse contestants. How would you describe the show’s present direction?
On Season One, we had a tremendous number of people trying to be on the show, and we got some caliber of the cooks where they were able to do some cool stuff – we saw them “Wow, they can really decorate the cake” or “They really know how to work in the kitchen”. Now, we have created an interest in the show’s ability to have the talent of the contestants shine through, it is not about us, it’s about them.”
We look forward to an incredible second season of Master Chef; will there be a Season Three, Four or more?
That depends on the success of Season Two, keeping our fingers crossed… I know there’s talk about maybe bringing travel into it, different locations, changing challenges a bit to keep it fresh and exciting.
What’s going on with Graham Elliott, anything new and exciting for you personally?
Recently, we celebrated the three-year anniversary of our restaurant. When we started, we wanted a restaurant where we wanted do what we want, wear jeans, nothing fancy, very “down to earth, regular guy”, but it grew into something better. We’ve gone away from the angry adolescent stage, we’re in our confident “twenties” stage, to continue following the same ethos, but elevate things to more fine level. We’re doing more tasting menus, more refined and intricate. At the same time, we came up with “Grahamwich” – a new style of sandwich restaurant, and we have homemade, specialty sodas on tap and keep it fun. We are trying to see things from both ends of the spectrum and find that perfect place in the middle.
Do you have any cookbooks or plan to have one come out soon?
Currently I am working on one tentatively called Appetite for Consumption – it’s a rock-inspired cookbook. We think there are so many similarities between food and music. I am the culinary director for Lollapalooza; they have a food town area now – and instead of getting a plain Hamburger or Hot Dog , we created specialty items like lobster corn dogs, truffle popcorn and more, pretty cool items.
I know you are running out of time and have a busy schedule; do you have any websites where people can go to find out more about you and Master Chef?
I suggest the first stop on the internet should be http://www.fox.com/masterchef and then there’s my personal site http://www.grahamelliot.com with the restaurants I have and information about what I am doing.
The Season Premiere is on Monday, June 6th and again on June 7th, 8pm / 7pm Central, check your local listing for exact show time and details: Visit Fox at http://www.fox.com/masterchef to learn more.