Chef Graham Elliot Talks Masterchef
By: Judith Wallace
Chef Graham Elliot is the culinary mastermind behind Chicago’s first “bistronomic” restaurant, Graham Elliot, which tempers four-star cuisine with humor and accessibility. In a very short time, the 33-year-old chef has accrued accolades, including Best New Chef in 2004 from Food & Wine magazine and three James Beard Nominations. Graham now serves as judge on FOX’s Masterchef.
In December 2010, Elliot opened Grahamwich, a casual, quick-service sandwich shop in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. In addition, he has appeared on both seasons of the popular cable competition series “Top Chef Masters.”
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Real life experience or culinary school?
Graham Elliot: Real life experience, absolutely. I think culinary school is kind of a joke. I went and I wish that I had taken that money and applied it to going to New York and just living for a few months working for free at places or going to Europe or Asia or other places and getting that hands on experience.
So you are a chef and a musician….
Graham Elliot: I used to sing and play guitar in a band. I actually record some of my guitar playing and put on the Playlist, so it’s not something that we stop and tell everyone in the dining room, “Hey this is the chef,” but it’s just again, I feel like I only have a couple of things that I’m good at so I want to highlight that in my restaurant. So we do it that way.
Were you nervous about your mom appearing on this season’s show?
Graham Elliot: Yes. With me, my mom’s always kind of on the crazy end so, it was me just being nervous that she wasn’t going to do something to embarrass us. But, she was really sweet and ended up being able to police herself, so I was very excited about that.
Were you surprised by the level of talents this season?
Graham Elliot: Absolutely, I think, we all hope that each year the contestants get better and better, but I think as a whole, we are pretty amazed at the level of skill and cooking knowledge. Also, kind of dining knowledge, where it’s not just somebody that’s cooking in the back woods, but somebody that has been to restaurants and they read cookbooks and they watch cooking shows, like you’re getting a different caliber of contestants.
In what ways have the chefs changed this season as compared to last season now that they have a reference point on what’s required?
Graham Elliot: You had people coming from all these different regions that had seen what we had done on Season 1 and said, “I can do that better, or I know that my cooking is equal if not greater than what they’re doing at this level.” You see that reflected in the dishes that are a little more almost restaurant quality with a lot of focus on the flavor and technique.
What’s the criteria for selecting the winner of the Mystery Box Challenge?
Graham Elliot: It’s the idea just like Miles Davis going in and just playing something off the cuff as opposed to reading sheets of music. You have to be spontaneous and be able to take things that are in season and different flavors and combinations and put them together to make something awesome.
What is the worst food crime that any of the contestants can commit that will guarantee them getting voted off?
Graham Elliot: We see in coming episodes the mistake of not cooking out flour a lot in dishes. That kind of stuff, and putting corn starch to something to try to thicken it as opposed to just being very natural and organic with it and letting it reduce on its own. So you can almost catch people trying to take little short cuts and we always fine them on that.
Has your patience been tested on the show?
Graham Elliot: Yeah and I think that you’ll actually see that in a coming episode. I try not to let emotion get in the way, because cooking at the end of the day should be this romantic, spiritual kind of act, but like you were talking to Joe about the humility and ego in cooking. When I see that come to a head, I have to call people on it. The other thing is when people try to do techniques and represent something that could be really cool, whether it’s a cooking style or some kind of modern new experimental thing, when they fall on their face but still think that they’re doing something great, you have to kind of shake them back into reality some times.
Are you still in contact with anyone from past seasons?
Graham Elliot: Yes. We have at our restaurant many of the contestants come and spend time in our kitchen for a week or two and see what we’re all about. As far as Whitney Miller, I think that Joe, Gordon and I have all kind of stayed in contact with her and support her on her continued path.
Graham do you really feel that God kills a puppy when someone mangles a fish fillet?
Graham Elliot: Absolutely, I stand by that claim.