08.18.09

Confessions of a Mad Scientist

Graham Elliot Bowles, Chicago’s best young chef, doesn’t likes menus, serves food with attitude, and has ditched bread for popcorn. You have a problem with that?

Nobody puts Graham Elliot Bowles in a corner. For starters, the guy wants to take apart everything that resembles conventional food and restaurant wisdom, and put it back together differently. He left his gig at Avenues, where he had become the youngest chef to earn four stars in Chicago, to open his eponymous restaurant and start from scratch, doing everything his way. He's amazingly confident, clearly restless, and a musician at heart.

“When you’re coming up through the ranks you’re told to go to certain places, eat a certain amount of courses; there are 50 forks and 20 glasses, everything is plotted out. When we opened it was like, step back and question everything.”

He's very articulate about why he does things one way versus another, and very willing to take chances. The expected is the enemy. A perfect—albeit slightly disturbing example—is the Spinal Tap-esque mockumentary he put together with one of his chefs, where he takes on a George W. Bush-meets-Nascar-ish persona and creates a fictitious story behind his restaurant. The film ends with both men strolling out of the "interview" wearing 10-gallon hats, dark glasses, and thongs stuffed with bananas.

A less-disquieting example is the fact that his restaurant doesn't use recipes. Nothing is written down, and the chefs in his kitchen have an amazing amount of autonomy, creating new dishes every night from their imaginations and whatever looked good at the market that day. If you go to Graham Elliot, prepare to be dazzled by a pan-roasted scallop with fried pickles and cornbread sauce, but don't expect to have it next time—they will have moved on.

When he's not at the restaurant, Graham is mulling over a new ingredient that looks and feels like a wetsuit, planning his wedding at the restaurant ("who wants that crappy catered food?"), and cooking for various bands whose contributions to breakup tapes got him through high school.

So, you get seated at Graham Elliot, and it's popcorn instead of bread.

Yeah, most restaurants are super boring most of the time, very predictable: You walk in, you sit down, and you get bread served to you. Nine out of 10 times the bread sucks, and it's not made in-house. I like popcorn and so decided we wanted to serve that instead—we're all about making food and dining fun. Also, I have no self-control; I eat everything in front of me. I'll eat the whole breadbasket, and then miss other things about the meal, and not have room for dessert.

So Mom was right, about the bread ruining your appetite thing.

Definitely; even the garlic oil-sprayed breadsticks at the Olive Garden—I'll destroy baskets of those things.

OK: bistronomic. That's the term you chose to define your cooking, how do you define it?

Gastronomic haute cuisine with a bistro setting and attitude. When you're coming up through the ranks you're told to go to certain places, eat a certain amount of courses, there are 50 forks and 20 glasses, everything is plotted out. When we opened it was like, step back and question everything. Why do you have linen? What's the purpose? What is the purpose of salt and pepper on the table, or flowers on the table? Flowers get cut, they are put on the table, they die, and then you do it again. Why?

We use one plate for every single dish we serve. It's a 12-inch plate, $2.99, from Ikea. Most people have no idea; they are not inspecting the plate, looking at the maker. We decided from the start we're not playing that game; let's focus on doing something else. We do what we think makes sense. So one kind of fork, one kind of knife, one glass for every kind of wine.

Inspirations?

A big inspiration was wd~50. If you put Wylie in a fancy hotel doing 40 covers a night with fancy tables, overlooking Central Park, the whole shebang, it would be a four-star place. The food is four-star food.

So, youngest Chicago chef to earn four stars, and now you're doing a different thing... do the stars matter?

The stars don't matter at this point. Not to say they won't in the future. It's like a band analogy—you can play huge stadiums, or decide you want to do acoustic, and play with a friend in a smaller bar. This restaurant and what we do now represents who I am now, and the team, but two years from now I might love to do a tiny little inn on the coast of Oregon doing super high-conceptual kind of stuff. I'm working on a sandwich project right now: sandwiches, homemade soda, soft serve, popcorn and that's it.

You talk about looking at things as gray instead of black and white. What exactly do you mean?

Gray means being open-minded. I always look at the world that way; I'm able to hear both sides of an argument. I don't listen to opera, but I don’t think it's good or bad; it's just its own thing. I can completely appreciate it. In food, there are some factual things—you wouldn't call a well-done steak “steak tartare.” But then you can also make corn soup with a roasted garlic marshmallow—everything is always a bunch of moving little parts that can be put together a bunch of different ways.

So, no recipes, everything is always changing—what happens when someone comes in and wants to order the dish they had last time?

People buy into our vision and come along for the ride. I've had people say, 'Oh I loved that dish, but I know I have to come back right away, or it won't be there next time.' We are the anti-consistency—we never perfect anything, it's always being made better.

Hot, cold, sea, land, sweet—why did you organize you menu the way you did?

There are five different sections of the kitchen and each is run by its own chef who does his or her own ordering, prep, cooking, and cleaning. They own that area, and they can make their own choices. But if someone complains about the fish, that person will have a hard time sleeping that night because they are totally responsible.

Tell us about Lollapalooza, and cooking there, for some of the bands.

I wanted a merch table at the show selling our GE belt buckles, which our staff all wears. And then I was contacted by producers, who were like, “We saw you on Top Chef, we want you to be involved in Lollapaooza. Would you mind having a booth with the vendors?” They asked if we wanted to cook for anyone in particular, and I picked Jane's Addiction, but then the producer told me that Caleb of King of Leon likes my food, so we cooked for them, too.

What is it about the musicians?

There are always celebrities and stuff around, but I don't really get star struck if Brad Pitt walks by. But seeing all of these guys up close was really special for me. And so many musicians are into food—it's like everyone was on the same level, appreciating everyone else's art. I'll write to bands and invite them to come to the restaurant when they're in town. It's like all those breakup mix tapes and stuff—they got me through high school. Cooking for them is the least I can do. Alan Richman once said that all chefs are failed guitarists.

Is there an ingredient you're infatuated with right now?

There's something I read about that I haven't cooked with yet, but I can't wait to play with. It's an oyster plant, an oyster leaf. I read about it, and have been hearing about it—El Bulli serves it. It's a succulent leaf, thicker than spinach, but when you chew and eat it, it tastes identical to a raw oyster. It's supposed to look and feel like a wetsuit; it'll be neat to check that out.

Let's hear about your upcoming nuptials at the restaurant.

Well I just thought it was stupid to pay like 20 grand to say "I do" in a zoo or an aquarium or something. We're probably going to do a nice brunch—lobster quiche, white chocolate raspberry pancakes—and let the families hang out.

OK, we have to talk about your film Made in Merka. What the hell?

Yeah, when we decided to do that, we thought like 50 people would see it. And then at the film festival there was this huge theater with like 500 people. I was like, "shit," totally slumping down in my seat. The whole movie was ad-libbed. I just started in with the George Bush accent.

We just did a guest bartending gig last week where we dressed up in wigs and mustaches, like Chippendales bartenders. I don't know…we like to dress up. I'm sure some psychologist could tell you that it's because I have issues with my dad or something. I think being a chef is cool and admirable, but there are a bunch of other cool things to do. I want to tie them all together. I'd love to open a restaurant that changes every month. One month it would be a mom and bar spaghetti-and-meatball, Red Sox place, and the next it would be a British pub, and everyone gets in a fight.

I liked the end of the movie, when it said "no bananas were hurt during the making of this film."

Well, we didn't want to imply we were that well-endowed.

What was in your mouth in the movie?

Paper towels. I wanted to find some of that gum; you know the kind in the pouch with the baseball players on it? That was like the way companies were trying to get the kids to think chewing tobacco was cool, and they should try that.

It was the gateway gum.

Nicely played, ma’am, nicely played.

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Katie Workman is the Editor-in-Chief and Chief Marketing Officer of Cookstr.com, a website devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. She writes about food for various blogs and websites. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.