Masterchef and MasterChef Junior have offered an amazing look into the world of celebrity chef, Graham Elliot. From the tilt of his head when he tastes food, to his favorite foods as a kid and even his own kids, viewers have gotten to know him pretty well.
Or so they thought. Graham is a wunderkind in the culinary community. Starting with the young age - a mere 27 years old - at which he received the honor of becoming a Four Star Chef, the youngest ever in any city, to being named Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef” in 2004, a well as receiving three James Beard Foundation nomination, he has accomplished more than most in the industry at any age.
But that’s not where he stopped. The cherries on top of the list are his the Michelin stars for his Chicago restaurant, Graham Elliot Bistro in 2011 and 2012 along with and the honor of cooking for President Barack Obama.
To add to the excitement, Graham combines his passion for music with his culinary skills as the culinary director Lollapalooza, a position he’s held for the past 7 years.
TheCelebrityCafe.com spoke to Graham about some of the more basic things for summer - barbeque and baseball - and a bit about his upcoming plans.
TheCelebrityCafe.com: So, you’re working on some new barbecue recipes?
Graham Elliot: Yes, some reinvented summertime dishes that you would have in the backyard. When you invite friends and family over, everyone wants to hang out in the back - that’s where all the energy is. So taking some ideas and dishes that people understand and just putting a twist on them. Especially things with beverage pairings. where we’ve have done Mike’s Hard Lemonade, some of the new flavors they have, and putting that with the food.
TCC: The standards are hamburgers, hot dogs, coleslaw, macaroni salad, potato salad?
GE: Exactly. What I am doing is focusing on the cooking aspect, so I have my version of a hamburger, we call it the “Grahamburger” (recipe below), what we do is have brie on there instead of your sliced american cheese, we use watercress instead of the iceberg, some grilled onions - some really good flavors. And also, a grilled chicken with watermelon salsa (recipe below). You taste it and you know it’s summertime and you’re outside.
TCC: The chicken recipe is on my list for dinner tonight, it looks amazing.
GE: It’s really great, you can see it’s got all the peppers and onions, the char on the chicken, it’s really tasty. It makes sense.
TCC: Now, for those of us that are nervous about using that whole chicken, and stear towards the breast because it’s quick and easy, what about that whole chicken makes it worthwhile to play with.
GE: Anytime you have something cooked on the bone it’s going to be more moist, just because there's less surface area exposed, like you said, a big chicken breast, it’s just pure protein on the grill, a little bit too much time on the grill it’s going to be overcooked and dry. Something like the legs, or the entire chicken when it’s together, the half roasted chicken, you cook it at a lower temperature for longer, it’s like braising almost, but on the grill. It’s very tender, moist, it’s beautiful.
TCC: The watermelon salsa, that has some interesting ingredients as well. The kalamata olives in there. That’s something I would make with my kids. And the Mastchef Junior contestants, those kids can handle a knife, and really make a salsa like that.
GE Totally. They are so talented on that show, it’s amazing to watch and be part of. This [salsa] is something that summertime, you dice up a watermelon. You know the best food is the type you can eat and then wash your face with.
TCC: Yes, absolutely!
GE: You have the watermelons, you add some olives for some saltiness to go against the sweetness and the chicken. It’s like 3 or 4 things on a plate.
TCC: For the kids that do want to participate in the backyard barbeque, how do you expose them, say with the knife skiills, things like that.
GE: I have 3 boys, 2, 4 and 8 and they are all drawn to food, they all want to help all the time, and I’m sure it’s because their dad’s a chef, so they are really excited, but to get them involved, you cook the burger, let it rest like you would a steak, and have your kids help out. Which one of you wants to do the painting? I do! So take the roasted garlic aoli, put it on use the back of the spoon and smear it. But I don’t want anyone to get any on the outside. Have them do that, build it up, then you say, who want’s to help me with the next part. And my kids always want to fight over who gets to help the most. It’s like the Tom Sawyer thing, where you tell them they are not allowed, then they all want to dive in and help. Get the burger that mom or dad cooked, on the roll, the roasted onion, even have them pull apart the rings, and then you get to tell them “who wants to cut the cheese?” That always gets them laughing.
TCC: Yes, even with my girls, that gets a laugh.
GE: Put some some watercress on, have a contest to see who can get it on without it falling and then put that on and it’s like, Boom! Okay guys we just made this in like 30 seconds.
I think that’s what’s fun, just finding ways of getting kids involved, whether it’s choosing colors to put on a dish, different flavors, different textures, things like that that really get them excited that’s what food is all about. As they get older its about, hey, let’s do something from this part of the country, let’s go to another country and make something Idian like a curry, lets’ go through all the spices we can get at the store, things like that.
TCC: To get them, even adults, after growing up eating certain foods, trying new things is almost more daunting as you get older. So even something like the watercress on your hamburger, how to you encourage both adults and kids to try these things.
GE: I think that for me, growing up, my dad was in the Navy, we went all over the world, I love things the weirder the better. The idea I could eat things like snails or frogs legs, or things like that was mind-blowingly cool. I think it’s things where you get kids, or your friends, them excited, how amazing is this - even making them try it.
I always say I love music, and I don’t like opera, but I can listen to it and absolutely respect it for what it is. I won’t listen to it all the time in the car, but when I do, I get it. And it’s the same thing. Watercress, you might not want this humongous bowl of it, but the fact that it comes out of the ground, it’s peppery, it really pairs well with whatever you want to put it against, that’s something cool that when you taste it you totally get it. I might not love it, but I get the idea. And that’s the thing that’s fun to teach people.
TCC: Speaking of music, you’re doing Lalapalooza again this year.
GE: I am, and it’s always very exciting because I get to cook for the bands. THey’re always great, it’s a huge symbiotic relationship between food and music, clearly. But this year we get Paul McCartney, so that is humbling.
TCC: More humbling than our president? ( I had to tease him)
GE: That was pretty amazing too, because he is such a foodie.Usually politicians are the well done steak with ketchup, so for someone to come in and order a bunch of cool different things and cook for them and them be into it is great.
I think what somebody orders, and how they eat and cook really shows them who they are.
TCC: Now, your restaurant is in Chicago, your home base is Chicago - out of everywhere that you’ve travelled, what made you choose The Windy City?
GE: I think what’s amazing with Chicago is that it offers everything that a world class city has, architecture, music, food, museums, things like that. but also the genuineness of the people that live in Chicago. I always say, you go into certain cities, people try to beat you down because that’s what happened to them, and then if you can handle it then you can stay here, and I think in Chicago we get a new baseball player and the next day everyone has that person’s shirt or their jersey on because we love them so much It very much embraces it’s own.
When I went out came out there, I came to work for a chef named Charlie Trotter and watching all the other chefs go on to to their own things, but all staying in Chicago, I think it is a good incubator as far as the art.
TCC: Speaking of ballplayers, I’ve seen you wearing a Cubs jersey.
GE: That’s correct.
TCC: Now, are you a real fan or just a follower?
GE: You know I think that baseball as a whole, I am a huge romantic when it comes to the history and the stats and the numbers the stories behind it, so I would consider myself a pretty big fan.
TCC: That’s very good. I say I was born a Cubs fan. My grandfather was a fan, and didn’t get to see a championship in his lifetime, but we’re still rooting.
GE: I think they have s great team now though.
TCC:It’s a very exciting year.
GE: The next two or three are going to be really solid. I think the Rickets family is doing amazing things with Wrigley, so I am happy about that.
TCC: The upgrades and everything, it’s on my list to get back to Chicago to take a look at.
GE: I was at a game last week, and got to go into the clubhouse and meet the players. I have to set up a way to go in and cook for them all.
TCC: That would be something.
TCC: Going back to summer barbecue, bouncing around a bit, sorry, summer has so many cooking gadgets, from the old-school corn on the cob holders to the new watermelon slicers - what of those gadgets would you simply leave on the shelf at the store?
GE: I’d leave most of them on the shelf. Barbecue is the good old technique of people making a fire and putting some stuff over the top - I mean look at the S’more, it’s just got a stick. A lot of those goofy toys it’s people who are looking at things to do. I think if you focus on the food, at the most you need tongs, or a spoon to flip something, that’s about it.
TCC Did you have anything you’d like to add before we’re done?
GE: Just that my first-ever cookbook is coming out this October, so keep an eye out for that. It will be really exciting.
TCC: I’m on the list on your site to be notified when it becomes available!
TCC: Thank you for taking the time to speak with TheCelebrityCafe.com, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
GE: Thank you.
Visit Mikes’s Hard Lemonade for their new flavors. Blood Orange and Black Cherry are my two new favorites.
You should also visit Amazon.com and pre-order Graham’s book (no pressure), Cooking Like a Master Chef: 100 Recipes to Make the Everyday Extraordinary which is due out October 27, 2015.
Check the next page for the recipes for the “Grahamburger” and “Grilled Chicken with Watermelon Salsa” (which I did make).
Image courtesy of Jennifer Graylock/INFphoto.com