The number of superlatives used to describe Graham Elliot Bowles are basically endless. Maybe he’s Chicago’s Sci-Fi Chef, for the various molecular gastronomy tricks he’s constantly inventing and employing in the kitchen, like mac n’cheese with truffle bubbles and trumpet mushrooms or a signature foie gras strawberry Pop Rocks dish. Maybe he’s Chicago’s Rock Star Chef, for the various bands he’s befriended through his restaurant (see: The Get Up Kids, Thievery Cooperation). Or maybe he’s America’s Young Gun Chef, for the various awards and distinctions he’s earned over the years, prior to turning 32.
Just a sampler: a three-times James Beard nominee who became the Chef de Cuisine at Tru at 23, before going on to win 2004′s Food & Wine Best New Chef and becoming the youngest Four Star Chef in America at Charlie Trotter’s classic go-to for Chicago’s frequent fine diners, Avenues at The Peninsula. That was before the he opened up his own shop, and flourished for the palates of some of history’s harshest food critics (GQ’s resident culinary hardass Alan Richman; former New York Times widowmaker Frank Bruni). As it turns out, though, he’s just the guy in the kitchen at Graham Elliot, trying to control what comes on over the kitchen stereo.
One would think, the guy would have a superstar personality to match both the cooking and the accolades. Chefs of his stature often wear cliched, self-absorbed arrogance and pretension like the standardized white kitchen linens. Not Bowles. Especially seeing as he doesn’t do white linens in the first place. Then again, nothing about the 32 year-old proprietor of one of Chicago’s hottest dining destinations is remotely typical.
Sitting down with Bowles, it was hard not to be immediately taken aback by the chef’s unguarded exuberance. Just like the well-guarded Raines Law Room, where we met up with him, Bowles’ welcoming demeanor’s obscured by the stereotype of celebrity chefs’ shaded clout. In a world of brash Batalis and Colicchios, we’re more primed to expect a looming hardass over what was actually in front of us: a jolly softie who digs old-school emo bands. But don’t mistake the shameless sweetheart for a first-timer: the baby-faced Bowles sits with the confidence of a guy who knows he’s made it, and where he’s made it from, starting with dropping out of high school at 16, slaving as a dishwasher and bus boy for two years, and working his way up the cooking hierarchy thereafter.
“My chef had gone to cooking school, so I decided, ‘Okay. I need to work with my hands. I’ll go do that, instead of being a plumber…or something,’” Bowles laughs. “Then, I came across Trotter’s cookbooks, and that was the defining moment. You know? The eureka thing: where food can be art, and elevated, and a form of expression.”
“I went and worked in Texas for a year at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, and then worked for Charlie,” He continued. “I was running my own kitchen at 26 in Vermont. Then, I was Food & Wine’s Best New chef in 2004 at 26. It was huge. Those were things that I had always in my head been driven by. You know? Goals. Being a sous chef by this age and a chef by this age….but I didn’t even know what stars were, or that there was a Food & Wine. I knew what the James Beard Awards were, but that was about it. I never thought I could be in that world,” Bowles sheepishly confesses. “I just wanted to cook.”
Cook what? became the question for him, though, and after years of playing with the recipes of others, and then his own modest takes on food, he started to move towards something more authentic to him, something unafraid of offending, something unafraid of mocking convention, and something maybe a little revealing of his personal impulses: molecular gastronomy. The aforementioned Foie Gras Strawberry Pop Rocks, for example: isn’t he afraid of being pigeonholed as one of those chefs? Naturally: no. Which he related to his favorite genre of music:
“Molecular gastronomy is like the culinary version of Emo….(So many) bands are like, ‘Well, we got the emo thing thrown on, us but we’re really just a rock band.’”
Graham Elliot Bowles with the Kings of Leon. No big deal.
And that’s another funny thing about Bowles: he wears his culinary influences (Wylie Dufresne, Charlie Trotter) on his sleeve, but his fandom of other artists like a concert tee. For example, check out his website. The first thing you’ll hear? The sound of popcorn popping and Sufjan Stevens. And of course, when you walk into Graham Elliot, prepare to raise your voice, or at least: resist the urge to sing along. “The Smiths, the Cure, Band of Horses, Animal Collective, Prince, Talking Heads” are in rotation. Plus, “A lot of the older stuff that I used to like — like the Get Up Kids, the Promised Ring,” beams Bowles.
Bowles’ high-meets-low, playful haunt cuisine comes served with unconventional warmth. Waiters wear denim and chucks. “We will break up with customers all the time,” says the chef. “Older people that will come [and say,] ‘The music’s too loud. I don’t like this.’ We’ll tell them, even before they sit down, ‘It’s not you. It’s us.’ They look totally freaked out.”
This unapologetic approach extends beyond customer service, though. The menu, divided in 5 categories — cold, hot, sea, land and sweet — borders on compulsive categorization. It’s simultaneously indulgent and avant-garde, homey and sacrilegious. Think wagyu beef stroganoff with peppered spaetzle and caramelized shallots, chicken fried foie with buttermilk biscuits and quince butter. “You’re not going to sit there a week later, and think about pizza,” states Bowles. “You’ll be thinking about that crazy ass foie gras anchovy thing. I think that that’s what’s beautiful. That’s starting to happen now with food, for better or worse. It’s more performance, almost.”
“We play what we do.” Simple as that.
A lot of guests tell Bowles that the restaurant seems like a place built for the staff, “for your team to have fun, as opposed to the customer,” he explains. The kvetch is genuine. After all, Graham Elliot is a spot where the staff makes the playlist and the chefs make a mad-dash to the stereo every morning for tunes during prep and service. “Some guys will run in, and all day it’ll be gangster rap. Then, the pastry guy will randomly get there, and its Beach Boys, and you’re like, “What? Who the fuck put this on? Are you kidding me?”
Bowles rarely takes over the IPod – even when so-cal brothers are crooning soapy harmonies – because Graham Elliot is at heart a safe-haven for personal freedom and culinary experimentation, whether you’re in the kitchen, or eating their food. “It’s all trying to show who you are by doing this as your medium,” Bowles relates. “Let’s try to reinvent what the whole idea of fine dining is.” This could mean lavender-infused pea soup on linen-less mahogany.
If Bowles has his way, his flagrant creativity could also take a variety of even less-expected forms: he suggests a TV show with fellow molecular wiz kid Wylie Defraine. [“Dude. Somebody needs to film us just driving in a car all day. The other day, we were in a car driving and “Take My Breath Away” came on. It led to a whole discussion about the Top Gun Volleyball scene.”] A rockabilly, outsider’s “greaser” diner is in the works. A concert trailing food truck isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s taken time, but now he’s at the point where he’s ready to push forward. It’s taken time, but he now has “the confidence to be able to say, ‘I’m just going to do this.’”
“I think that’s what we try to show with our restaurant all the time,” Bowles says, referring to Graham Elliot’s status as a no-holds-barred creative hub, a place for fun, for expression, and for turning convention on its head. “Don’t come in just looking for dinner.”
GRAHAM ELLIOT BOWLES’ FAVORITE VENUE: 9:30 CLUB, WASHINGTON DC.
With reporting and interview by Foster Kamer.