Graham Elliot Bowles
One of Chicago's top chefs infuses his haute cuisine with rock & roll (and Cheez-Its).
There is a beaver in the freezer. No, the adorable dam-builder does not appear on the menu at graham elliot, but rest assured, it will be eaten. Revolting as it may seem, the big aquatic rodent was once a dining staple. In the 17th century, Roman Catholic Church officials declared the creature a fish, so that pious Canadian trappers might nosh on its gamy meat during Lent. Now this carcass—smuggled in by a server who got it from a Michigan trapper—awaits its fate inside a walk-in cooler at the swank River North restaurant. Out of sheer culinary curiosity, sous chef Jacob Saben is going to grind up the sucker into burgers for the staff. Saben, 31, excitedly whispers to the server as they pass by the popcorn machine in graham elliot’s bustling back-kitchen hallway: “I hear the tail is good.”
Even those who have only seen a commercial kitchen on Top Chef might discern that chef Graham Elliot Bowles employs a unique array of equipment in his flagship cooking lab. For starters, there’s the sink-side popper, which pumps out the bright aroma of freshly roasted corn kernels. The dishwasher tosses the popcorn in copious amounts of white truffle oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A basket of the unctuous, salty, crunchy stuff is served to tables in place of bread—and it’s delectable enough to get a film snob to sit through a Chipmunks double feature.
That the cleaning staff at graham elliot handles some food prep is part of the punk-rock spirit of the place. Employees in the front and back of the house wear the same brown T-shirt, emblazoned with a ge logo (there are matching belt buckles, too). A waiter might roll one-inch pucks of foie gras in strawberry Pop Rocks to make Bowles’s signature “foielie pop.” Busboys might plop dollops of horseradish froth on baby beets before running a salad to a table. This all-hands-on-deck philosophy honors Bowles’s indie-rock past, his days of loading gear from a busted-up van in the dive venues he played.
In the mid-’90s, Bowles, a Seattle-born Navy brat, was wallowing in Virginia, playing guitar and singing in the regretfully named Aura of Onassis. Around that time he forced himself to answer a question that had been plaguing him: “Do I want to be a cook or be in a band?” Pragmatism won out. He attended Johnson & Wales, graduating at age 18, then left for Denton, Texas, in 1997 to cook at AAA five-diamond–rated Mansion on Turtle Creek. That summer was the first time he saw one of his favorite bands, the Get Up Kids, precocious and poppy emo zit-poppers from Kansas City. More than 12 years later, on the night we visit his kitchen, the 33-year-old Top Chef Master is preparing a ten-course meal, on the house, for his beloved Get Up Kids. Now men sporting tummies and wedding rings, the Kids are in Chicago for a reunion show. Rock & roll dreams clearly still kicking around in his head, Bowles compares his menu to a Radiohead concept album: “The octopus terrine is like the first track of Kid A, a weird track some might not get. But it sets the mood. Now, the beef stroganoff: That’s the hit.”
As he squirts lemon sorbet from a clear condiment bottle onto chilled slivers of cephalopod, another of his favorite bands, Jawbreaker, comes up on the mix, which feeds the same tunes to both customers and crew. Bowles reaches over to the wall-mounted iPod dock and jabs at the volume buttons. UP has long worn away from finger abuse, while DOWN remains shiny and new.
“You like the taste of it but can’t stand the smell,” he sings along, rolling up the left sleeve of his chef’s coat to reveal a sprawling Jawbreaker logo tattoo (like many chefs, Bowles carries his biography in tats), a large cross made of four capital Fs. They stand for Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei (Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free), words that aptly describe the genial and driven food genius. He’s adorably round and boyish and wears a subtle, slicked pompadour above dorky-chic white-frame glasses. After dropping fried chickpeas seemingly haphazardly onto the 12-inch LP-sized plates ($2.50 IKEA cheapies, he points out), the former Charlie Trotter understudy pumps his fist up and down on an air guitar. He claps along to Vampire Weekend and later breaks into a shrill Axl Rose impression while laying coins of squab across a deconstructed Thanksgiving dish.
“Chef likes to say all chefs are failed guitarists,” Saben says. It may not be far from the truth. In fact, most of the graham elliot staff seems to be on option B of the “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” plan. Saben is a classically trained violinist; pastry guru Gabe Geers studied classical guitar. Dustin Chabert, a waiter, graced a Lollapalooza stage plucking bass for locals Wax on Radio and once opened for the Get Up Kids. Tonight, he’s serving them. Director of operations Jim Colombo managed tours for Big Head Todd & The Monsters.
Colombo, an assiduous overseer in a mustache, goatee and blazer, buzzes around the lofty Gallery District space. He’s quick to whip out analogies between the eatery and a rock band. The kitchen is broken down into five autonomous stations, each dedicated to a section of the menu—cold, hot, sea, land and sweet. Colombo compares the arrangement to instruments jamming in unison to form a complete song. Later, Bowles recalls cooking for Kings of Leon and Jane’s Addiction. Colombo interjects, “The bands were watching his set.”
When Lollapalooza 2008 hit town, Bowles threw his own celebration, Foie-lapalooza, crafting duck-liver meals inspired by the festival headliners’ albums (Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foie Gras,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Foie”). His favorite album of late is Feed the Animals by the “superclever” Girl Talk, a laptop artist who mashes together samples of popular radio hits and quirky underground acts. It’s an obvious pick for a guy who shoves nuclear-orange Cheez-Its into a stunning apple-cheddar risotto.
But beyond all these somewhat hokey parallels, an undeniable camaraderie and gusto pervades the restaurant. “I’ve never worked in a place with so much freedom,” Geers whispers with a can-you-believe-it smile. “This place will spoil me. I have to enjoy it while I can.” Colombo offers an easy explanation for the mood: “We’ve all been yelled at in kitchens enough.”
Everyone constantly chuckles, shoots the shit and debates pop music. The Bravery’s mopey new wave blasts out of the overhead speakers. “Jacob, is this your fucking CD?” Bowles ribs. “I’m imagining skinny ties and Members Only jackets.” Saben—making a tray of Wagyu beef burgers on toast for a crew snack—blushes and shakes his head. “Wait, is this Maiden?” jokes sous chef Brian Runge, 32, popping a stray meltaway garlic marshmallow in his mouth. “That would be fucking tough to have on.”
Each worker on the payroll picks three songs for the iPod playlist, which changes seasonally with the menu. When posh customers inevitably bitch about the power chords raining down on their $30 pumpernickel-crusted sturgeon, bulldog Colombo heads out to deliver the “It’s not you, it’s us” speech and find the foodies a reservation at a quieter joint. “Food Network ruined restaurants,” he grumbles of these newly minted snobs.
Pissing off unsuspecting clientele is an indulgence that the James Beard nominee and Food & Wine Best New Chef award winner affords himself. The iPod serves up the Cure’s “Close to Me,” and Bowles speeds into the dining room to crank it up for his guests only to find the control knob blocked by a supping patron. “Jim, don’t sit people on table 55,” Bowles declares. “It prevents me from fucking DJ excellence!”
As the modest Tuesday crowd thins out, Bowles, Chabert and Saben slip into street clothes and drive up to catch the Get Up Kids’ set at Metro. They settle into a VIP box, from which Bowles giddily belts every lyric. After a few ripping numbers, the singer heavily exhales, grabs his gut and gives it a good shake. “I’m all cramped with deliciousness,” he announces before asking the horde of sweaty adolescents if they’ve ever eaten at graham elliot. The crowd cheers, probably lying. Chabert leans in and sighs, “God, I miss being on tour.”
Experience Graham Elliot’s eclectic playlists at 217 W Huron St, 312-624-9975.