Chef Graham Elliot Bowles on Bringing the Ruckus

Chicago chef talks about plans for restaurant, TV, Lollapalooza -- and politics.

BySarah Rosenberg, Mary Flynn and <br>tom Mccarthy
July 08, 2010, 5:16 PM

July 15, 2010 -- Despite the ever-changing nature of the restaurant biz, there are a few things these days that are bound to be the case inside most every serious food establishment you might walk into.

One is that the place will have some kind of farm-to-table shtick, letting you know where your escarole was grown and maybe even the name of the farmer who tilled the field to grow the grain to feed the rosy-cheeked pig you're about to eat. Two is that the chef will have his or her own TV show or will be about to start his or her own TV show. Three is that that chef will not be looking to enter politics.

Not the case at Graham Elliot, the celebrated Near North Side Chicago restaurant where Chef Graham Elliot Bowles 1) is indeed plotting an eventual entry into politics and 2) pooh-poohs the whole "local sustainable" thing. (He does fit the stereotype in one respect: Bowles is about to launch his own TV show.)

"I would love to do a restaurant that simply served product from my own farm, I think that would be amazing, but that's just not the case here, so when you go to the farmer's market and there's 10 stalls and all 10 are selling rhubarb, that's not f****** cool," Bowles said in a recent interview at his restaurant.

"To me, spring is this amazing abundance of things and because I'm located in this one spot doesn't mean that I'm not able to use things from other areas, especially if they harmonize well as a finished dish. I'm not trying to pull from disparate areas just to create this conglomerate of craziness, but uh, this idea that because this person again chose to live this life that I'm supposed to support that because it's politically correct right now, I definitely don't follow that idea.

"One last point on the local farmer thing, we were laughing in the kitchen the other day, predicting that the next wave is gonna be putting, underneath the farmer [name], another layer of wording which would be the name of the migrant immigrant who picked your stuff on the farm. So it would be, Johnny's farm from blah, blah blah, picked by Manuel Ortiz from this part of Mexico who makes $3 an hour, so you feel nothing but guilt as you eat this food."

Bowles touts Graham Elliot as Chicago's first "bistronomic" restaurant. The idea is to take four-star cuisine and serve it up in a laid-back environment. The approach allows Bowles, 33, to live his attitude towards the restaurant experience: "Dining should be something that isn't always taken extremely seriously."

In 2004, "Food and Wine" magazine declared Bowles Best New Chef. At 27, he was the youngest four-star chef named in any major U.S. city. He's also appeared on television: Bowles competed in seasons 1 and 2 of "Top Chef Masters" on Bravo.

Click HERE for Chef Graham Elliot Bowles' favorite recipes

"Food to me, in one word, is 'creativity' or 'expression,'" said Bowles. "It's simply, 'this is who I am at this point in time, and this is what I want to cook for you.'"

The opportunity for expression really spoke to Bowles creative side even as a teenager – he sang and played guitar in a band during high school, and he would continue to play during culinary school. "I got to the point of saying 'okay you can either starve for your art musically or culinary-wise,' he said, and he opted to roll the dice on his culinary career.

Bowles first began working in the dining industry as a bus boy and dishwasher at age 17. Initially, the high school dropout saw cooking as a way to simply earn a paycheck, but he soon realized that it could also be so much more.

"I realized that it was this gorgeous form of expression," he said. "It was art, and it was sensuous and romantic, and you work with your hands and ingredients and people and all these things that I really enjoyed," he said.

After completing his culinary education at Johnson and Wales University, Bowles began his career at the Dallas, Texas-based The Mansion on Turtle Creek, a five diamond/five-star resort. This was followed by a move to Chicago where he worked at the famed Charlie Trotters for three years alongside Chef Rick Tramonto and then later with Chef Gale Gand as the Chef de Cuisine of Tru.

Bowles said it was important for him to break free of the routine of working under other chefs. As a man on a mission, he'd set himself several ambitious goals with clear deadlines: sous chef by the time he turned 25, chef by 27, and by 30 - his own restaurant. "I think it's important to have a road map and goals and things set in front of you," he said. Of the rigorous goals he'd set for himself, Bowles said, "I always feel that it's absolutely all or nothing, or else I'm going to get complacent, and I never want that."

At 26, he was running the kitchen at Jackson House Inn & Restaurant in Woodstock, Vt. Not only did the opportunity allow him to do the cuisine that he'd always wanted, but it landed him national recognition as one of "Food & Wine" magazine's Best New Chefs of 2004.

"That was an incredible experience that opened a lot of doors," he said. The recognition helped him return to Chicago, where he became the Chef de Cuisine of Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel. During the four years leading the kitchen there, he received perfect four-star ratings from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Magazine, and he became the nation's youngest four-star chef.

Despite his success, Bowles wasn't finished yet. By his own self-imposed deadline, he still hadn't opened his restaurant. "I was very focused on achieving that by 30," he said. "So from 28, 29, that was all I was trying to do: work, maintain the standard, raising the bar, and still at the same time, going home and working on this business plan."

Bowles signed the lease for his restaurant in December 2007. He turned 31 in January 2008. "I still considered that getting what I wanted," he said.

But if he hadn't succeeded, what then? Bowles has a myriad of backup plans, and said that he didn't just set such ambitious goals to freak himself out. "I love cooking, it's fun, I love dealing with people and the guests and the public, but I also realize that there's a finite amount of time on this planet… there's so much that you can do if want to cook, do music, writing, acting, whatever it is… to sit and do one thing as opposed to being the renaissance man, that's just not as fulfilling," he said.

Bowles said that he would have tried to further his passions for politics and leadership.

"There's myriad things that I wanna be able to do and be able to accomplish in my life, and there's one thing I'm really passionate about is politics and leadership and the idea that OK, if I can come into a restaurant and convince a culinary team this is why we cook this, this is what I think will go with it and then be able to explain that to the front of the house team, they in turn persuade the guests, and then all of a sudden you affect a small amount of change, bringing people to your way of thinking as far as food goes. What if you're able to apply that same thought process with a bigger good? How could you affect change on a broader scale -- and I think that that's something that I'm really excited by. You know when you see people like Arnold Schwarzenegger that come to this country, unable to speak the language, just a big muscle man. All of a sudden getting into Hollywood, making his money and then by 50 saying, achieved everything I wanted, what's the second half of my life going to be, let's give back. He doesn't need the power or the money or the fame, you want to do something good. And I think that -- I know that that's somewhere down the road for me."

For the time being, however, Bowles is holding off on his political career. Although he'd finally achieved his goal, the year was a difficult one for him personally – a divorce, a custody battle for his son, and leaving the comfort of a steady job with benefits – took its toll. With a history of depression and bipolar disorder as a teenager, Bowles knew he walked a fine line.

"So 2008, was a very tumultuous year," he said. "On one hand, I was creating my restaurant, my dream and on the other hand, was going through a divorce, having to sell my house in the worst market in history, and I had a 12-year-old son that I was having to have a custody battle with--so, all of those things going on at the same time of doing this restaurant and leaving the comfort of a hotel with benefits and a great salary. I think I had two ways of looking at things, like either this is the end of me and I'm not gonna be able to get through it; you know and there was a lot of sleepless nights and crying in the shower and thinking I'm gonna jump off of this building. And then the other way of looking at it which is ultimately what I decided on was-- this is a chance for rebirth this is another opportunity in life, from here on of still having an incredible relationship with my son, pursuing a relationship with my girlfriend, having this restaurant, being able to do the food I want without having to think about ratings and stars and anything else and that's the direction I took and that's what's led me here today.

"When it came time to choose, I knew that depression wasn't an option."

Bowles aims to live life to the fullest: he reads everything he can, plays music and sings, and he's constantly trying new things in the restaurant.

"People will come in and all of a sudden the seats are rearranged, and the lights are all different colors, and we're doing new menus," he said. "Then two weeks later, everyone gets comfortable with that, and it's like, 'No, now we're going to do this and switch this around.'" Bowles gave the example of how when he first opened the restaurant, the vibe was very laidback in the kitchen: music blared and the staff wore t-shirts to work. "Now there's no music and everyone's wearing chef coats this week, just because I want to try it out. Let's see if it changes the way everyone feels about what they do. In two months, we might go back," he said, and he admitted how frustrating these changes could be for his staff. "I always think if it's not broken, break it. How do we keep forcing change and staying on top of things?" he said.

"It might make sense to have a set menu of dishes that people love," he said. "But here it's like 'that was successful, we've got to get rid of it now and try something new.'

He added, "I do take pity on some of the people that have to work with me."

Bowles said that when it comes to the food served at the Graham Elliot, anything is possible. "It's a blend of the places that I've been, as well as the places that everyone on the team has been, because it's a collegial approach to cooking," he said. "Everyone is of equal importance, everybody contributes something."

Bowles said he believes in giving the best product possible to the guest, even if it means bucking the growing trend of eating locally-grown foods. "Especially in Chicago, we don't have this incredible growing season," he said. " I would love to do a restaurant that simply served product from my own farm. I think that would be amazing, but that's just not the case."

Having his own restaurant also gives Bowles an outlet for his other creative passion – music. "I actually record some of my own guitar playing, and we play it here in the dining room," he said. His passion for music made him a natural choice to be the Culinary Ambassador for the 2009 Lollapalooza, a three-day music festival held annually in Chicago. Bowles will return in the role this August, where he provides the cuisine for both the public as well as backstage for the performers.

"I am the happiest I've ever been now: incredible family life, I have a son on the way, just moved into a new place, we're opening a second restaurant, we're doing Lollapalooza, I have a TV show coming ,trying to start a band," he said. "There's just nothing but positive energy going forward."

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