Chicago native Graham Elliot has already established himself as one of the city’s most prominent restaurateurs – but his achievements also shine on a national scale. Elliot is a judge for hit TV show Master Chef and its spinoff, Master Chef Junior. Rounding out his list of nationally televised projects is Covert Affairs, a special that will show Elliot putting aspiring chefs to the test as they turn unfinished locations into a full eateries – complete with food, music and ambience – in just 36 hours.
Master Chef comes to Chicago on October 19 for an open casting call and naturally Elliot has some advice for wannabe chefs from his hometown. Read on to find out more about his favorite dish, why he loves Chicago’s culinary scene and what hopefuls can do to impress him this Saturday. And don’t forget to preregister for your shot at a stint on Master Chef.
Statement Scene: What’s one of your favorite things about working on Master Chef?
Graham Elliot: It’s a way to learn about the different cuisines of the world. It takes place in America, which is a great melting pot of backgrounds, religions, everything. To take food from all across North, West, South, East is the best thing about it.
SS: You’re holding a casting call on October 19. What is something that a hopeful could do to really impress you that day?
GE: You know, it’s not just about the food. Anyone can take something, put it in a pan, apply heat to it and have it go from a raw to a cooked state. It’s the story that goes with it. It’s ‘this is who I am, this is what I’m willing to do to win, this is how I was raised and this is how I problem solve’ – all that stuff. That’s what gets my attention.
SS: If you were to go to a casting call like this one, what signature dish would you prepare?
GE: That’s a good question. For me it would probably be like a soft shell crab, sort of a Maryland flair. That’s where my extended family is from. I was an army brat – my dad is in the Navy – so I didn’t really have a place I was from, but that’s where I feel the closest. I’d probably try to do something from that region.
SS: What do you love about Master Chef Junior that you don’t get on the main show?
GE: I think with regular Master Chef, the contestants – they’re still amateurs, they’re not professionals by any means – but they’ve been through life and been through trials and tribulations and the kids are much more innocent and much more open. They’re like clay, you can sort of form them. It’s much more of a mentoring program, which I love.
SS: Were you one of those kids who was always in the kitchen cooking or did you discover it later in life?
GE: Well I was always a fan of experimenting and trying new things. The weirder the better: snails, octopus. I had dog and monkey in the Philippines, things that would freak most people out. I started working at 17 in a kitchen and from there realized that was my calling and what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have the ‘cooking with grandma by the stove’ thing at all.
SS: Covert Kitchens will have a lot to do with building an entire restaurant, which you obviously understand. What’s the most important element of that other than the food?
GE: Everybody wants a restaurant to have authenticity and personality, so it’s got to be an extension of the chef, whoever is running it. Everything from signage, name, music, logo, all has to be of equal importance. That’s what we’ll be doing on Covert Kitchens, giving someone the ability to transform a space for a night. If they do something great then the people dining can really influence their career.
SS: What would you say is the must-try dish right now at your restaurant?
GE: Probably the octopus. It’s been braised for hours so it kind of melts in your mouth. We do it with ratatouille and olives and squid ink and charred eggplant, a lot of elements you’d get in the Mediterranean but in a different way. It’s just really yummy
SS: What do you think sets Chicago’s dining scene apart from the restaurants in other cities?
GE: The fact that everyone who comes up through the ranks and wants to own a restaurant does it in Chicago. We’re very supportive of our own and everyone here pushes the envelope and sees food as art instead of just serving salmon and beef on the menu. It’s far and away the most creative food town in the country.
SS: What advice would you give someone who wants to become a better cook?
GE: Throw away everything you’ve learned. A cookbook can only take you so far. You have to understand food and flavors and know what each thing represents: something rich and fatty versus something sweet and tart or something with crunch. Figure out how to put those things together and find your voice. That’s what it’s about, just like in music.
Image via Mobile Cuisine.