Behind the White Glasses: A Conversation with Chef Graham Elliot
For those of us who love to learn about food and for those of us who are simply addicted to food shows on TV, Chef Graham Elliot is one of America’s celebrity chefs we have come to admire, respect and learn from. As a judge on FOX’s Masterchef and Masterchef Junior shows and host of Food Network’s Craziest Restaurants in America, he has become an icon in the world of celebrity chef-dom.
But really, Chef Elliot is all about food. Making an early decision to work at a restaurant when he was 17, he dove head first into the culinary world and never looked back. He trained at Johnson & Wales University and went on to work with top chefs in Dallas, Vermont and finally Chicago, the city he, his wife, Allie, and their three sons now call home.
I had the chance to have a conversation with Chef Elliot by phone this week, and he opened up to me about his take on food, his lifestyle changes, and yes, even a mention about politics.
I asked the chef about coming from our general area and if any of the regional food carried with him through his career. He explained that he grew up not just in Saginaw, Michigan, but also around the globe. As a self-described “Navy brat,” he went to 15 different schools. He said he was exposed to the famous bounty of fruits and wines in Michigan as well as food from around the world.
“Travel allows you to see things differently,” said Chef Elliot, “and those eclectic styles influence my food.”
With a mature food aesthetic that focuses on the best ingredients and flavorful techniques, I asked him how he prefers to dine today. “Wooden plank or linen tablecloth?” He explained his early days were all about fine dining, but over the years he’s found a way to bring a stripped down version of artsy food to the table. “Food without pretense” he said.
Bringing simple, beautiful food to people was instrumental in the creation of his new cookbook, Cooking Like a Master Chef: 100 Ways to Make the Everyday Extraordinary. Chef Elliot wants to make cookbooks “approachable for all people.” Bringing higher dining to the table and being able to make food “grey…not black and white. Fluid ingredients so you can do as you wish and work in your own direction.”
With the serious business of food out of the way, I wandered into personal territory and asked him about something we’ve all noticed on screen...his much-changed appearance.
“That’s one question people are afraid to ask me” he said, “it seems to be a sensitive thing, but it’s not.”
In July 2013, Chef Elliot had weight-loss surgery and as of today has lost 150 pounds. I wondered out loud if judging and tasting food was difficult with such a big change in lifestyle. He explained things have worked out pretty well for him in balancing work and food choices. Although this dietary style is more difficult, now he actually eats the food he cooks for others where before his surgery he would work all day and then eat any food that came along…burgers, convenience foods, whatever was close and fast. Today he can “make great food then eat it—good flavors, clean foods—not just quick and easy.” He explained good chefs understand that part of what they do in the industry is to educate the public so they have a better understanding of the food they eat. His work as a chef, TV celebrity and author incorporates that education, as well.
Since I’d asked about his physical appearance, I dug a little deeper and asked about that other unique feature…his white glasses. Right now, his collection includes six pairs of white-framed glasses, which are all prescription (yup, I went there). Some are made of plastic; some acrylic and some are made of wood. He explained he likes having a nice variety and his white frames are something that draws a little bit of attention.
I asked Chef Elliot what he likes to do to stay relaxed and centered during these chaotic celebrity times. He answered that he goes to the simple things: playing his guitar and music, and spending time with wife and kids at home. Dropping the kids off at school and hanging out with his family keeps him focused on the things that are most important.
“Stay connected to the permanent, not the temporary stuff. Because the TV thing can be gone tomorrow and the restaurant business goes up and down.”
What would he be doing if he weren’t being a celebrity chef, author and restaurateur? “Politics” he said. “What?” I said..? “Local politics” he repeated. “If you can cook and get people excited about what you do, why submit that to just food?”
He sees a day when he might become part of a charity or foundation, or a political voice for his hometown neighborhoods; a voice that would have no political agenda or owe favors in exchange for contributions. “No old-school politics,” he said.
Hmmm…Chef Elliot for President…Imagine what the White House garden would look like.