A Chat With the MasterChef Judge and Celebrity Chef Graham Elliot
Plus: Chocolate World Expo; Pretzel Croissants in Westchester! and Fine British Pies
I was lucky enough to talk to Graham Elliot on the phone the other day. He’s not only a judge on MasterChef, TV’s highest-rated food show, but also the youngest person to have become a US four-star chef. His eponymous two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago hosted President Obama’s birthday dinner, for goodness’ sake, and he also owns a casual bistro there.
Soon we’re going to get to try his food—he's bringing his modern, seasonal style to Greenwich with Primary Food & Drink, expected to open in December. (Signs of life: a Twitter account!) He was down-to-earth and engaging to talk to…which makes me all the more interested in checking out the new place.
(Confession: I’d never watched MasterChef before. Have you seen this thing? It’s a home cook competition that makes Iron Chef look like a PTA bake sale.)
Of your Chicago restaurants, which one is Primary Food going to be more like? Your higher-end restaurant where the menu lists only single ingredients, such as “halibut,” or the bistro menu that, while creative, is more familiar looking?
It’s going to be more like the bistro, with a bar and lounge feel, and updates of classic American dishes. The menu will change seasonally, but the food will be approachable, nothing intimidating. We’ll have a great mixology program, with mocktails as well as cocktails, and a mostly American wine list. We’ll be open for dinner seven nights a week, brunch, and eventually lunch. And we want to be involved in the community, not just be “there.” I’ve been participating in the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival for several years, and I was happy to find an opportunity to open a place right on Greenwich Avenue. Merlin Verrier from the Chicago restaurants will be Executive Chef.
So, what tempting dishes can we look forward to?
We’ll be serving some of our signature dishes. One of our most popular dishes is a deconstructed Caesar salad that actually contains a brioche Twinkie sautéed in butter and stuffed with Parmesan garlic mascarpone. It’s piled with baby gem lettuce, brushed with anchovy dressing, showered with Parm, and garnished with mild Spanish anchovies. We also make Buffalo chicken, which is a take on Buffalo wings: a crispy chicken thigh served with homemade Buffalo sauce, celery slaw that uses the root and other parts of the celery, and blue cheese. We’ll have a creative spin on classics such as pot roast and beef stroganoff. And there will be vegetarian and gluten-free options, all of that.
That sounds very good. Are there any ingredients or trends you’re especially drawn to right now?
I’m excited for citrus in winter, and all sorts of vegetables as they come into season: parsnips, radishes…basically, I like to show off the many uses of one vegetable. At the Greenwich festival a few weeks ago, I made pumpkin bisque with spiced pumpkin seeds, pumpkin seed oil, and pickled pumpkin, served in a roasted baby pumpkin.
Yum! What do you like to eat when you're not working?
I’m a purist—I like to keep it simple. Grilled salmon with dill and yogurt sauce. Perfectly cooked short ribs; a roasted chicken.
And how did you get your start as a chef?
I had traveled all over the country and the world with my father in the Navy, and I was exposed to all kinds of food. I was singing and playing guitar in a band…and I dropped out of high school at 18 and got work as a dishwasher and busboy at a place called Chick’s Beach Café in Virginia Beach. I decided I wanted to be a chef and went to culinary school, and one of my earliest positions was at the Jackson House Inn in Vermont, where I became familiar with the offerings of the surrounding areas. It was there that Food & Wine named me one of the ten Best New Chefs in America, in 2004. By the time I was 27, I was running a four-star restaurant.
Is music still part of your life?
Sure. Music and food are similar in many ways—ingredients as notes, dishes as songs, and everyone in the kitchen as the band. I’m culinary director for Lollapalooza, and I record some of the music for my restaurants.
What kind of music do you like?
My current favorite band is Alt J. It does something on the computer… [I try it later; it makes a delta sign on the Mac.]
Cooking wise, do you have any heroes or influences?
I worked for Charlie Trotter for three years, and he was an influence. But I think it’s really important to find your own voice as a chef.
Read any good books lately?
I like to delve deeply into one subject at a time. Right now I’m in a baseball phase. I just picked up ten baseball biographies, and I’m totally absorbed in Pete Rose’s autobiography.
If you want to preview Graham Elliot’s food and can’t get to Chicago, here’s the best we can do: watch him make his famous Caesar salad here and the Buffalo chicken here. And if you’d like to audition for MasterChef, don’t just show up at Primary Food & Drink with your chicken potpie: there are open calls in New York on October 26 and 27 and in Philadelphia on November 2.
Chocolate World Expo
November 3, 11 am to 6 pm. $15/adults, $10/children 5-11, children under 5 free.
Yes, this event is post-Halloween. But if you’re a chocophile, save your appetite for the Chocolate World Expo at the County Center, featuring around 60 regional vendors of chocolates, baked goods, wine, specialty foods, and more chocolate-covered pretzels than you can shake a stick at—even chocolate bath salts, if you want to bathe in the stuff. Really, the list is pretty endless, and many of the vendors offer samples. If chocolate doesn’t float your boat, there’s a meet-and-greet with Spider-Man, and hourly shows by nationally renowned mentalist Marc Salem. Per the FAQ, get there later in the day to avoid the biggest crowds.
Pretzel Croissants in Westchester! and More Flaky Goodness
Pretzel croissants—Yes, fans of City Bakery in Manhattan, pretzel croissants now exist in Westchester! The ones at City Bakery (which I remember fondly from working nearby) have a cult following and even their own website. The ones at Auray Gourmet in Larchmont, available on Thursdays and weekends, aren’t exactly like them, but they’re pretty darn close—enough to satisfy a craving. They’re made for Auray by Tisserie, and they have that same slightly salty, slightly crispy outer layer, same je ne sais quoi innards (whole wheat flour? malt syrup? many people have tried to guess).
Fine British Pies—What’s this at the Larchmont farmers’ market? Why, “Fine British Pies,” that’s what, from Robinson Catering in Mamaroneck. London-born chef and veteran NYC caterer Stephen Robinson has been at it for about 2 months, selling flaky, fruit-filled Eccles (pronounced “eckles”) cakes, sausage rolls with homemade sausage, melt-in-your-mouth beef and Stilton pie (with English Stilton from Murray’s), authentic pork pie with a hot-water crust, scones, short-crust Cornish pasties, treacle pie, sticky toffee pudding…oh, just go try ‘em for yourself, why don’t you. (“Otherwise, you have to go all the way to a British grocery store in the West Village to get the proper pork pie that we Brits absolutely crave,” Robinson says.) No lard here, by the way, just shortening, and everything as local and organic as possible. Only at this location for now, but we’ll be seeing them at the Mamaroneck winter farmers’ market. Look for bacon buttie (a white bread, bacon, and butter sandwich), root-vegetable pie, scones with jam and clotted cream, and a big old-fashioned kettle of PG Tips tea.
Chinese cheese wontons—“What kind of cheese is in them?” I asked, eyeing the photo of cheese wontons by the register at No. 1 Chinese Food, a takeout place in Tarrytown (53 Main Street). “Cream cheese,” she said. OK, hit me. At the car, they disappeared before we could get back on I-287. The outside is fried wonton, the inside is like Philadelphia cream cheese that melted on a Lender’s bagel, with a bit of onion thrown in for good measure. Later, we discovered the sweet and sour sauce.