By Michael Nagrant
With his fierce tattoos, imposing frame and black lacquer glasses, chef Graham Elliot Bowles looks like the lovechild of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and a bouncer from a death-metal bar. However, the aggressive-looking “innocence” tattoo on his left forearm is more a reflection of the artist who also did ink for Pantera than of Bowles’ true personality. As Bowles says, “I look like I’m ready to hurt someone, when I really just want to cry on their shoulder.”
Opening his eponymous restaurant Graham Elliot (opened June 2), the tattoo that might mean the most is the one on his right forearm: a German monogram depicting four “f”s, a graphic from the punk band Jawbreaker that stands for “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, frei.” (Hardy, God-fearing, Cheerful, Free).
Bowles was already hardy, god-fearing and cheerful, but total freedom had been elusive. His brand of cooking, which included slinging chive marshmallows, foie gras milkshakes and pairing Pop Rocks with Rice Krispies, was incongruous with the staid dining room of his former employer, Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel. The staff at Avenues was notorious for hanging jackets on the back of chairs of patrons who failed to wear one. The first time I dined at Avenues clad in a banker’s striped suit coat and pressed jeans, the maitre D’ clucked at me and told me jeans were against their dress code. (I didn’t leave or change.)
At Graham Elliot, where the servers wear red Converse Chuck Taylors and Levi’s 501 jeans, that kind of thing won’t happen. Everything, from the food to the floors, is now a total reflection of Bowles’ laid-back personality. He says, “At Avenues you couldn’t serve Cheez-It-infused risotto when you were charging $175 for a meal. The hotel was a great experience, but it was time to move away.”
As a younger insecure head cook at Avenues, Bowles said there would be times where a line cook who questioned his decisions would be “destroyed.” Now Bowles says he shares his vision, but lets his team—which includes six left-handed folks, a former computer programmer and a former tour manager for Big Head Todd and the Monsters—influence direction.
While at Avenues, Bowles constantly followed blogs and worried about the parade of critics. At times this vigilance caused minor panic attacks and he wasn’t able to sleep. He says the philosophy in planning for the new restaurant was that, “We proved ourselves. Now let’s enjoy that success and do what we like.”
For Bowles, such success wasn’t guaranteed. Only thirteen years ago he dropped out of high school. Though he was “in a lot of advanced classes,” the itinerant son of a navy man had attended three high schools in three years and didn’t like the idea of a forced education where you taught a “class of thirty-five people the same thing.” He got his GED and went to cooking school at the Norfolk branch of Johnson and Wales.
Culinary school was a means to an end. He didn’t know what Michelin ratings were. He just wanted to play music, and knew that working with his hands he’d always have a way to pay the bills. Then he read Charlie Trotter’s cookbook and realized cooking could also be an art. Trotter was such an important figure in his transformation that Bowles keeps a picture of himself outfitted in a tall paper toque working the line at Charlie Trotter’s in his new office. The picture is also a reminder of humbler times to prevent him from getting cocky.
At Graham Elliot, as at Avenues, luxury ingredients will still be larded with unbridled whimsy. Braised buffalo-sauced chicken will be with paired with blue-cheese foam or Budweiser bubbles. A recent Southern odyssey eating at roadside stands, shacks and joints inspired Bowles to whip up dishes like fried pickles with bacon ranch dressing and peach cobbler with “brown shuga” and “nilla wafers” for his new menu.
Not everything at Graham Elliot is informal. From the custom Jade ranges in the kitchen to the dark wood tables, burnt copper counters and soaring timber-reinforced ceilings in the dining room, there’s plenty of elegance. The luxury’s just tempered with ideas like potentially outfitting the bar with a hidden flat-screen TV so late-night crowds can watch old WWF Wrestlemania bouts.
Bowles also has a long list of ideas he hasn’t gotten to, including making scratch-and-sniff business cards and inviting Midwestern bands via MySpace and Facebook to contribute songs to the restaurant’s background music.
This kind of unbridled freedom doesn’t come without worry. In cooking test meals for friends and family, some asked why there weren’t candles on the tables and said the menu (which features Bowles’ hand-written entries and personal sketches of his dishes) was too hard to read. Bowles said in hearing that criticism it takes a lot of discipline not to get scared and do what’s safe. On the other hand, he says, “Sure we’re taking a risk, but I’m much happier taking that risk and falling on my face than doing what every other restaurant does.”
Graham Elliot, 217 West Huron, (312)624-9975