Nowadays, molecular-gastronomy is all the rage with adventurous foodies. Sometimes referred to as high-tech cuisine, this modern school of cooking utilizes the latest scientific innovations and molecular biology to transform traditional approaches to cooking. New dishes are created through avant-garde preparations, equipment, and plating. Some are whimsical, some are startling, and some are simply new and pleasantly surprising to the palate.
As June rolls around – and I learn that Tony has decided to hold off opening his doors until he gets his liquor license, which could take a while – I decide to make a reservation for my birthday at a new place opening up in Chicago that I’m extremely curious about.
Graham Elliot Bowles is a young super-star chef on the rise in national food circles. A big, beefy, tattooed hipster, this thirty year old prodigy has an impressive resume for such a young man, having kicked around Chicago for several years with some of the biggest names in the local restaurant scene. He was the Executive Chef at Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel, a four star restaurant. He’s worked with Charlie Trotter for years, and also as the Chef de Cuisine at Tru, another four-star Chicago restaurant. A nominee for numerous James Beard awards, he’s been featured in all the magazines and has appeared on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” and as a competitor on the wildly popular Bravo TV series “Top Chef Masters.” He is a judge on Fox TV’s “Master Chef” with Gordon Ramsay.
When I learn that Bowles is opening his own restaurant in Chicago, I have to check it out. The place will be called, fittingly, Graham Elliot, and is being billed as Chicago’s first “bistronomic” restaurant. I guess what this means is simple American bistro fare elevated by scientific razzle-dazzle, as well as a sense of fun. Some people call it “food as art,” but I never liked that phrase. I never wanted to eat a painting. But when I read about the menu at Graham Elliot’s on line, I get really excited.
So one afternoon I go down to the near-north side to the gallery district, where the place is located, to see if I can get a reservation. I’m wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a baseball cap, and when I get there I recognize the man himself inside the window. The place is beautifully designed, with exposed beams, floor-to-ceiling windows, and hundred-year-old brick walls, but I can’t tell if they’re open or not… so I knock on the door. And Graham himself comes up and opens the door.
He’s a big guy with cropped hair and very hip glasses. He reminds me of many of the offensive linemen I had battled against in my football days. But he is very friendly and unassuming. He tells me that they’re opening up that night, and he would be happy to make a reservation for me. We chat as he’s taking down my information. “You know, I’m actually a cook,” I blurt out at one point in the conversation, thinking, what the hell?
“Yeah?” he says, punching my name into the reservation file. “That’s cool.”
I tell him about the Hofbrau, Mon Oncle, and my current status waiting to start at Tony’s.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of Tony,” he says. “The guy from Coco Pazzo, right?”
“Exactly . . . and you know what, in the meantime, if you need some help, I’d be happy to come in and stage.”
He stops typing for a second and looks at me. “You mean like come in and just trail a guy and help us out?”
“Absolutely, yeah. I’m not doing anything right now. And I’d really enjoy it.”
Without a pause he says, “Yeah, that’d be great. Sure. We could use the help. When do you want to come in?”
By now it’s probably becoming apparent that one of the overriding themes of this book is this: If you have in-depth food knowledge, and some skills, and the passion, and the cojones, it’s not that hard talking your way into professional restaurant kitchens. Even the best of the best. The work is there. You just have to be open to the possibilities.
Here’s another example: It turns out a buddy of mine in my apartment building frequents the same health club as another top Chicago chef: Martial Noguier.
Paris born, movie-star handsome, and a graduate of the French Culinary Academy, Martial Noguier has, for nearly a decade now, been one of the most underrated chefs in Chicago. Bar none. The executive chef at a place called one sixtyblue, he has gotten rave after rave from food critics and guidebooks alike over the years. Ironically, the day after I meet Graham Elliot, my buddy calls me up and says one sixtyblue has lost some people lately, and he mentioned me to Martial. Martial wants me to call.
He wants me to call him?
Located on Chicago’s west side, in the trendy market district, one sixtyblue is part owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan. Inside, it’s plush, and sleek and low lighting – a place I have always admired – so when I hear my neighbor has the ear of the Star chef Martial Noguier, I’m thinking, hmmmmmmm . . .
I get on the phone, and I get the chef on the line. “Hi, Chef Martial, this is Wayne Cohen, a friend of John’s.”
“Can you work Thursday?” the deeply accented voice interrupts.
I practically flinch. This is just too easy. It should be more difficult than this. “Well, actually, I’m sorry to say I can’t on Thursday.”
“And why not?”
“Well, to be honest with you, I’m working at Graham Elliot’s on Thursday.”
“You’re working with Graham?” He accents the word Graham with that wonderful, intense, musical, French lilt: Grrrrrrrrrrrayham?
“Yeah,” I say, “I am.”
“Then come in Friday.”
“You must! You must come in Friday!”
So I agree.
How could I not agree with a great chef who speaks like this?
Wayne Cohen, aka Wayne Cohen, was born in Chicago, and has been a lover of food most of his life. He started cooking at thirteen.
His passion for cooking continued to grow; fueled by his obsession for great food, from Hong Kong street vendors, to a truffle menu in the south of France. From great restaurants to burger shacks, with a pile of cookbooks, food magazines, and newspaper recipes, he pursues the best food.
Buy Cooking on the Line here.