In Macau to promote his upcoming restaurant, Coast, former MasterChef USA judge Graham Elliot talks wet markets, Instagram, the importance of change and why he’s more motivated by fun than by stars.
Words Tiffany Chan Photos Joe Kwong
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 86, June 2017
It’s a sultry summer afternoon in Macau and Chicago-based chef-restauranteur Graham Elliot has just spent the fourth of July 12,000 kilometres away from his family, trading through wet markets. “That’s what freedom is about. Freedom to travel around the world, right?” he jokes, “Yeah. Here, let me show you,” he says, and starts shipping through his Instagram account. “Frogs. Guy with no shirt. Pig face. Amazing.”
The former MasterChef judge is buoyant and bright-eyed in his signature, chunky white – framed glasses. He’s just cooked up a storm for 60 people as a preview for his latest venture, Coast at MGM Macau Cotai, which is due to open at the end of the year.
Instead of bread and butter (“bread is so boring”, the chef quips), there are baskets of homemade truffle popcorn, the kernels are doused in golden truffle butter and a smattering of chives, parmesan and cracked pepper, which we greedily grab by the handful. Then there is his deconstructed Caesar – a golden cube of brioche stuffed with mascarpone and creamed parmesan (“just like a giant Twinkie”), stacked with a neatly trimmed wedge of romaine heart and a sliver of Spanish anchovy – which will be familiar to anyone who visited his two-starred eponymous restaurant (now closed). Each bite is at once hot and cold, crisp and soft.
He makes his rounds at the tables, posing for selfies and teaching his guests to take better Instagram pictures. His top tip: turn the phone upside so the lens is closer to the table for a dramatic, towering photograph of the fluffy, golden brioche. He’s clearly well-versed in social media. We take note.
At Coast, as well as his whimsical US-inspired dishes, Elliot will be taking some local inspiration. The menu will include African chicken, which he “has never made before, but practiced once, just yesterday”, Macanese seafood soup, pork jerky, which he envisions as a bar snack, and the beloved Portuguese egg tart, to which he thinks he wants to add prosciutto.
We’re sceptical. The chef has just landed from Chicago and done his own version of African chicken. Sceptical because he’s a “celebrity chef”, and celebrity chefs have a tendency to drop their names on restaurants and menus around the world with no concern for quality. And sceptical because celebrity chefs don’t usually stick around. “Not me,” he insists. He’ll be in Macau every 12 weeks, he says. Coast is his first venture outside the US and he intends to be present.
Despite having one of the most recognisable faces on culinary television – after 10 seasons as a judge on MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, and now as a judge on Top Chef – achieving TV stardom and seeing his name plastering on billboards and cookbooks was never a goal for Elliot.
“I started as a dishwasher, then a prep cook, then chef, and the awards and TV and these other things. It was never the goal, right? You just love food and work for great people and see what happens,” he says.
This go-with-the-flow attitude has led the restauranteur to open and shut numbers ventures. Opened in 2008, his first restaurant, Graham Elliot, earned him two Michelin stars and four stars from the Chicago Tribune – the youngest chef to attain this accolade, at age 27. He reinvented it as a fine-dining restaurant, and then abruptly closed it in 2010.
Next came sandwich shop Grahamwich, then a restaurant in Connecticut, and another flagship, Graham Elliot Bistro, on Chicago’s buzzing Restaurant Row. That closed last year, though we’re not told it will re-open this month as an “American tapas and handcrafted cocktails kind of place”. Right now, though, there is not a single brick-and-mortar restaurant that bears his name. Change is necessary to stay relevant, he says.
“What happened was the clientele – everyone’s a big foodie – they just want to take a photo of every dish and prove they were there, post it, and go to the next place. So nobody just goes to dinner anymore to get an appetiser, entrée and dessert, and make a reservation,” he says. “We were doing fine financially and press-wise, but it wasn’t as exciting as it could be, and you always want to change and stay relevant.”
Restaurant or not, television or not, celebrity or not, none of it seems to really matter to Elliot. The ever-changing social media landscape has changed things for chefs and restaurants. The next Graham Elliot flagship will not be about stars or awards, he says, but will be about having fun.
“I’m not interested in that stuff at all anymore. I was before. You’re young, you want to prove yourself, you want to get an award, and for people to say you were so good at these things. But you do that, you prove you can do it and then you do something new,” he says.
“Newspapers are closing left and right. There are no more journalists. They try to be relevant but if you’re a food writer and you’re trying to give a restaurant review, and you have 4,000 followers and I have 600,000, then your review won’t really matter, because nobody’s going to listen to it. And I think that it’s similar in the chef world. Maybe I worked at the French Laundry and all these great places and people don’t follow me on social media, and there’s some basketball player’s wife that loves food, and now she’s got her own show and cookbooks, and you know, a million followers, and she thinks she’s chef. So what does it mean to be a journalist, what does it mean to be a chef?”
In recent years, Elliot has been involved in a number of charities such as Smile Train and SOS. He hopes to start his own non-profit organisation, teaching inner-city kids where food comes from, how to grow it, cook it and get a job in the food world.
“There are bigger things to think about,” Elliot says. “It could all end tomorrow. Chef aren’t cool anymore. There are no more cooking shows. People have moved on. Hairdressers are the new celebrities. So it’s like, you can’t believe in any of it, you can’t buy into any of it. Oh, you could never. So, you just have fun.”
|My Favourite Things with
1. Name three essential Chicago restaurants for the first-time visitor?
Alinea, Publican, Girl on the Go – something that’s high end, then kind of middle that represents what’s going on in American cuisine right now, and something loud and fun and busy every night, and has a great energy.
2. Favourite fried food of all time?
It’s hard not to just love fried chicken. But we also do a lobster corn dog that’s fried and topped with a lemon aioli. At Lollapalooza, we’re serving 20,000 corn dogs over three days, so you become one with the fryer.
3. One food you’ll never be able to give up?
I always say if I’m on a desert island and I could only eat one thing, it’s sushi.
4. What’s your kids’ favourite snack?
Right now, they’re all into grilled cheese sandwiches. But I’m trying to show them the right technique. You get the butter all nice and clarified then you put the bread, let it get melty.
5. Most unique dining experience?
I went to elBulli for their 20th anniversary, had a six-hour meal with 50 different bites. It’s kind of hard to top that.
6. Hardest service?
I’ve cooked for everyone from Eminem to President Obama, but you don’t get too stressed out. Back in the day, I used to get panic attacks because you would know certain food critics or writers were in, and you’re young and it’s your first real chef experience. You’re trying so hard to make it perfect. Those kinds of things stress you out.
7. What’s your best advice for aspiring chefs?
For me, it’s finding your own voice. Knowing what you want to get across to the people you’re cooking for. What you stand for. Your food should be an extension of you, your beliefs. It’s not enough to pick up a cookbook and recreate or copy somebody else’s stuff, or re-do your family’s recipes. You should find who you are and put that on a plate.
8. One food you will never eat?
Oh, I’ll try everything – dog, in the Philippines; monkey, snake. I did a thing called jungle environment survival training and you learn if you live in the jungle, what you’re going to eat and where to source food. What’s disgusting to one person is delicious to another, so there’s nothing I wouldn’t try.