Chef Tim Graham
Tim Graham has a background in biochemistry and food science, and a thirst for experimentation, but he keeps his dishes at Tru grounded by focusing on flavor first – “then add[ing] cool accents.” Graham has worked under 4 chef de cuisines during his tenure at Tru, as well as consulting chef Laurent Gras, and today he’s re-invigorating the dining institution with his relentless, intelligent experimentation.
Graham was a semester away from his undergraduate degree in biochemistry, working on a research project that used genetics to nutritionally enrich corn. The fusion of food and science set off a spark, and led him to switch his major to food science and get a job in a restaruant. After graduation Graham went to study at the New England Culinary Institute and did his requisite 6 month internship at Tru. Post-graduation he spent time in Milwaukee at Sanford Restaurant, in Seattle at Earth and Ocean, and in San Francisco, but Tru felt like the perfect fit. He returned to Tru in 2003, and has spent the last 5 years climbing the ranks to chef de cuisine.
Under Graham, the cuisine at Tru is entering a new era of playfulness. There are less smoke and mirrors in the service, but the flavors on the plate are more exciting than ever. As are the behind-the-scenes manipulations – Graham’s experimentation has led to new techniques, like butter-water that is infused with the flavor, but not the fat.
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Heather Sperling: Did you attend culinary school?
Tim Graham: I was a semester away from a biochemistry degree at university of Missouri. I was doing an undergrad research project, and I finally realized that it wasn't for me. I had always baked bread, and I decided I wanted to be a cook. I got a restaurant job and it was awesome. So I switched my major to food science. New England Culinary Institute (NECI). Their format was all hands on – plus it was where Phish was from, so I thought it would work out well.
HS: Where have you worked?
TG: I did my very first internship at Tru. I got my dreads cut off at the Chicago airport, and did my internship. After, I cooked in Milwaukee for a while, and in Seattle at Earth and Ocean for a while. This was the best kitchen I had worked in, so I came back. I’ve worked under 4 chef de cuisines here.
HS: Do you have any mentors?
TG: Laurent Gras – I learned so much during the year that he was consulting at Tru. I worked very closely with him; I learned most importantly how to push myself, and I realized what it meant to be a chef. Watching his drive to improve himself was eye-opening – it was incredible to see what dedication it took. Laurent stepped back about a year ago [and is now opening his own restaurant].
In Milwaukee I worked for Sandy D’Amato at Coquette Café and would just stage at the more formal Sanford's part-time. It was formative emotionally because I had come from [an externship] at Tru but he wouldn't let me work at Sanford’s.
I've worked elbow-to-elbow with a guy that cooked at Chez Panisse for 2 years, and at Citronelle – and you can learn so much from that, too.
HS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TG: I don’t want to end up developing a dish based on trickery or cool things to do – I want to be flavor driven and then add cool accents. I want to have techniques ingrained into the dish that you don't really recognize. The "teas" that I do, that I then thicken with xantham or guar, are examples - the guest would never know that they're not thickened and smoothed with fat. I try to shoot for (or limit myself at) two technique-driven dishes on the menu. I'm trying to control the youthful folly aspect.
We're really a special events place – birthdays and anniversaries. Sometimes this is trouble because people who come back haven't been here for 5 years, and there's a lot less smoke and mirrors now. Not in a negative way - we're just not doing a lot of the gimmicks that we were once known for. We want to couch things in luxury. We have a luxury section on the menu - I want guests to feel almost like they're at the spa for the weekend - completely luxuriated.
HS: How many covers do you do each day?
TG: We do 110 during the week and 140 on weekends.
HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
TG: The thing I hate the most about people in our career is ego and arrogance. Leave that for other people. Stay humble and never allow yourself to think that you're somebody that you're not. Stay grounded. And work for the best people too.
HS: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
TG: There's not one question - it's the verbiage of the whole interview. They need to be real with me. I want cooks to make every mistake there is, but only once.
HS: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
TG: I really like rutabaga. I cook straight from Escoffier and I’ll cook it with water and sugar down to a glaze. I think it's awesome.
HS: Is there any kitchen tool that you do not currently have that you want?
TG: I would love a circulator built into my line. It would have 3 separate baths – 1 for the fish, 1 for the meats, and 1 for the birds. The ideal liquid would be beurre monte or oil.
HS: Is there a culinary technique that you employ in an unusual or different way?
TG: I’ve found that if you take any ingredient and simmer it in water in a 3:1 ratio for a few hours, you’ll have a flavorful tea of that ingredient. Butter water is 3 parts water to 1 part clarified butter. You simmer for hours until it reduces, then chill, poke a hole in the solids and pour out the water, and it tastes just like butter. I'm doing the same with artichoke water.
HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
TG: Chocolate and hazelnut is my favorite combination in the entire world. I also love the bittersweet flavors of turnips cooked in burnt caramel water and hit with a little lemon juice.
HS: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would you go?
TG: Thailand. There are so many ingredients in their sauces, and yet they end up so balanced. It boggles my mind, and shows me that their cuisine is thousands of years older than French. French sauces are so rudimentary compared to Asian sauces.
HS: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Chicago?
TG: Fat Cat is a good bar/restaurant the opened on north Broadway, but when I get a chance to eat out, I go to Lula Café.
HS: What trends do you see emerging in the Chicago culinary scene?
TG: The overall welcoming and acceptance in Chicago for industrial food products. Take the gellan gums that make up my lemon and bacon cubes, for example – things like this are becoming much more mainstream. My Terra Spice contact just called to say she's carrying gellan gums. Especially modified starches - these are coming into broader acceptance and knowledge. I think modified tapioca starches are going to be the new source for body in sauces, as opposed to cornstarch. Blogging and sharing too – Ideas in Food is a great example – chefs are sharing knowledge and furthering food.
HS: Who would you most like to cook for?
TG: I would like to cook for my grandmother - she was a great cook and a big fan of mine, but passed away before I got into this. I would love to eat Fernand Point's food. I would love to try what it was really like back then.
HS: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
TG: As a sous chef and a cook I was pretty involved socially, but now I would like to get more involved. We brought in National Starch to do training for Lettuce Entertain you, but I'd like to invite more people next time. I'd like to give [Graham] Elliot Bowles a call, give Chef Grant [Achatz] a call, and have us all come together and learn. Maybe it's idealistic, but I see it happening online.
HS: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
TG: Something that involved a lot of sensory stimulus. Maybe stock trading… at this point I'm really a stimulus junkie. Maybe a racketball player.
HS: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
TG: I would like to look back at my old recipes and see growth. I would like to look back at my old cooks and see their growth. I'm really looking for growth in maturity and philosophy. I don’t' think I want my own restaurant - I think there are too many restaurants, actually. I'd want two partners - 1 accounting and 1 front of house. But I don’t' need to be outside Lettuce Entertain You right now - it's really supportive. Sole ownership is not for me.
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