Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Graham Elliot Bowles: I grew up in a military family, so we traveled all over. My parents were into food and cooked things from the countries we lived in. At 17 I got a job as a busboy. The chef was a Johnson and Wales graduate and encouraged me to go there. I was also in a band at the time and I thought being a chef would be a better career. Later I picked up Charlie Trotter’s cookbook and learned cooking could really be a creative outlet as well.
AB: Do you think your Johnson and Wales education helped lead you into some of the best kitchens in the country? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
GEB: Not so much. I went to cooking school, but I’m not sure it’s important. It might be different at CIA or elsewhere. I would have gotten more out of staging in Europe. I have the same philosophy about hiring. I have a garde manger that is a poet – it affects the way she touches food. I think you need to fine your voice and express yourself.
AB: Can you tell me about working at Mansion on Turtle Creek, Charlie Trotter’s, and Tru?
GEB: The Mansion was my first real experience at that level of fine dining. I was 20 years old. I realized it was a 24-hour operation. So I learned that their attention to detail was quite different from a place that just serves dinner. Michael Kramer (now Executive Chef of McCrady’s in South Carolina) – I worked with him at the Mansion. He was a sous chef there, and he told me what it would take to survive at a place like Trotter’s – how to keep your head down, fold your towel just so, and have your trash can close by.
Working at Trotter’s was a defining moment in my career. Everything you do has to be done at the highest professional level. Each task is just as important as the others. The way you season a plan, sharpen a knife, sweep the floor. Everything has to be in tune. I’d never been in a kitchen like that.
AB: Have you carried that philosophy into your kitchen?
GEB: I did when I went to Tru, the underlying philosophy of achieving excellence, yes, but I take more of a caring parent approach than the commander-in-chief approach.
AB: What is your own philosophy on food and dining?
GEB: All cuisine is a gray area. I like to push the envelope, not break it up. And if it isn’t broke, break it. But that’s not my only motivating force. I like to use some restraint. And the finished product must be delicious.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path – in Chicago?
GEB: Hot Doug’s. Bijan’s Bistro – for their awesome iceberg wedge with blue cheese. Café Salamera – it’s Peruvian – for their little sandwiches and plantains
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
GEB: Consumers are looking at cuisine as chef-driven.