Top Chef judge Graham Elliot became known for his decadent and creative culinary creations such as his poprocks-and-foie-gras ‘foielipop.’ Nowadays, the former MasterChef host and judge is focused on empowering people to eat healthier, and getting involved in his community here in Chicago.
RecipeLion.com met up with Elliot to find out what’s inspiring him lately.
When your nephew needed a heart transplant, you became pretty involved with the Heart & Stroke Foundation. Is heart health a passion of yours?
He’s in the hospital all the time getting checked on. It’s a different mindset, it’s easy to tune things out until it affects you personally. You ask yourself, what can I do?
All I can do is cook, but there’s a way I can help by cooking and showing people they can make different choices and still eat delicious food.
My dad’s dad had his first stroke at 32 so it definitely runs in the family. Knowing your blood pressure and learning ‘how do I take care of myself?’ is important.
How has the heart healthy focus changed the way you cook?
As a chef, I cook healthier for myself but I still cook for other people. It’s good to show them you can make a big greasy burger, or you can make carrots and they can be just as delicious. If you roast the asparagus, it can be this pure, colorful, delicious thing but still healthy.
I’m becoming more comfortable with my own weight, and I don’t feel like I always have to cook deep-fried whatever. It got to the point where I thought, ‘I don’t have to be that person.’ In food TV there’s pressure to be the big, jolly fat guy who’s like ‘I’m going to eat the whole cheesecake!’ and get everyone laughing.
But now I’m showing people – you can puree tofu, instead of using quarts of cream. You can find ways to manipulate the ingredients. I made tofu caprese instead of mozzarella. It’s like – one [the mozzarella caprese] is fatty cheese, and one [tofu caprese] is pure protein. And it tastes 90 percent as good.
I made mushroom caps, cured, smoked with bacon. It was all the hashtags. The most incredible mushroom of all time!
What do you have in the works?
I’m working on a kids’ cookbook and redoing the restaurant at Randolph (St.). I’m looking to do more charity-based projects. I’d like to teach people how to make food healthy, fun and affordable.
Especially living here [in Chicago] and seeing life on the south side, I think we can make food affordable for the people in the food deserts [where grocery markets and fresh produce is hard to come by]. Let’s teach kids where food comes from and where they can get it. There are so many more opportunities to educate people.
What are you up to with Capital One Banking Reimagined?
When I was a young guy I had no background in finance, but I had the entrepreneur spirit to know that money lets you live the life you want. I knew that I wanted to own my own restaurant, travel through Europe, and have hand-forged Japanese knives. But to do those things, you need to know about money. Once you learn how to become better with your money, the more you know and the better you can plan to make your money work for you.
You’re working on a new website too.
It’s all about being as original and authentic as possible. If people reach out to me, I want to respond personally. Someone just sent me this fan art, a picture of me tasting food.
That’s amazing. I don’t take it for granted. Especially for the kids, I want to respond to them personally.
Who was your favorite musician to cook for at Lollapalooza? (Elliot has been culinary director for the music festival since 2009.)
Well, there are the headliners, of course, and there are bands I love like The Postal Service, Outkast, Radiohead. Foo Fighters are huge food dudes. We made them a pop-up with roasted veggies and cedar plank salmon.
We sell out of lobster corn dogs every year – last year we sold 20,000.
When I cooked for Eminem was the first time he ever had lobster. He introduced me to Rihanna and gave me a bro hug.
Okay, flash round. Favorite wine?
Grenache – something more varietal.
Favorite southern food?
Collard greens. Every culture does best with what they’re given. If you look at the medieval times, the lords and ladies were eating the pigs’ heads and the common folks were eating entrails and organs, so they learned how to cook it best. It’s taking something lesser, putting love into it, and making it incredible. And in the south, they do magic with collard greens.
Green bean casserole. In my cookbook, we make it with skinny French green beans, haricot vert, and black trumpet mushroom.
How do you feel about slow cookers?
Who doesn’t make chili in a Crockpot? Plus, you can put in some mash, veggies, roasted meat, braise it all together and you could charge $30 for it – it’s just as good as a meal in a restaurant.
What kitchenware sums up your personality and why?
I think when I started I would have been something all about precision, like a beautiful knife.
Now I want to do as much as I can. I’m like a cast iron skillet, handed down from generation to generation.