Chef Graham Elliot Bowles is standing in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien in midtown Manhattan, a big mountain of a guy in a striped short-sleeved buttondown with his signature white designer glasses. Despite his size, he's trying hard to blend in to the background. The chef of Chicago restaurant Graham Elliot is in town to do press for MasterChef, a competitive cooking show that premieres tonight on Fox. We sat down for hand-shaken coffee drinks. "Does that mean they shake your hand when they give it to you?" Bowles asked. The answer is no, they don't.
How does MasterChef compare to your other television appearances?
I've done Top Chef Masters in the past, but doing this show was really eye-opening. You really saw people who don't get paid to cook. Since I was seventeen that's what I've been doing, so to see people who are full-time lawyers and who have a family and kids and cook at a really high level, it's really awesome. A lot of us get stuck in the dining mold. We're watching the Voltaggio brothers bring out liquid nitrogen and all this kind of cool stuff, but the everyday average person at home, what can they relate to? I don't want to say the other cooking shows have a lot of ego, but when there's a sixty-year-old housewife from Georgia, I might make this and this is what I cook.
But Gordon Ramsay is not known for his gentle mien, does he upbraid these little old ladies?
Gordon comes from a different background professionally. I was under Charlie Trotter who has a real cerebral and philosophical approach, but Gordon worked under a lot of French guys. What's crazy doing the show with him is that he's always super funny. He's always the center of attention from the first moment you see him to the last. It's not yelling, at least in this show, but if we're doing some sort of culinary war, he'd be my first choice for a trench mate. He still has his general temperament. That's just who he is. Joe Bastianich's more of a Simon Cowell because he is even more cut and dry.
What does that make you?
A Paula Abdul.
So you're always wasted?
I'm so hopped up on Xanax and vodka. The thing is I treat the contestants the same way I treat people in my kitchen. In the GE kitchen, everyone is of equal importance. There are no real prep cooks or dishwashers. Everyone preps and cleans their own station. I feel it's more important to get a feel of touch and romance instead of saying, "dice this because I'm French." I'm much more of a coddling type.
But you don't really let issues fester or go unanswered. You're like the Clinton war room, you respond immediately to nearly all criticism, be it from Yelp or Chicago Magazine.
It's no different than painting or music. You do what you do, put your heart on your sleeve, and of course you are going to be affected by what people say about it. And if you're not maybe you don't have enough heart in it.
Everyone is affected by it, but some people make the decision not to engage. But you engage almost indiscriminately.
I've been kicked off Yelp three times for responding to reviews that were just plain factually wrong. I don't let that shit slide. When someone takes the time to write a two thousand word essay about why they hate you, I guess you could let it slide but it's like in high school and some kid is making fun of you. "Well, I guess he's on the football team so I'm supposed to be quiet."
On the other hand, there's the argument that even engaging in that sort of dialogue debases you.
That's what everyone says. I don't know if it is a maturity issue or what it is. I always try to analyze myself, psychologically. At some point, I'll get to the point where I'll have a vast restaurant empire and I have so much going on I don't care but right now, I have one restaurant.
But that'll all change now you have this show.
That's what they say, that my life as of tomorrow will change completely. Top Chef had 1.5 million viewers. This could be up to 15 million viewers. I definitely feel I need to self-edit myself a lot. What happens if I write something like [what I wrote to Chicago Magazine] and they say, "Hey, we have a deal with them." It's in my best interest to find a way to filter. Right now it's a lot of shooting from the hip.
You also mentioned in that Nightline piece that you founded a religion in high school?
Well, I had a tough time in high school. Since my dad was in the Navy, I went to three different high schools and ended up in the hospital for manic depression and suicide and all that stuff, on a ton of medications. I've always known I was different. In high school I made my own t-shirts. Each one was named after a different day of the week. So I didn't have to deal with fashion. My religion was called Me-ism. It was inspired by Ayn Rand and objectivism.
So were you just a selfish motherfucker?
Pretty much. I was trying to get people to go against the system.
Did you have many adherents?
Nah, just the friends I talked to but a lot of it was being hopped up on pills. But I've always gone against the grain. I've always fancied originality, even if it's being different for difference's sake.
How do you feel, then, being on a program on Fox? Your ethos doesn't seem politically conservative; Fox's does. Any qualms?
Yeah, definitely. But it's not aired on Fox News. It's on the network that has Family Guy. If we can be on that network, that's okay.
You've got a lot of things going on.
I've got the show, Graham Elliot, Lolapallooza [for which I am the Culinary Director] and a baby due at the end of September.
Talk about Family Guy. Mazel tov. How do you do it?
I don't know. Right now I'm on a whole new mix of pills. With the kid, it'll be even more crazy. When I had my first son — and part of going through the divorce was having this son at the same time as I opened my restaurant — it was too much. But something has changed. I'm so excited going forward. I have a different outlook. I've gone through the fire and I know it can never get any worse than that. I lost my house. I lost my wife. I lost my son in a custody battle. This time, to be happily married and have a baby on the way, I'm super jazzed.