While Chicago-based chef Graham Elliot was in town last week to demonstrate cooking methods that reduce food waste at Mastercard and Kroger’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste event, we caught up with him to get his take on restaurant trends, tips for eliminating waste in our own kitchens, and his personal can’t-miss food spots in Cincinnati (read on for his favorite Holtman’s doughnut!). You might know him as that guy from TV, serving as a judge on Fox’s MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, Bravo’s Top Chef, and coming this June, ABC’s Family Food Fight. But off the small screen, he’s a baseball superfan (seriously, he even “delivered” the ball to the Wednesday, April 24, Reds game), a music lover, and a real down-to-earth family guy.
Why is reducing food waste important to you, and how do you do that in your cooking?
For me it’s always about trying to do what’s right—in life. Whether it’s at home or in a restaurant, taking what nature gives you and getting the most out of it is super important. I look at, just like the lemon [in the flower arrangement] in front of us, so many people would just juice it, but you can use the zest, you can cure them in salt, you can preserve lemons, you can grill a whole lemon. There are so many things you can do with what’s given to you. That to me is really important and to get the message across that one thing that you have can be turned into a lot of different things. It almost makes the waste part secondary because it just happens naturally.
For people at home who are planning their meals for the week, what are some practical ways they can do that on their own?
I cook at home, and I always try to do Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and try to make batches for the next few days. Because if you try to make dinner every single night, that’s when you end up ordering takeout. What I would do: You get a whole chicken instead of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and you can use the chicken thighs for one thing, a breast for one thing, you can make a soup out of the bone, so taking something and thinking, What can I do with this for the next few days? OK, I’ll sear off these steaks, I’ll have them, and then slice [leftovers] up the next day and put them in an arugula salad with blue cheese. So, going big and then turning it into different things after that. Think about Thanksgiving: You have the next day, the leftover sandwich deal, and you’re making soup or gravy, but it can be for everything.
What trends are you seeing in the restaurant industry right now, and of those trends, which do you love and which do you wish would go away?
I think the big one that I see is [chefs] focusing on vegetables and plant-based items, less giant steaks or seafood and things like that—which I love, and I think is super smart. Because you have a farmer who has put as much love into growing a carrot, and then pulls it out of the earth and gives it to you, and you dust it off and cook it—that’s great. Versus a $50 steak—anybody can make that taste good, but what can you do with a carrot or an onion? So I think that’s something that’s going to be here a long time.
Your trends are the things you always see. You cannot get enough avocado toast or kale salad—and they’re not trends because they end up staying. Molecular gastronomy was a trend, you know, the foams and everything. But things are cyclical. Where restaurants right now are super loud, punk rock, one fork and knife and share a plate. I think it’s just a matter of time before it’s beautiful tablecloths and flowers again.
Back to the ritual of fine dining.
Exactly, and I think it has to. Right now it’s about the hipsterization of food: You’re going and taking all your photos and posting everything and showing it—it looks cool all of a sudden. But when you can get a beautiful Dover sole and almonds and brown butter, it’s like, Wow, that’s old school! I don’t know; I hope it happens. It doesn’t mean it has to be really expensive. I always say—and not just as a chef, but as a foodie—if there was a restaurant that served a croque madame, a French onion soup, a Lyonnaise salad, I’d go three times a week, because that’s the food I want to eat. I love that stuff.
We’re definitely lucky to have that here with chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.
Have you had a chance to try some of our local restaurants?
I went to Sacred Beast yesterday, and then I went to Findlay Market, Holtman’s Donuts, and I went to the Reds game and tried a bunch of food at the ballpark. I feel like I’ve been getting a lot out of the trip so far.
Did you have a favorite Holtman’s doughnut?
I did. I love maple—it’s my favorite ingredient in the world, so I was going to get the maple bun, and they were like, Ah, but the pecan one is better. And it was; it was great. And then, of course, Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles, so I tried those. I’ve seen bacon on doughnuts before, and I’m kind of over the bacon trend, too. The owners came in while I was there, so it was really fun to talk to them.
Out of the foods you’ve tried here, what’s been the standout for you?
There are a lot. I went to [Brown Bear Bakery] and lemon bars were their famous thing. I was trying to find a diner where I could get goetta, because I love scrapple, and that’s the closest thing. I love Vine Street and this whole downtown area. This city is so walkable, and there’s so much public art on the buildings. I’ve posted about a hundred pictures in the past 24 hours on my [Instagram] stories. It’s such a cool town.
You just filmed Top Chef here in our “Southern backyard.” What did you enjoy most about your time in Kentucky?
I love this area, because I think it’s very much “America.” And I’m from Chicago, so I don’t mean that as, like, “flyover country.” I think when you look at [local] ingredients and how genuine people are and all the great farms and [local] products, it was awesome to be able to showcase that beyond what everybody knows as “Bourbon country.”
You’re about to be a judge on ABC’s Family Food Fight. Have you already filmed that?
We wrapped it. It’s Ayesha Curry, Cat Cora, and myself, and it’s families of three cooking against each other. So you have, like, three sisters, three brothers, a mom and two daughters—from all different backgrounds.
You have three young boys. How do you get your family involved in the kitchen, and what do you like to cook together?
We cook all the time, whether it’s making dinner or baking or, you know, we have our own chickens, so it’s, What can we do with eggs this morning? It’s funny, though, each kid has his own personality. One is much more into following recipes and not spontaneous; the little one won’t eat anything; and then the middle one is the opposite—he’ll eat anything off anyone’s plate. They came to China with me last summer [to film the finale of Top Chef season 16] and we went to all the markets and saw live frogs and eels. One of them is crying because he’s so sad about the animals, and the other is like, Get it, let’s eat it!
Do you have any other exciting new projects coming up?
I’m putting together a cookbook now that I think is going to be a pairing of food and music. I used to sing and play guitar, and I’ve been a chef for Lollapalooza for 10 years. I’m thinking if you could break down the chapters into, like, punk, hip-hop, country, and food based on all those, it’d be pretty fun, so that’s what I want to do.