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Q&A: Graham Elliot on his Macau restaurant, judging with Gordon Ramsay and what it takes to be a celeb chef

Like most celebrity chefs these days, Graham Elliot wears many hats.

The award-winning chef, restaurateur, television personality, judge, co-host and cookbook author is perhaps best known for being the yin to Gordon Ramsay‘s yang in the amateur cooking competition, MasterChef (the pair are known for playing good cop, bad cop — we’ll let you figure out who’s who) and for judging Top Chef, the Emmy-award-winning show that’s seen 16 successful seasons so far, with the 17th season set to debut on 19 March, 2020.

In person, the TV chef most recognisable by his signature white framed specs, is as affable and good-natured as he appears on screen. And while other chefs may downplay their appetite for fame and fortune, Elliot has no qualms about leaning into the celebrity chef spotlight.

While Season 16 may have been Elliot’s final season of Top Chef, the celeb chef is already on to his next whirlwind of ideas, ranging from a kids’ cartoon cooking show to a food analogue version of ABC’s Wife Swap.

In-between pitching TV ideas with his own production company, Elliot found time to jet from Chicago to Hong Kong to pop into his first overseas restaurant, Coast in Macau’s MGM Cotai. Bringing a wave of breezy West Coast-inspired eats to the new seasonal menu at the two-year-old casual eatery, we took a breather between bites to chat with Elliot about everything from the rise of chef superstardom to what he really thinks of his co-host’s infamous temper.

So how often do you find yourself in your restaurants these days? Your TV schedule must be insanely busy.

It’s funny I live in Chicago but we film in LA so many people actually think I live in LA. If I go and film a show it takes maybe 4 or 5 weeks and a lot of times you fly back on weekends but people think it’s forever like you’re not in your restaurant or you’re never home. In reality you film everything at one time, and then 8 months later it’s on TV. So I am in my kitchens as much as possible. I just realised I’ve done this for 25 years now. It’s not what I do, it’s who I am. I love to cook, I love to talk to people, I love to take pictures… I just can’t believe that I am actually making a living from it.

Which shows are you working on now?

Well we just finished a new show called Family Feud Fight, which is families cooking against each other. So the basketball player Steph Curry, his wife Ayesha Curry (she has cookbooks and a restaurant), and another chef Cat Cora, the three of us are judges. So you have a family with a Mexican background, Chinese background, Middle Eastern, etc. They’re all cooking the same kind of challenges but doing their food. I think it’s good for America to see the different types of cuisine.

You’ve done a lot of reality type food competitions. Anything new on the horizon?

So I love music, art, travel, and I want to do something where it’s really focused on that. I mean the other stuff is fun, but after awhile, it’s like”ok you have 5 mins to cook this”… it’s time to do something new.

So you’re done with competition?

I don’t want to say never, but really when you think of food there’s the history, geology, religion, math, art, all these things deal with food. It shouldn’t just be you have to fight each other to make something. It’d be really fun to do an educational show, maybe for kids, there’s so many things people haven’t done yet.

For the past 25 yeas, looking back, what’s been your favourite food show or TV moment?

Favourite show for sure would be MasterChef Junior. Seeing 8 to 13 year olds problem solve, work with each other, support each other, show that they’re really creative. That makes me want to be a better chef and better person, you know the way you talk to them, teach them — there’s something about it.

Graham Elliot and co-judge Christina Tosi teach kids tricks of the trade on MasterChef Junior.

Is your co-judge Gordon Ramsay as infamously hot-tempered as he appears on screen?

That’s Gordon, he’s exactly what you see, he’s great and fair. If he’s in a kitchen wearing a chef coat and yelling, he’s not just doing that because he wants to, it’s trying to make things perfect to get people to care more, so when you see him interact with kids it’s really nice.

Remember with MasterChef it’s amateurs, like a stay-at-home mom, or lawyer or doctor, like they don’t get paid to do this, right. It’d be like if we played music and it was a show, we’re not real musicians we just like it. So you don’t want to get yelled at for not being good. So when it’s a kitchen challenge and things get really really heated, I just try and kind of go and help out everybody else.

Do you feel like you had to be the ‘nice’ judge?

I don’t really feel like I had to, I just naturally did. Like if they told me to go and yell at people I couldn’t really, it’s not in my nature. I would say I’m the Paula of the panel, like American Idol. I like to try to make people better and want to find their voice and do their thing.

It must be very rewarding to see the contestants grow. 

Yeah, especially with the kids you want to encourage them and let them know, ‘even if you don’t win you’re one of the best in the world at your age, and keep at this. You’re so far ahead of everyone else right now’.

What are your thoughts on how the era of the celebrity chef has evolved? 

It’s wild right? I started as a dishwasher and then worked my way up and never thought chefs would be on TV. We called it a blue collar job, like an electrician or plumber. I wanted to be able to use my hands. And then all of a sudden it’s taking off. And even not just with TV, now everyone’s a foodie. Everyone’s going to new restaurants. Everybody likes to know where the food’s from. So it’s great.

I never really believed in the celebrity Hollywood thing because it could just be gone tomorrow and I’ll just be back cooking. So I’m very lucky to do what I do but I never take it for granted.

Celebrity chefs have to cultivate their own public persona, do a lot of young chefs come to you for advice? 

It’s interesting now, back in the states, you can’t find anybody to work in your kitchen. There’s a massive shortage of cooks because nobody wants to cook. They want to be chefs. But not even real chefs. They want to be on TV. They want to be celebrity chefs. Because that’s what people have grown up now thinking a chef is.

What’s interesting is some people only focus on getting from here to there but they don’t know all the other things. It’s like if you want to be a chef on TV, it’s great, but you need to know all the things that come with that. You need to know how to talk to your team, the servers, go to the table and do an interview, that’s part of the job now it’s not just putting the food in the pan.

Like talking about Gordon just watching how he works is amazing. Gordon will be all day talking about lighting and how the contestant should be here or there, and it’s like he’s just orchestrating the entire thing. And you don’t know until you go to other shows how incredible that is. It’s like going to university. He’s an absolute pro.

Is there any one dream person you’d like to film with?

I mean I love Grant Achatz who has Alinea in Chicago, he’s super talented. I got to work with Wylie Dufresne before in New York, and Rene Redzepi before he’s incredible. It’s weird now, so many chefs are just on IG and looking at each other’s food and it all starts to look the same. No matter what part of the world you’re in everyone’s making the same stuff. So you try to find a chef that’s very much just doing their own style. And that’s something that’s hard to find.

But I care more about personality and story than just like the food too. I want to know why you do that. There’s a chef in California called Joshua Skenes who opened a restaurant called Angler. But he’s kind of left things now, and he’s doing these dinners a couple times a month or something in his house, where he’ll go and hunt, fish, get veggies and it’s just his story of ‘this is the best stuff in the world that I actually went and got’. Like to me that’s really cool I love the idea.

Graham Elliot (left) with Top Chef co-stars.

From his interviews, he doesn’t seem like the type of guy that would go on TV.

That’s what I mean — you have some people who want to be on TV and be a celeb, like that’s one path. He’s clearly on the opposite. He doesn’t need or want any of that, he just wants to make that kind of food. So I’d rather work with somebody like that right now rather than somebody who’s just great on TV. Because I already got that stuff. I want to be inspired by something else.

Can you tell us a bit about your restaurant Coast and why you chose Macau for your first overseas venture.

I was approached by the MGM when they were opening the new Cotai space. The executive chef I had actually worked with at The Peninsula back in Chicago, and it sounded like an amazing opportunity — not just to come overseas and like a lot of places, you just kind of put your name on it and you’re never there. This was to do the whole menu, come over several times a year, and really be a part of it. The idea was to do a restaurant that uses some of the local influence but also with some of my classics. And focusing more on seafood, vegetables, lighter things.

Coast serves light Californian cuisine in the stylish confines of the MGM Cotai.

What are some of your favourite dishes and what’s new on the menu?

We have our shrimp tacos which are inspired by Mexico, so think avocado, shrimp and chillies, and the Caesar salad that’s reinvented as a piece of brioche filled with parmesan, mascarpone, and topped with romaine hearts. And then we have things like lobster pizza, ahi tuna pizza, our chorizo meatballs. There are dishes such as African chicken that’s inspired by Macau but with our twist. We’re not traditional Macanese but we’re clearly taking what we learn around here and applying it.

So has there been anything that’s surprised you or that you’ve had to tweak to the local palate?

So a little bit about my background, my dad was in the military so I moved all around the world. I lived in all the 50 states so I don’t have to do one type of food. I can always be inspired. When we opened this place we had a set menu and then of course it evolved; just like anywhere else, you realise when people come in, it’s going to turn into what the restaurant really is. Our biggest change was going from small individual plates to big family-style platters.

But this is your first restaurant catering to a strictly Chinese audience?

Yeah, first time doing anything overseas. I love it, and it’s not even like looking at it as a challenge, to me it’s super fun, like say something happened next week where nobody likes seafood anymore, and now it’s just steak. I would come up with a million different steak recipes. I love that kind of freedom to do stuff like that.

Do you have any more plans for Macau or possibly Hong Kong?

I love Hong Kong, it’s amazing. I think with MGM Macau I would love to do something a little more fine dining like Michelin style, maybe a tasting menu because that’s a lot of my background. So still working within that group but maybe over on that side. It’s been discussed but it takes time.

And when can we expect to see you next on TV?

I was recently in LA pitching to networks Have you heard of Bill Nye the Science Guy? We have an idea to do something like that for kids where it’s like explaining why rice is sticky, why does this sauce break, quick little ones for YouTube. Another one is doing a cartoon — remember the movie Inside Out? So you have salty, sweet, bitter, spicy, umami, and all the characters get to travel the world and try different things.

There’s also a show called Wife Swap where the husbands swap wives for a week it’s like I have to follow your rules and then the next week I get to change everything. I want to do one where it’s like chefs changing kitchens. So I own a vegetable restaurant and now I have to go run a steakhouse. Or somebody running a Korean restaurant has to trade with a French place. That’d be pretty fun to see.

Q&A: Graham Elliot on his Macau restaurant, judging with Gordon Ramsay and what it takes to be a celeb chef

Leslie Yeh

Editor in Chief

Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.

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