Where does it start? Good looks? A James Beard nomination or award? Some local and then national press? A unique appearance? Gimmick? Celebrity followers? TV shows? Cookbooks?
Oh wait, how about the food? Is your food any good? Yeah, so there’s that one minor factor.
Here in Chicago we are witnessing one particular chef by the name of Graham Elliot Bowles emerge from the slow ooze of the press – or formerly Bowles, anyway. He put a press release out a few days ago saying he’s dropping the “Bowels” from his name. His restaurant is simply called Graham Elliot so I suppose it makes sense since most people call him that anyway, but a press release?
I was just chatting with my chef at work here and asked him if he thought it was a fame grab or a vehicle to get the word out about his food and chef’s quiet response was, “fame”. We talked about how the food had always been the thing everyone spoke of, this boy genius that James Beard’s foundation took a shine to years ago. It was the food that got him his gig feeding bands at Lollapalooza, a gig which is going into its second season wherein he comes prepared with an army of notable Chicago restaurants. GEB has arguably helped put Chicago on the food map, it’s true.
Lately however, it’s his mouth which has been getting the press. He got into it famously
with Chicago Magazine last week when they showed up (invited, mind you) to a preview party for the Lolla food offerings. One writer dared to actually critique the food
rather than just write about…oh, I don’t know, what the attendees were wearing, and GEB took her to task for doing so. I’ve read about six blog entries about it, whether he was right or wrong and you know, I see all points but more than that it seems to fall under an umbrella of press. Press, press, press. No such thing as bad press.
But what about the food? I keep asking myself. What are you here for? He’s in his 30s, he’s not some hot shot 25 year old Rocco DiSpirito whose fall from grace was loud and clunky and landed in a well-coiffed splat smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. Rocco had his looks and charm – two things that some felt he fell back on more than what was in his pots and pans. GEB doesn’t have either frankly, but he did (does) have the food. So why aren’t we talking about it? Why are we talking about name changes, new glasses frames, tattoos, guitars, Kings of Leon, Lollapalooza and not the Pop Rock-crusted foie gras lollipops that brought people to him a year ago?
He’s an American, an entrepreneur and he knows how to generate business for himself. I dare say that his reservation book is probably overflowing more now than it was three months ago. Good. It’s his chosen profession, after all. I am sure his food is holding up just fine. When I asked my chef if his food is suffering for the fame, Chef said, “I know who makes his food, and those people are good at what they do”, which is not to say that GEB himself is not. What he’s saying is that GEB’s mad grab for fame could be, in the long run, hurting his staff. The more fame he takes on and exploits, the more likely the shining star members of his kitchen staff will be dimmed by it. Once a chef hits such a loud and proud status, it’s almost impossible to emerge out from behind him without leaving the head chef’s kitchen entirely (exhibit a: Grant Achatz’s employment history with Thomas Keller).
At the end of the day, it’s the food that should be putting butts in seats but I’m sorry to say that that isn’t always the case (exhibit b: Rocco DiSpirito) and when it isn’t, it ends badly. Beware the Ides of March, Chef Bowles. It’s the people who are filling your reservation books because of your saucy Twitter posts who are also the ones that will throw you to the wolves when you let them down later on.