Graham Elliot on Expansion, Potential Airport Restaurants

We chatted with the Chicago chef about his upcoming East Coast project, plus potential West Coast opportunities

We chatted about what he learned from Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay, and where he's headed to next.

This year has been full of surprises from Chicago favorite Graham Elliot; not only did he close his casual sandwich chain Grahamwich after Lollapalooza, he also surprised the food world by announcing that Primary Food & Drink, his first non-Chicago restaurant, would be in... Greenwich, Conn.

This is, after all, coming from a chef who holds court over Lollapalooza's food offerings every year, and opened Graham Elliot Bistro last year with chef saint candles and rock-and-roll homages. So moving to suburban (albeit very food-focused) Greenwich was a surprise move, especially when rumors of Las Vegas and Los Angeles were already in the works.

Luckily for West Coasters, those projects are still on the books: "In Los Angeles, there is great product, great people, I’m out there filming those first few months of the year, so we’ve talked to some people about it," Elliot said. "But with the weight loss surgery this summer and travel for MasterChef Junior, it’s been pushed back on the backburner."

As for Vegas: "Vegas is something that I think is still in the works. That will probably be sooner than later. Nothing is signed but there are definitely concepts."

We chatted with Elliot about his location choice and what to expect from Primary Food & Drink.

The Daily Meal: This is your first project outside of Chicago. Why Greenwich?
Graham Elliot: This is like our third or fourth time doing the Greenwich Food & Wine event, and I just fell in love with the town. It's a beautiful setting, and it’s such a cute, quaint, small town. It’s also an incredible space; it’s on Greenwich Avenue, right next to the train station, and the building has been completely demolished and rebuilt. Everything is being custom designed for us.

The Daily Meal: Are you feeling nervous about having to manage projects in two different cities now?
GE: Being able to have Merlin Verrier is important. It’s not just me trying to manage from afar; he’s moving his entire family here. We’re taking it super seriously. This is the same guy who’s running things while I’m filming the show, and I’m going to be out here a couple times a month. I’m not at a point where I just put my name on a restaurant and walk away.

What's great is that there are other people like Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay on the show with me. Between the two of them they have restaurants all over the globe. I’m at a point where I have two restaurants that are one mile from each other.

The Daily Meal: What have you learned from Bastianich and Ramsay?
Between those guys on the show, every five minutes is a lesson on business. It has made me a much better chef and restaurateur. Joe lives here, in Greenwich, so he’s told me about the clientele and what to expect and what your guest expectations are. It’s them drilling the message of know who your customer is.

The Daily Meal: So how are you tweaking your concept to fit the Greenwich clientele?
GE: What we did in Chicago had a lot of personality; we were not iconic but definitely original and stood out for that. Coming to a place like Greenwich, we are toning down, but not dumbing down, some of it, making it a little more mature, if you will. Just walking up and down [Greenwich] Avenue, just seeing how people are dressed, it's different than the hipster clientele that you would get in Chicago. So the focus on young, tattooed, super restaurant isn't there. You want it to be comfortable enough that people come back, so it’s more of a late neighborhood spot than a giant destination.

The Daily Meal: So it's still a fine dining restaurant of sorts. But what about Grahamwich? That sort of closed unexpectedly, and it was your most casual spot.
GE: The issue was that it was based around the lease. We just were in a bad situation with the space and the landlords and stuff like that. And we definitely want to do that concept again or something similar because everyone from the mayor of Chicago down, they’d love to see it, at the airport and other spots. We've talked about Grahamburger, having a burger shack, maybe a fun take on a hot dog stand, takeout food, or a juice bar, all that stuff. Again, this isn't a way to like, cash in on the whole chef thing, which I think you see a lot of. We're looking at this like a side band of sorts. What can we do that's fun, that we would like to eat.


The Daily Meal: You mentioned the airport. Are you thinking of joining Rick Bayless in O'Hare?
GE: We are and it might actually be with some of the people we might partner with in Vegas, so that would be able to piggyback off of that. The airport is an extension of the city, and with a town as diverse as Chicago, which has a great chef foundation, why would there just be generic sushi spot in the airport that have nothing to do with the real feeling of the town? It seems like a waste of opportunity. So Giuseppe Tentori could have an oyster place, and Stephanie Izard could have a Little Goat Diner. And it just seems like there are so many great people and great spots [that could happen].