There was a time when Graham Elliot, the restaurant rather than the ebullient, mercurial chef, represented his escape from the confines of a posh hotel into a world where foie lollipops and deconstructed buffalo chicken wings in a Budweiser sauce represented the fun, jokey end of molecular/conceptual/art food dining. Chef Graham Elliot [Bowles] is apparently going to have a restaurant like that again, but it won't be the one bearing his first two names on Huron— that side of his brand will be represented by the upcoming Graham Elliot Bistro in the more playful Randolph Street restaurant corridor. Instead, after a few years of high-end frivolity, Restaurant Graham Elliot is going serious— and going seriously after the three-star Michelin realm that is occupied solely by his contemporary and long-ago Trotter colleague Grant Achatz. That's the underlying message of the personnel changes conveyed by Eater and the Tribune yesterday.
Brian Runge had come to Restaurant Graham Elliot from Brasserie Ruhlmann and was quickly promoted to chef de cuisine last January, as Chef Elliot's career evolved toward multiple spots (beginning with Grahamwich) and TV personality (Masterchefs). Now Runge is leaving to spend more time with his family— no, really. Although that usually sounds like a euphemism, in this case it's not— Runge and his wife are expecting their first child shortly and he told us by email, "Just wanted to be a part of the first month of my child's life... I am leaving the restaurant with full blessings from chef Bowles. I plan on a short hiatus and then I will be ready to jump right back into my career." Though he's worked in New York and helped Hugh Acheson open Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia, he says he'll stay in Chicago, adding "Food is my art and I love it... just a short breather than back to a similar post."
Runge's desire to take a breather apparently dovetailed fairly well with Chef Elliot's desire to remake Restaurant Graham Elliot into a more formal and high end restaurant that could rival Alinea. For that he sought out someone with Alinea-level experience and precision in his cooking, and claims to have had only one candidate in mind: Andrew Brochu, an Alinea veteran who had gotten excellent reviews for a short-lived effort at comfier food, Kith & Kin, then had gone back to the artsy end collaborating with Phillip Foss at EL Ideas. Asked about his plans at Graham Elliot, Brochu had little to share yet beyond saying by email that his menu is "Definitely gonna be all new stuff. Nothing really carrying over from any previous spots. Michelin has definitely been brought up in conversations. We will see once I get in there and work with the staff."
And so that brings us to the silent partner in all of this: Michelin. Though its influence on our dining scene seems little enough overall, restaurants of the porky-funky Chicago school mostly flattered when they get attention from the fusty French guide but not losing sleep when they don't, at least in a certain corner of fine dining, it remains a potent name that has the power to fill your reservation book with out of towners and put you in an elite class of international chefs.
Restaurant Graham Elliot received a respectable single star, but most would guess that Avenues-era Bowles could have been good for at least two. While we're not all that keen on our restaurant scene being deformed to match the preferences of a guidebook wildly out of step with what Chicagoans like, at least with Graham Elliot becoming a brand and an empire and not just a chef, we have the potential to enjoy the best of both worlds— the cheeky, playful Graham Elliot at the Randolph Street bistro, and the implacable star-seeking GE-2000 on a mission at Graham Elliot on Huron. Now all that remains is to pull it off.