Q&A: MasterChef’s Graham Elliot Talks BBQ and Rule-Breaking
The Michelin-star chef and former MasterChef judge on the art of the grill.
Graham Elliot’s first cookbook, Cooking Like a Masterchef, came out last fall, promoting a throw-the-rules-out-the-window approach to cooking. It wasn’t really a surprising attitude—in his tenure as a judge on MasterChef and at his eponymous restaurants across the U.S., Eliot has always championed experimentation. Also unsurprising: when we caught up with the Michelin-star chef this summer to talk barbecue trends and pro techniques, he didn’t just share his rules for grilling—he encouraged us to break them.
What was the cookbook writing process like for you?
Being able to put down my “culinary manifesto” was really fun. The general concept of the book is unlearn everything and take it and make it your own–there’s no real right or wrong in cooking. Which is cool, but hard to limit to 100 recipes.
Where do you even start?
You break it into chapters—salads, soups, and so on. I want to do a music inspired cookbook for my next one. I do all the food at Lollapolooza, I pick the restaurants to offer the food, and then I do all the cooking for the headliners. I want the music cookbook to have 100 dishes, 10 chapters broken down by genre—I’d do down-home cooking for country, street food for punk.
What’s trending now for the grill?
What’s cool now is there’s such a focus on not just healthy food, but on vegetables in general. Grilling carrots, charring onion… it’s not the way you normally would serve them as a side, and they can become a big focus on the plate. And there’s so many ways to do it: you can lower the heat to roast and cook a long time, or use the hot part to char. You could toss a beet in olive oil, wrap it in foil, let it bubble, and throw the greens on the other side.
Hamburgers, smokies and steaks are always the barbecue go-tos… any way to spice up the old standbys?
For me, with grilling, you want to impart as much of that flavour of the grill you can. It’s more than just a heat source to bring from raw to cooked. Take advantage, and carmel the exterior with sugar, honey, molasses, to start that process. Choose seasonings things that hold up to that type of cookery—garlic, strong herbs, nothing delicate. With grilled salmon, I want a grainy mustard, or to baste it in soy sauce and honey, things like that. And to make something really special, you’ve got to pair the right things with it. Like with a grilled chicken, watermelon salsa is awesome—it just tastes like summer. Pickled peaches, or blueberry stewed with a little basil and sugar, cooked down gently and spooned over a piece of lamb. Those kind of accompaniments make a dish.
What common grilling mistakes are people making?
The biggest one is literally putting it on the hot part of the grill and just letting it cook forever. You’re hanging out with your friends and forget there’s something smoking—not paying attention and not controlling the heat. If you’ve got a big steak and you put it on the hot part of the grill the outside will be black and burned, but if you put it on the cooler part it’ll cook with no colour. You’ve got to pay attention, start on one side and move it over. When I do corn, I’ll char first and then let it roast all night. Barbecuing isn’t actually easy. Baking is easy: you can mix something and walk away for 20 minutes. The grill is literally fire.
GET THE RECIPE
Graham Elliot’s Grilled Chicken and Watermelon-Olive Salsa
We look at barbecues as a source for main dishes, but could we be using it for other purposes?
Listen, I like to say “if it’s not broken, break it”; I love changing things up…but sometimes things just don’t work. The reason the barbecue is so great for hearty items is because it’s not a flat surface,—it is the actual grill, so things can fall through it. That’s why you don’t do eggs. But I’ve seen things like where you make pizza dough and cook it on the grill… flatbreads or whatever. It’s hard to take something you might do for breakfast or dessert, which are usually delicate, fruit-centric and don’t hold up to fire.
But there are options. I’ve seen grilled pineapple, coconut. Or if you smoke butter, you can baste something in it, like pastry, and impart flavour without the char.
It’s almost like the limitations of the grill can spark creativity.
I try to make dishes with three components, because sometimes the best ingredients are the one you leave off the dish. Jack White from the White Stripes used to say, if you were given an orchestra, sure you can come up with something, but if you strip it all down and you’re only allowed to have guitar, drums, vocals, you have to be more creative. If you’ve only got watermelon, cucumber and olives, what do you do? Do you make a watermelon gazpacho with candied black olives, do you pickle the rind and serve with an olive vinaigrette? No one is better than the other or more right. That’s what’s cool about food… you can make it what you want.