Chef Tim Graham: Making the Kitchen his Community
What would you do with Pickapeppa Sauce, yogurt, honey, onions and bacon? No, this isn’t an episode of Chopped. It’s what Chef Tim Graham of the acclaimed Chicago restaurant Travelle recommends having in your fridge at all times. And if he recommends it, it’s worth a try.
In an industry that is becoming increasingly important to both the everyday American, and the economy of America, the food world has turned chefs into celebrities, Chef Graham among them. Chicago is a new epicenter of food, and Travelle is (literally) at the heart of it. Located right in the hustle and bustle of downtown, Travelle has received critical acclaim as well as rave reviews (and Instagram posts) from loyal customers. Much of this is thanks to Graham, and his culture of inclusion, from his staff to his fans to the vendors he works with.
His staff, he says is his greatest accomplishment. “I have seen several great cooks come and work with me and then become very successful sous chefs. Then, they leave and spread their cooking knowledge to other new young cooks. This cycle of increasing people’s skills and then see them become a leader in their own right is my proudest accomplishment.”
But such success does not come without challenges and failure, which Graham says happen daily as he is always striving for something great. But luckily for him, “Our business is great because it gives us a very quick chance to redeem ourselves during the next dish.” This is especially true when that next dish could be eaten by a blogger, posted on a Yelp review or just snapped by an avid social media user. Though Graham admits he doesn’t think much about the celebrity status he has garnered as a chef, he does appreciate the fact that notoriety has also allowed him increased interaction with his fans through social media. He likes hearing about their experiences and being able to respond in real time, making his interaction part of their meal.
“Food is such a necessary photo pursuit. Social media lets us share tasty looking dishes that pique people’s curiosity, which drives business.” Another driving force behind business is creating a menu that is both delicious to taste and comes with a compelling story. In the current culinary climate, where chefs are given a status of, according to Graham, almost “pseudo-celebrity,” these men and women can use their kitchens to promote business partnerships and practices they stand behind. For a while, this meant an emphasis on buying locally from farms and vendors in their own neighborhoods. This practice has grown and become so common now though, that Graham prefers to hone in on great taste.
“I think the by-product of buying local is even more important and that is by way of buying tastier, interesting foodstuffs. This is what the current guest is looking for: fresh, healthy, and flavorful ingredients and dishes. It is much easier to create this end product with fresh ingredients from the farm.”
That being said, he naturally still works with a variety of Chicago farms including Nichols Farms, Bill Dugan at Superior Ocean, Peter Klein and Mick Klug, all of whom are part of the burgeoning Windy City food scene. This community feel to the Midwestern culinary mecca is part of what has drawn the attention of food lovers across the country, and this year’s James Beard Awards. Despite its growing fame, Graham says part of the reason behind Chicago’s success is its straightforward approach to dining.
“Chicago is a food city that keeps it real. There is not too many smoke and mirrors being tossed about. Chicago is Midwestern, so meat and meat parts are very welcome. Big portions and bold flavors; these are all important. At the same time Chicago is a large urban center, so the diners are more educated than many places.” These are diners who appreciate dishes like sweetbreads, confit duck neck, or even Graham’s current favorite dish, chicken fried soft-shell crabs. Sound like another crazy basket from Chopped? Maybe. But it’s also part of Graham’s creative process, as he draws inspiration for his dishes from the most varied of places including family recipes, historical food pathways, eating in other restaurants, “old spiral bound cookbooks from various church or women’s
groups throughout the ages” or fellow chefs like Paul Kahan and Rick Tramonto.
But for those who want to follow in his footsteps, or the footsteps of chefs like Kahan or Tramonto, Graham’s advice is straightforward, just like his home city.
“Keep your head down, stay involved, and educate yourself outside of work through eating and reading. Learn to sweep the floor. Keep your knives sharp. Wear no blinders, and learn the station next to you. Never stop smiling.”
With that attitude, and a long career of good old-fashioned hard work, Tim Graham is ready for whatever comes his way, be it a tweet from a Travelle customer or the latest food trend to hit the Windy City.