A biochemistry major and an actor walk into a restaurant…
It may sound like a joke, but it actually describes the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Tim Graham, 31, chef de cuisine, and Chad Ellegood, wine director and sommelier, of TRU restaurant (676 North St. Clair). With Executive Chef Rick Tramonto splitting time on new restaurant projects and sommelier Scott Tyree departing for fine-wine retailer Hart Davis Hart, Graham and Ellegood were given the keys to the culinary kingdom last year.
Graham studied biochemistry at Missouri, but as he says, “I was baking behind closed doors forever. I knew the laboratory life was not going to be the one I was destined for.” He attended the New England Culinary institute and secured a six-month internship at TRU. The finesse and cleanliness of the restaurant inspired him to return. Graham spent the next five years working his way up through the celebrated brigade. Most chefs lead an itinerant life until they gather enough knowledge to take over as a top toque. Graham, who always felt challenged and rewarded by Tramonto, said it wasn’t easy to move around because, “I was already pretty deep into life and student-loan debt.”
Like Graham, Ellegood, an acting major, had a similar practical reason for sticking in the restaurant industry, saying, “I moved to Chicago and couldn’t afford anything and I was saving for an engagement ring.” Ellegood got his first big break at Michael Foley’s now-defunct Printer’s Row. During that stint, he oversaw service for a group of guys who shared a wine cellar and gathered at the restaurant regularly to sample their legendary bottles. The first dinner he worked, he poured big guns like 1966 Cheval Blanc and Margaux, and a 1967 Chateau d’Yquem. He realized he wanted to be around pours like that forever. Though he’s incredibly knowledgeable and prefers the natty duds (purple paisley tie and dark chalk-stripe banker’s suit when we met) of your typical sommelier, he enthusiastically characterizes wine pairings as “hot” and “bangin’.”
Ellegood and Graham served as personal sounding boards for one another as they made their way through the ranks. As Graham says, “I’d go up to him with a spoon and say, ‘Look what I did.’ It was a youthful exuberance, the same with which he approaches wine service.”
This bond allowed them to uncork a paradigm-shifting wine service this month at TRU. In the typical chef and a sommelier dynamic, the chef unveils a menu, and the sommelier responds with pairings. The two wondered: What happens if the sommelier picks the wines first, and the chef cooks to those choices?
Ellegood created a fixed wine list featuring a handful of iconoclastic bottles including Beaujolais Côte de Brouilly Potel-Aviron 2004, Peregrine Pinot Noir Central Otago 2006 and a Barboursville Vineyards Viognier from Virginia. Though he now manages a world-class Burgundy-focused list, Ellegood spent some time at Spiaggia working with the legendary Henry Bishop, where he learned to look for grape gems in odd spots like Michigan, Arizona and Slovenia.
Foodwise, Graham’s first order of business was getting diners, who would be presented with a wine menu, but no knowledge of the accompanying dishes, to suspend their disbelief. So Graham created a gelled grape consomee with crab featuring white pepper and coriander to ape the flavors in the Viognier. Because the grapes he was using for the consommé had a lot of residual sweetness, Graham added citric acid to mimic the acidity of the wine.
To pair with the smoky and cherry Peregrine pinot, he created a tobacco-smoked cod flavored in the waft of pipe tobacco.
Graham, who also makes a wicked white gazpacho with carbonated grapes, definitely hews toward the cooking school of Homaro Cantu and Wylie Dufresne, though his style is a more measured flavor-first proposition similar to Grant Achatz’s cooking at Alinea. Graham embraces compounds like modified starches for their ability to remove fat and provide more pure flavor.
Switching things around has had interesting consequences. Because diners don’t know what they’re about to eat, they can’t have preconceived notions about items they think they don’t like. It also allows Graham flexibility, so that if his vendor’s striped bass looks fresher on a given day, he can substitute it in for the cod, providing the best possible ingredients without worrying about a set menu. By tasting the pairings ahead of time, Graham knew that Ellegood’s choice of a Merus Cabernet Sauvignon meant he didn’t need to sauce the accompanying bison, because the wine which had a lot of body could act as a de facto sauce. Wine-wise, Ellegood’s category-bending wines have inspired a lot more conversation with diners than usual.
Now that they’ve unveiled the wine-focused menu, Graham and Ellegood are already mining their partnership for new ideas, including making a caramelized onion vodka for a French onion soup martini. Even with all the changes, one thing will never be compromised at TRU. Ellegood says, “We’ll always keep the charge of chef Rick [Tramonto] and chef Gale [Gand] to make this the best dining experience of a diner’s life. That spirit is very much alive.”
This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago in a slightly different form.