Without his signature, white, thick-rimmed glasses, he jokes, no one knows who he is. But with them on, he becomes celebrity chef and TV personality Graham Elliot. On the night that we met, Elliot was in NYC helping to promote Capital One’s new credit card called Savor, which rewards users for dining out and buying food (which to be honest, kind of sounds like a dream).

He’s cooked a four course meal, each tied to a memory of his, for 50+ media people in the New York Public Library after hours. To say I was pumped would be an understatement.

If you don’t know who Graham Elliot is, seriously, run a quick search through Google images like I did and you’ll say, “Ohhhh, that guy!” Trust me, you’ve seen him before, especially if you like cooking shows. Elliot is currently a judge on “Top Chef” and the host of Bravo’s digital series “Going Off the Menu,” but in the past, he’s been a judge on “MasterChef,” “MasterChef Jr.,” and “Cooks vs. Cons.”

But even before TV, he was a highly awarded chef in Chicago. Actually, it was in Chicago that he became the youngest four-star chef at the age of 27, where he’s the culinary director of Lollapalooza, and where he cooked for Obama and Oprah—casual. His love for the second city is hard to match, but of course, that’s coming from a New Yorker. I asked him, when it comes to food, what does Chicago have over New York?

“Oh, that’s easy” he said. “The economics is what changes it all.” 

It’s no secret that the rent in New York is pretty steep. It’s hard to find a studio apartment in Manhattan, or even in west Brooklyn for under $1800 per month. And for restaurants paying rent, it’s no different. According to the New York Times, the average rent for restaurants in Manhattan is $120-per-square-foot, while even in LA’s bougiest neighborhood, the average cost is $52-per-square-foot. Beyond real estate, though, restaurateurs in NYC even pay more for the actual food and labor.

“I can hire more people, do more creative, avant garde cuisine, and dinner only,” Elliot said. “Like Charlie Trotter’s, Graham Elliot, Alinea, Tru—all those places were dinner only, five nights a week. No lunch, no brunch, no breakfast, no anything, you have a small staff or whatever, but you can afford to do that. Whereas [in NYC], it’s like lunch and dinner, seven days a week.”

#SpoonTip: Alinea is actually still open, and it’s not your average restaurant.

Beyond feeding the masses at all hours of the day, NYC restaurants also have to cater to the average customer and work to make them happy. As a former restaurant hostess, I know how hard that can be (and annoying). But of course, I’d think that’s the expectation everywhere—you want to please people and make sure they come back. But Elliot explained that that mentality can change the quality of the menu.

He compared it to making movies. In New York, you’d have to make huge, blockbuster hits like Titanic and Avatar to pay the bills. They’re great! And people love them. But in Chicago, you could do a super indie-art film that only some people love and that will still help you pay the bills (but like I said before, much smaller bills).

“Most of your restaurants [in New York] have the salmon, rack of lamb, and they’re trying to please the customers. Whereas, [in Chicago], we can fire our customers. You know, you don’t get it? Sorry, we know that you’re never going to like what we do. We’re not trying to be dicks, but like, go make your [reservation] somewhere else,” he said.

In Chicago, chefs have more creative freedom, more room to grow, and more room to do whatever they want, and the result is really freaking amazing food that you can’t get anywhere else.

“Chicago’s still cheap enough that you can still do all of these things, and you can be way more creative because of it,” Elliot said. “Maybe you won’t be able to do it forever, but that’s why it’s the food city right now.”

Specifically, Elliot recommended dining at The Publican. “It’s a really good representation of Chicago. It’s very loud, it’s fun, it’s busy, amazing beer selection... it’s just always a great meal.” He also recommended Girl & the Goat, owned and operated by Stephanie Izard, winner of Top Chef Season 4, and whom Elliot called “Chicago’s sweetheart.”

And of course, if you’re in Chicago, you’re going to want to visit Elliot’s newest cocktail bar Gideon Sweet, which is set to open sometime this month. Take it from me (or you know, from his amazing reputation as a chef), it’s guaranteed to be delicious and something totally different.

At our dinner, he made a Wisconsin cheddar risotto with green apple, beer braised onion, and crispy bacon, tied to his memories of eating Kraft Mac & Cheese as a kid. It was pretty innovative, but as I finished my plate, my friend passed me hers. And that’s the epitome of Elliot’s cooking. It’s creative, it’s fun, and it might not be for everyone, but he just really doesn’t care.