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Lollapalooza gets a food upgrade from 'MasterChef' Graham Elliot: A Music Mix Q&A

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Lollapalooza takes over Chicago’s Grant Park this weekend for three days of rock n’ roll, but to make it all the way to the headlining sets from acts like Lady Gaga, Soundgarden, Green Day and the Strokes, you gotta eat. Celebrity chef (and Chicago resident) Graham Elliot — who’s currently starring on Fox’s MasterChef alongside Gordon Ramsay — was enlisted to bump up the food choices for those in attendance, pulling together 30 local restaurants to offer something to the concertgoers that goes beyond the usual pizza and corn dogs. For example: lobster corn dogs. And you thought Gaga’s outfits made you drool.

Entertainment Weekly: You’re in charge of Chow Town at Lollapalooza this summer. I came to Lolla a few years ago, but I don’t know what that is.

Graham Elliot: Chow Town is the food court area, all the different little booths. And what we did this year, instead of having slices of pizza, things like that, we decided to bump it up a little and ask a bunch of our restaurant friends who we thought had the same artistic approach as the music scene, and have them come and contribute three dishes each to the Lolla food experience. So what you have is 30 restaurants total, that are all independent and food driven, doing dishes to raise the level of dining at the festival.

What does it mean for a restaurant to share the same artistic approach as the musicians?

People who look at cooking and food as a creative outlet, as opposed to just a craft or a way to make a paycheck. There’s a lot of similarities between music and food, and I think what you have are more free-spirited chefs, who put out food that’s provocative, and really creative and delicious, and who really love music. They play it in the kitchens, they play it in the dining room, they make their own playlists. It’s not just the smooth jazz that your dad listens to. It makes sense to put them together.

I finally just read Kitchen Confidential, and there did seem to be a lot of parallels between Anthony Bourdain’s experience and what we’d think of as the rock n’ roll experience. Is being a chef still a rock star sort of gig?

Yeah, I think there’s just such an energy to it, and an adrenalin rush of go-go-go. You have to get things prepped up and ready to go for dinner service, and then it’s like showtime and you’re on. Five o’clock comes and you have 200 people coming in for dinner, and you have to perform. You have to go out and entertain people in the dining room now, and do TV spots, and all these other things. It’s going down that entertainment road. There’s similarities between being behind your stove and putting out food that puts your emotions on your sleeve. It’s the same as being on stage and playing in front of 200 people.

Are you cooking things inspired by the bands on the Lolla bill?

No. Last year we cooked for Kings of Leon and Jane’s Addiction. This year we’ll be cooking for Soundgarden and possibly some other bands, which will be very exciting.

Did you get specific requests from the bands?

Not yet. Last year, the Kings of Leon guys are big foodies, they’ve been to all these great restaurants around the world. It was really fun to cook for them. You always have people that are vegan and can’t it this or that, with crazy diets. We just work with that. Food is spontaneous. This year we’re still waiting for some last-second info.

What kind of music do you listen to when you cook?

It varies. Sometimes we rock out to Prince and Marvin Gaye if we’re in a funky cool mood. Other times, when the s—‘s hitting the fan at like eight o’clock on a Saturday, we have to put in old Guns n’ Roses, or Misfits.

Is there someone you’re looking forward to seeing at Lolla this year?

Believe it or not, I’m pretty psyched to see Lady Gaga. She’s been able to bridge all these different genres and everybody listens to her. I think it’s like being able to say you saw Madonna back in like ’84 when she was wearing the wedding gown. I’d love to see Social Distortion and Green Day – I learned to play guitar listening to their stuff. Chromeo and groups like that, we love to dance to. It’s music that we play in our restaurant all the time.

If you had to compare Lady Gaga to a food, what would it be?

Um… something that’s as loud and crazy as possible to get attention. I don’t know. Maybe something super spicy.

Do you think about what people can eat to keep up their energy at the festival, when you’re planning these dishes?

I think it’s realizing it’s always the hottest week of the year in Chicago, so making sure you don’t have things that are super rich and heavy that nobody’s gonna want. We’re offering a vegan watermelon gazpacho as one of our dishes. Other people are doing things like pork belly tacos that have some slaw on top, that are fun and you can eat with your hands. What can people grab and take with ‘em? Nothing too messy.

There’s gonna be some sad hot dog vendor off to the left, just crying.

Yeah. We’re doing lobster corn dogs this year, with a little lemon aioli and chopped chives on top. It’s a beautiful work of state fair cuisine.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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