John Elkhay has been a staple of the Rhode Island dining scene since the 1980s, and with good reason. Since graduating from Johnson & Wales, he has honed his skills in different restaurants and come back to Providence to light up the dining scene by opening up his first restaurant, XO Steakhouse, in 1997. Since then he’s become the Maestro of the Chow Fun Food Group, where he creates the menus and design aesthetic for Rick’s Roadhouse, Harry’s Bar & Burger, Luxe Burger Bar, XO Café and Ten Prime Steak & Sushi. We talked about his passion for food, cooking for the President and his last meal on Earth.
You’ve had a long and notable culinary career in Providence. What’s the secret to your success?
There have been difficult times over my career, both personally and professionally. They say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and this has applied to me throughout my career. But, each experience has helped me to evolve as a businessman and an artist and I kept moving forward, never fearing failure. It has also helped having a great and forgiving business partner in Rick Bready.
Tell me about how the second Harry’s Bar & Burger location on Federal Hill will be different from the original.
Food, menu, quality and pricing will be the same, even the half price burgers between 3-5pm daily. The décor will be what future Harry’s Bar & Burger may look like. Harry’s on North Main Street was a retro design from Chinese Laundry and had too many exclusive and expensive elements to remove (who would remove an Onyx tile floor?). Harry’s Bar & Burger “On the Hill” will be more rustic and industrial, very worn and comfortable.
You recently were the guest chef at the Revolving Door restaurant in Newport where you got to showcase cuisine throughout your career. How long did it take for you to perfect these dishes?
Perfecting a dish takes a lifetime. When I was doing the menu for the Revolving Door, I knew I wanted my guests to experience food that I cooked in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s as well as my current works. I also knew that the dishes I chose from the ‘70s and ‘80s needed to be updated. I could not sleep at night if I served Duck a l’Orange with wild rice, I just couldn’t do it.
Why don’t you serve these dishes at your restaurants on a regular basis?
This was a unique opportunity to present some past dishes and to work with staff from the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond. We do serve versions of all the food that we served those nights. They are just presented differently, with the inspiration and execution of each dish aligning with the core concept of the restaurant in which it’s being served.
How much experience did you have with barbecue before you designed the menu for Rick’s Roadhouse?
I’ve always loved barbecue but never really knew barbecue. I always hire to my weaknesses, and with Rick’s, I was able to hire a nationally-rated barbecue champion to help purchase equipment, train staff and lay-out and design the restaurant.
What is the one dish you must try at Rick’s Roadhouse, if you had to choose one?
We recently launched a new weekend brunch menu that includes flapjacks the size of hubcaps and huge benedicts, plus an extensive Bloody Mary Bar. When I eat brunch at Rick’s, my must get is our Pulled Pork Benedict: slow smoked pork butt (12 hours) on toasted corn bread with poached eggs and chipotle hollandaise.
I understand you cooked for the president! How did you decide what to serve him?
What an honor! I wanted it to be perfect, so I developed several dishes and appetizers and told two of my chefs to collaborate (Martin Lyons, XO Café and Lou Cruz, Ten Prime Steak & Sushi. They cooked for four days to perfect the dishes prior to the event. I was extremely confident but intense – as intense as the situation called for – and it went off without a hitch. I was really proud of our team.
What are your thoughts on dining trends versus classic cuisine?
There are certain classics that should never be served, there are some that should be served and never touched, then there are classics that should be served and only updated.
Is there one piece of advice you can give to aspiring chefs?
Work hard and work for many good chefs when you are young – develop your own voice.
If it were your last day on Earth, what would be the last meal you ever ate?
A Harry’s Bar & Burger Pastrami Burger, salt and pepper fries and tuna spring rolls with Thai dipping sauces.
Chow Fun Food Group: Harry’s Bar & Burger | Luxe Burger Bar | Rick’s Roadhouse | XO Café | Ten Prime Steak & Sushi