Graham Elliot Dishes on His Recipe for Financial Success

Don’t be fooled by the quirky glasses. Graham Elliot, the culinary arts master, takes a serious approach to building a brand and businesses that rely on practical planning and discerning tastes.

The Chicago-based cookbook author and father of three is one of the most critically acclaimed chefs in the country, making him a master and top chef in his own right. As the recipient of multiple culinary awards and accolades throughout his career, Elliot is undoubtedly one of the most prominent chefs and restaurateurs of this generation.

But, his journey to the top of the food chain was far from easy.

Like many young adults, Elliot made poor money decisions and suffered several financial setbacks early in his career. "I lived beyond my means, had credit card debt and did not pay bills on time," he admits. But after taking heed to his parents’ sage advice of getting serious about his credit, things started to click. "I learned the hard way through that experience," he says. "I realized that your credit is like your word and represents you and how you live."

From busboy to businessman

Always determined to keep his dream alive of owning a business and becoming a restaurateur, he never let those initial financial woes become too much of an obstacle. After several years of working as a cook, where he lived on a $20,000 annual salary, his career kept progressing to the next level.

In 2008, Elliot opened his first restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. His eponymous bistro suffered as a result of the countrywide financial crisis. Frugality balanced with quality became a top priority. Elliot says, "I’d remove truffles and caviar from the menu and substitute a filet mignon dish with a pot roast instead."

Over the years, the popular Chicago restaurant has received coveted Michelin stars and is currently on hiatus (since 2016), but is set to reopen this year with a new menu and concept—fueled by Elliot’s passion for creativity.

Cooking with confidence

That creativity and confidence goes hand-in-hand with culinary arts. Elliot welcomes that balance and uses the same philosophy when it comes to finances. "Cooking has always been a creative outlet for me, but it can be a tough business to start out in, and I can remember times when I wasn’t sure if I had the financial confidence to stick with it," he admits. "Now, I try to find creative ways to use what I have and do the most with that and do it confidently," he says. "If you understand how to cook a steak you realize that you can use different cuts of beef and maybe different sauces with it, and the same thing goes for your money."

He notes that as his career expanded, so did his financial responsibility. "All of a sudden it’s like, ‘Okay, now I don’t want to just live check to check—I don’t want to be one of those people,’" he says. "I used to have the mentality of just doing my thing and letting the cards fall where they may," he recalls. Elliot has since changed his outlook. "I realized that your financial well-being is very much like your health," he says. "You turn 40 and it's like, ‘Okay, did I eat right? Have I taken care of my knees? Do I have high blood pressure?’" He says that the same can be said for when you get older and take a look at your finances and realize that you’re in debt and don’t have any savings and think, "This isn’t where I want to be."

Elliot believes that taking control of your money before major issues arise is the key to preventing bankruptcies and other financial roadblocks. "You have to get into it before that happens," he says.

Building a solid financial future

Managing personal finances comes with its own set of challenges, but balancing the books for a business or restaurant can present a major learning curve. "It's not just what's in your wallet," Elliot says. "People are depending on me and we need to be financially stable and have those numbers work. There's always stress with that regardless of what kind of chef you are."

He follows a simple three-step financial roadmap that helps him stay on track and successfully manage all of his assets. "First, you have to understand where your money is coming from," Elliot says. "Next, establish a clear vision of what you want whether it’s professionally or personally. Finally, when you have that understanding you start to become a lot more confident with your finances."

"That’s where tapping into services and money coaching at places like Capital One Cafés really comes into play," he adds. "I’m a big believer in aligning financial goals with personal values -- and I’ve been really impressed with the ways Capital One helps people look beyond what’s in their bank accounts and more into their broader, longer-term relationship with their money."

The Capital One Cafés are inviting and innovative spaces that tap into the essence of the local community. It's a neighborhood hub where people can go to recharge their financial outlook in an experience built around them. Elliot enjoys the Café in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. "You can get a coffee and a pastry and do some banking," he says. "It’s great to be able to go to a Money Coach and say, ‘I don't know this. Can you help me get a better understanding of my money?’" he says. "Being able to go into a relaxed atmosphere and have a relationship with the bank as opposed to just going up to a teller or an ATM, is really important."

Whether Elliot’s looking ahead to future restaurant openings or making plans to explore the world with his family, he’s constantly revisiting his goals. "Aligning my personal finances accordingly has been a big part of staying true to my life’s passions," he says.

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