A talk with…Johnny Graham of Revel Catering

Graham deserves all credit for the success of the food at the Missouri Times Anniversary Party, curating an amazing cajun-inspired menu for party attendees to enjoy. 

Eclectic and adventurous, Revel owner Johnny Graham returned home and four years ago, opened up shop to cater Jefferson City. Graham was booked solid for the first month of the 2018 session and is looking towards a very busy, very adventurous spring.

“I think two things people like about us is they’re going to get something different, it’s not going to be the same, but our service, our service is equal to none,” Graham said. “Everybody on our staff cares. We always look for the way to do it better and we don’t take the easy way out. That’s the biggest, biggest thing that we offer is our customer care.”

Graham picked up the Governor’s Mansion kitchen in 2017, overseeing offenders.

“I took it as a real opportunity to make some difference, one of those guys is getting out of the parole is going to work here full time,” Graham said, who says he’s excited to soon offer a few of his current offenders jobs when they’re paroled.

Born in New Orleans, the unapologetic meat-eating Graham grew up in Jefferson City before traveling the country – and cooking for Bruce Willis, Keith Richards, and even Aerosmith  – exploring what he loves most: food. After more than a few years away, he set up shop on High Street, shying away from restauranting.

“I like being part of the celebrations, to be quite honest, and I don’t like the idea of being married to a restaurant which I believe you are,” Graham said. “I had a restaurant, even when you’re closed, it’s just always there. It’s such a gamble. Catering sort of takes the gamble out of it financially for me. I don’t buy food until I’ve pretty much already sold it.”

Graham says the catering route allows him to “focus on doing better food and doing a great event and providing great service, and not worrying so much about selling something before it rots on a special, which is what you have to do in the restaurant industry.”

In mid-Missouri, Graham has taken full advantage of the agricultural offerings of local farms, ranging from beef from Rocking B Ranch, chicken from the Old Summit Restoration Farms, to seasonal produce from Sullivan Farms from the Columbia Farmer’s Market. Graham enjoys seasonal produce, herbs, and foraging at Blue Fox Farms in Columbia and also regularly gets chicken and beef from Country Neighbors in Fayette.

“It’s good when they’re from a happy farm,” Graham said. “Well-cared-for animals really do make a difference in the flavor and quality of the meat.”

Graham PHOTO/HANNAH BEERS FOR THE MISSOURI TIMES MAGAZINE

For some of that meat, Graham has a 500-gallon propane tank that has been converted into a smoker. It can cook 44 pork butts at once, but it takes his Ford to move it.

The chef, fully in his element at the Revel bar surrounded by taxidermy including a brown raven to a “Meet the Beatles” re-imagining with chickens, looks around at the calm-before-the-storm shop preparing for the night’s events.

Graham has found a hole in Jefferson City that the town didn’t know needed filling – and a spot where he, too, can grow and change.

“I can start pushing and finding different things and that’s kind of how we grow – with the season. In the same way we cook for the seasons, we have guest chefs. We’ve got two guest chefs now, old colleagues of mine – one from culinary school and another from Martha’s Vineyard.”

Graham has a catering business in Martha’s Vineyard he attends to in the summers. Never fear, he’ll be back before veto session.

He spent most of his 20s and 30s going back and forth between the Vineyard and Los Angeles, where he started culinary school.

“I went to California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco, California for about four and a half months,” Graham laughs. “And it didn’t seem to be for me, you know. This is when there were only two or three cooking schools out there, now they’re everywhere, now everybody has a culinary program. This is when there was a Culinary Institute of America in New York and CCA in California. It just, for me, I’d already had experience and it seemed like there was a lot of lecture in what is a decidedly a lab career. I looked at what my dad was spending, and my advice to the kids now is ‘okay, send them to culinary school, but first take six months, get a job, in the best restaurant, somewhere like New York, LA, instead of spending tuition, get a studio apartment there’ and I tell kids all the time ‘get a job in a restaurant that makes everything from scratch, one of those five star restaurants, they won’t hire you — volunteer — they’ll take you.’ Paying to go to culinary school, do that six months, still want to go to culinary school? Then go. Chances are, you may not want to be in the industry anymore after doing that and you save yourself time and money and learn a lot of cool things along the way.”

But, don’t get him wrong. Graham says there’s book knowledge like classic “mother sauces” that are vital to cuisine. More importantly, formal culinary education provides networking.

Shortly, Graham will be going on another adventure for the sake of the industry: Hawaii.

“I’m going on an eating, I shouldn’t say expedition,” Graham said. “The next food trip I’m going on is Hawaii. I don’t know much about Hawaiian food, but I said yes to catering a big YMCA gala in March and it’s a fantasy island theme that’s going to be great. So, in February I’m going to Hawaii to eat for a week.”

“Most of my travel is based around work and eating. Cooking and eating, I should say.”

But is there anything Graham can’t cook?

“There are things I’m not as capable of,” Graham said. “And those turn out to be my favorite foods and I’ll start, usually when I identify an area that’s something I really like. Take for instance, I can do Thai food, and there was a while I couldn’t and so I ate Thai food. I started cooking and trying to emulate it. I’m kinda going through that with Indian food right now, a lot of Indian spices.”

Between the Revel location, the Governor’s Mansion, and on-site catering, the demand for Graham and his varying staff of 20 is rivaling the amount of meals in a week.

This story originally appeared on The Missouri Times.

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