He’s cooked for celebrities including Bruce Willis, Rod Stewart, Demi Moore and Keith Richards in locales from Los Angeles, to New York to Turks & Caicos but now chef Johnny Graham has brought his culinary skills to his hometown.
A few months ago he opened Revel Catering in the historic Lohman Opera House building, on High Street and has been busy with parties, luncheons at the capitol and wedding receptions, including his own this past May.
Revel, which means celebration, is an apt name for his company as he’s been part of the special moments of so many others during the past 20 years. Whether it’s Stevie Nicks’ Christmas dinner or recently catering Joan Firley’s birthday party on a barge on the Missouri River, feeding people is his specialty and his choice of career has brought him many amazing opportunities.
“After spending so many years cooking and learning, I find that I’m drawn more and more to the celebratory occasions,” he said. “This is what brought me to open Revel.”
“While people may forget who was there or what they wore, almost every gathering starts and ends with food, with guests often crowded around the kitchen. The art of eating and feeding people is an intimate experience and not one to be taken lightly.”
From early on Graham gravitated toward the food industry. The son of Richard Graham, M.D. an oral surgeon in town, he once worked as a bus boy at Madison’s. After graduating from Jefferson City High School (JCHS) he did study briefly at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, but dropped out in favor of working at a restaurant and for a variety of chefs.
“After leaving Jefferson City, I embarked on a culinary odyssey of some design, traveling and working my way around the country with an insatiable desire to cook, eat and experience the regional food, ingredients and techniques,” he said.
After living in Seattle for a time in a teepee, a friend from culinary school contacted him about a job and Graham soon headed east on his Harley Davidson to Martha’s Vineyard, a place he fell in love with and has become a second home. He would also work as a Sous Chef at Mount Blue Restaurant outside of Boston, partly owned by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and then spent time at Sweet Basil Restaurant in Vail, Co.
In April of 2000, he opened Johnny’s Fine Carryout & Johnny Graham’s Catering & Event Design in Martha’s Vineyard, which he operated for three years. By then, he had developed his own approach to food.
“I prefer simple food using what’s available locally and I tend to shy away from a dependence on cream, alcohol and butter,” he said. “My slogan has become globally influenced and locally sourced.”
As the lead catering chef on the sets of several “Pirates of the Caribbean” films he spent months in the islands of St. Vincent, Dominica, Bahamas feeding the crew out of a truck. As popular as food trucks are these days, he found them very challenging.
“For being such a ridiculously well known person, a true living legend, he’s incredibly down to earth and by no means concerned whatsoever with a person’s social or socio-economic status,” he said. “He really takes one at face value and was just a fantastic person to be around.”
He also spent five years as Bruce Willis’ personal chef. While Graham doesn’t share too many details, his ability to keep a celebrity’s privacy allowed him to go on to provide catering services to other high profile clients in the entertainment industry, often traveling to certain destinations for one-time affairs. He catered recording sessions for Macy Gray, a Grammy after party for Madonna, dinner parties for Larry David, and for celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz’s photo shoots.
As glamorous as some of the events he’s catered seem to the outsider, he still finds himself cleaning up the kitchen, even at his own wedding reception.
“Orchestrating my own wedding in May, with the help of some very talented friends and colleagues, brought me to around the 100 wedding mark and I’m excited to do the next 100 right here in Mid Missouri,” he said.
He met his future wife, Lori (Robinette), a physical therapist, in 2011 while preparing to cater a wine dinner at Capital City Cork and Provisions owned by his JCHS classmate Jami Wade.
“I made a flourless chocolate torte and then relaxed with a glass of wine,” he recalls. “Lori and her brother walked in the door and she was in costume as Puss and Boots. We talked that night and a few months later when I was back in town I asked her out.”
Set to meet at Ria’s he didn’t know what she looked like sans costume.
“I waited and then she walked in and that was that,” he said.
They were married in the Governor’s Garden and the reception was held at Revel, where he’s been updating the space and making renovations, including mounting a giant elk head from a hunting trip with his father.
Although he will return to Martha’s Vineyard for a few weeks this summer to cater for his regular clients, this admitted rolling stone adventurer now has a home base. He even turned down a gig with Rod Stewart due to commitments here in the capital city, including the Cork, Fork and Brews, the annual fundraiser for The Boys & Girls Club and Thursday Night Live events this past June.
“I look forward to building an infrastructure of people, be they farmers, bartenders or artisans, who share the vision that we can create and produce services and events right here through local sources,” Graham said.
“We have so much local talent and such a growing sense of community. I am very proud to be back where I grew up, surrounded by family and friends old and new,” he said. “I’m also excited to have the opportunity to be part of so many celebratory epicurean experiences to come.”
“A lot of what keeps me doing what I do is the ever changing landscape of and the need for truly special events,” he said.