An Interview with Graham

Smile Train talks to Graham about his experiences with cleft and discovers why he has decided to undertake one of his biggest challenges yet—running the Chicago Marathon with Smile Train Team EMPOWER.

What inspired you to run the Chicago Marathon on behalf of Smile Train?
My wife, Allie, and I have been supporters of Smile Train since our son Conrad was born with a bilateral cleft lip and we knew that it was an organization that we would be proud to run hand in hand with across the finish line.

What has been the most difficult part of training? The most rewarding?
The most difficult part hasn't been the psychical part, but rather the time commitment. Its simple math. but I never stopped to think about how running could take a few hours out of your day just like that. The most rewarding part has been the new friendship with our trainer, Dave Coligado. There's no doubt that Allie and I wouldn't be where we are at without his awesome ability to push us to the end.

Do you have any fun, unique training rituals that you incorporate into your routine?
The only "tradition" we have is that I get a cupcake after our long run and Allie gets chicken wings. ;)

What about Smile Train particularly stands out to you and led you to be a long-term supporter?
The fact that Smile Train doesn't simply repair clefts, but rather teaches doctors and their supporting staffs (nurses, caretakers, speech therapists, etc.) to work with the local residents on a personal and longterm basis.

What would you identify as the most meaningful takeaway from your trip to Mexico?
I think the biggest takeaway was that Smile Train wasn't only there to repair the clefts of newborns, but teenagers and adults as well. We were introduced to a lovely gentleman that was in his 30's and spent his whole life with a cleft...goes to show you can change the direction of your life no matter what your age. (See below for more details on Graham's trip to Mexico this past March.)

What was your first thought when you found out your child had cleft?
Allie and I were caught off guard as we know of nobody in our family that was born with a cleft. Our doctor mentioned that a bilateral cleft could be indicative of Down syndrome, so we didnt know what to expect or prepare for. The one thing we were sure of was that no matter what, we'd love our baby more than anything in the world.

As a child born with cleft, what were some of Conrad's biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges were trying to get him to feed, either by breast or bottle. He ended up needing to spend some extra time in the nursery to make sure he was getting enough milk, but he soon got the hang of it and has been an eating champ since then.

What has Conrad been able to achieve today that he would not have without surgery?
He can kiss, use a straw, sing, and has the best smile around.

What do you want others to take away from Conrad's story?
Simply the fact that as parents you can try to prepare: read the right books, eat the right diet, exercise, take the right vitamins and so forth; but at the end of the day there are things out of your control and you have to believe that every thing happens for a reason.

What do you want people to know about cleft?
I'd say that it's important to know that it is something that doesnt simply go away with surgery. Sure there is the cosmetic aspect, but there's also orthodontia, nose reconstruction, speech therapy and many other procedures and areas that will need attention as the years go on. The cool thing is that what makes you different is the same thing that makes you beautiful!

What would you say to others who want to impact families and children with cleft?
I'd say to contact Smile Train and theyll find a way to best use your strengths so that you can make the greatest impact possible.

Watch Graham and his wife Allie talk about their training for Smile Train and the upcoming race on NBC 5 Chicago:

Check out this video of Graham and Allie running in the 2014 Chicago Marathon by their trainer David Coligado:

Follow Graham to Mexico

Graham Elliot, chef extraordinaire, takes a journey of smiles to visit Smile Train programs in Mexico.

Saturday, March 8

2:30 p.m.
We arrived in Mexico City and were greeted by the most heartwarming welcoming party imaginable; a choral group of seven children, all of who had undergone surgery to repair a cleft lip or palate. We learned that not only did the singing boost the children's sense of self-esteem, but it also acted as a form of speech therapy that the kids actually enjoyed doing.

3:45 p.m.
After the joyous singing and dancing came to end, we drove out of the city to visit with Jasmine, a seventeen-year-old single mother of two. The newest addition to her family, a six-week-old baby boy name Ivan, was born with a cleft lip and palate. This was not caught during her routine ultrasound so it came as a total surprise, leaving Jasmine wondering what to do or where to even start.

Baby Ivan and me just after I finished giving him his midday bottle.
Allie (left) holds Ivan as Jasmine and I play with Ivan's older sister.

We learned that she found out through a friend about Smile Train, and we're happy to say, little Ivan is scheduled to have his first surgery later next month. Allie and I are hoping to make it back down to Mexico City to assist in any way and be there for support. It's safe to say that Ivan will need some other surgeries and hurdles down the road, but with Smile Train's outreach and ability to create sustainable ways to repair clefts, he's most certainly set up for success.

Allie and I shared photos of our son, Conrad, who was born with a bilateral cleft, with Jasmine. Although we don't speak the same language, live in different countries, and have different lives, at the end of the day I'm still a parent worried about my baby and Jasmine is a parent worried about her baby. We are very much the same.
Sunday, March 9

8 a.m.
The next day, Allie and I found ourselves at the hospital, where we were introduced to the awesome people that make these operations possible. Now, I'm not just talking about the doctor or surgeon, I'm talking about the TEAM: nurses, orthodontists, hygienists, anesthesiologists, speech therapists, psychologists...even the custodian who keeps the place spotless and immaculate!

Some of the staff that help make Smile Train surgeries possible.

You see, just as in the kitchen, you have to throw titles aside; nothing gets done unless everyone is on the same page, following the same vision, going into battle as a unit. After meeting the team and getting a tour of the facilities, Allie and I were introduced to Miguel, the two and a half year old who would be undergoing the operation that morning.

Having been in a similar situation with our own son Conrad (who was born with a bilateral cleft lip), we sympathized greatly with his mother and tried to comfort her during this emotional time, and did our best to reassure her that everything was gonna be great. We even showed before and after photos of Conrad's surgery so she could get a sense of what to expect.

Soon Miguel was whisked away to get prepped for surgery. Allie and I got into our scrubs and made our way to O.R. While the two of us had been in a hospital room before, we were always on the other side of the table. This was the first time we found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with talented nurses and doctors, who were focused like lasers on the task at hand.

Allie and I in our Smile Train scrubs!

10 a.m.
Although Miguel's cleft went further into his mouth that usual (thus making the surgery more difficult), as expected, the operation went off without a hitch. Allie and I thanked the team, and while we were saying our goodbyes and thank yous, who were led into a room with another group of folks were waiting for us.

This group was made up of children and adults who had already undergone cleft palate surgeries and were there to show us the incredible changes that occurred in their lives as a result. Regardless of the fact that there was a language barrier, it was beautiful to hear their stories, to share our own, and to simply take comfort in the fact that we all wanted the same things for our children; a long, happy and healthy life. It was great to see firsthand that Smile Train is there to help turn those dreams into a reality."

Fist bumps!
And high fives!

About Graham Elliot

Graham Elliot is a critically acclaimed chef, restaurateur and television personality who also happens to be one of the most recognized faces cooking in America today.

Growing up a Navy brat allowed Graham the opportunity to travel the world and all fifty states, sparking an intense interest in food and music which led to his attending Johnson & Wales University.

Graham received three James Beard Award nominations, competed on Iron Chef and the first two seasons of Top Chef Masters, was named one of Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chefs" and became became the youngest Four Star Chef in the U.S., all before the age of 30.

In 2012, Graham was inducted into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame, named "Chef of the Year", and saw September 19th officially proclaimed as "Graham Elliot Day" in the city of Chicago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In addition to running his two restaurants: Graham Elliot Bistro in Chicago and Primary Food & Drink in Greenwich, CT, Graham is also a judge on Fox's MasterChef as well as Culinary Director of Chicago's Lollapalooza music festival.

When he's not traversing the globe in search of gastronomic inspiration, Graham resides in Chicago with his wife and business partner Allie, and his three children, Mylo Ignatius, Conrad Matthias and Jedediah Lindsay.