When you find yourself interviewing someone like Tom Colicchio, it’s only natural to start with trepidation. What could you possibly ask this iconic culinary figure that hasn’t been asked before? What you don’t know, or what you’ve simply forgotten, is just how cool Tom Colicchio is. Yes, cool is the word we use here at The New Potato; because there’s really no other way to describe a chef like this one. His down-to-earth persona makes even the most concentrated interviewer forget their role; after a mere 2 minutes I was tempted to throw away my questions, kick back and chat idly with this awesome chef.
There’s a reason why this restaurateur has such a special presence in cuisine, and that reason has less to do with food, and more to do with a magnetism in every aspect of the industry. Chef Colicchio – notable Top Chef judge by day and guitar aficionado by night -has managed to build a restaurant empire, as well as an iconic media career. Just as we all love every branch of Craft Restaurants (started by Colicchio in 2001), we’ve all watched the judges’ panel on Top Chef, secretly waiting impatiently for Colicchio’s turn to speak. This restaurateur’s opinion on food has become an absolute. Whether evident in the eyes of the reverent competitors on his shows, or simply in the numerous James Beard awards he’s been showered with, it’s clear Tom Colicchio is a force to be reckoned with.
After starting Gramercy Tavern with partner Danny Meyer in 1994, Colicchio moved on to open Craft in 2001, which soon spiraled into Craftbar, CraftSteak and ‘wichcraft. Together the restaurants are nothing less than a renowned culinary household name, but this visionary wanted even more on his plate (pun intended). In 2010, Colicchio opened Riverpark and Colicchio & Sons, and continues to head the judges’ panel on Bravo’s hit show, Top Chef – which will be heading into its 10th season. This chef’s philosophy has always been about simplicity; letting the ingredients on the plate speak for themselves. But just as it’s hard not to overcomplicate when cooking for Tom Colicchio, it’s also hard not to do when writing about him. So without further delay, here’s today’s icon, Tom Colicchio…
What would be your ideal food day?
Fishing in the morning and catching some fish. Then going to the farmer’s market, gathering vegetables and going home and cooking. In essence, that would be my ultimate food day.
In an earlier interview with Rebecca Charles, she mentioned that Craft is a dream for most chefs, because you can basically create your own meal. How does this play into what your original concept was with this restaurant?
Craft was more out of necessity. I owned Gramercy Tavern and felt I needed something different. Every chef has a repertoire of dishes and as you get older you’re more into the essence of the dish. So really, it was a search for the purity in food. Meaning you have, for example, fish with olive oil, salt and pepper, and that’s it – tasting those ingredients. So what Craft is really about is the craft of cooking, not about the artistry.
What would be your ideal meal at Craft?
I think people are confused sometimes when they come to Craft. They come and they over order. On the other hand, when our regulars come they’ll get…let’s say the raw fish and arugula salad, and then a single protein with a few sides. And that’s more than enough food. That protein is bigger than a composed dish. So in actuality, it’s not crazy expensive. It can be affordable. But then you have people that come in and get appetizers, sides, a few proteins, and that’s just way too much food.
What’s your go to recipe for family and friends?
I don’t have a go-to recipe. Mainly I cook what I feel like making. Honestly that’s what’s great about being an accomplished cook. Everything can be a go-to because you’ve mastered the ingredients. So, I’ll give you a ‘for instance.’ I enjoy Thai food, and I was at my house in the North Fork of Long Island-Mattituck, NY. So I went to the fish market which had local bay scallops, and some cod and clams, so I got a little bit of each. I felt like a spicy fish stew. So I bought ginger, garlic, chile, put it all together, added white wine, added clams, steamed them open, added some bok choy, then I finished it off with basil, dill, that’s it…simple!
There’s not a “go-to.” It’s a matter of being able to cook what you want because you have a command over the ingredients. It’s funny; those recipes that are so XYZ – take this, chop that. Why don’t they just say “braise the lamb shanks”? The assumption should be you know how to cook.
That’s interesting, and that’s something you’ve always said. You’re more interested in technique than recipes…
Yes, absolutely. It’s all about the technique. Also recipes don’t take a lot of things into account: what you’re cooking on and the surface area of that, ingredients (with fish it depends on the thickness). There are so many variables you can’t control. You have to learn how to cook. This weekend I did a recipe and I took pictures of every step and tweeted it – a recipe in twelve picture steps – and people loved that.
You were one of the first people who contributed to the concept of the celebrity chef. How do you feel about that? Do you think it’s being overdone at all? Has it changed the food world operates?
I hate that word celebrity chef. It’s such a silly word. You don’t say celebrity actor. I think overall it affects the population being more educated about food and what it can be. It’s also about having a hobby. If you’re a hobbyist for, let’s say fishing, or whatever it may be; what are you going to do? Start buying magazines and buying equipment. So for a cook you’d buy pots and pans and in essence start collecting chefs – meaning you’re watching what they’re doing. So I think what’s happened in the last twenty years is more people have made food a hobby. So that’s what food TV really does. It opens doors to that by showing how far you can push food and what you can do with it.
If you could pick a chef to be in the competitive arena with, that you haven’t yet gone up against, who would it be?
You know I’m not sure I know. The whole idea of competition with chefs is foreign and alien to me. I understand the irony of that statement since I judge a competitive cooking show, but prior to doing Top Chef the concept hadn’t really occurred to me. Honestly I have no idea who I’d want to go up against.
But what do you think of the competitive element in Top Chef then?
Well, yes, it’s a competition. It really is. You have to leave your restaurant and family behind. On Top Chef there’s no contact with the outside world at all – phones, TVs, newspapers – it’s definitely a sacrifice. My thing is to always be fair and honest, and to be as objective as possible, which I know is hard in food. I always ask what the intention of the chef is – what their thought process was. It’s about why and how, not about what. I want to understand what they were thinking because that’s what determines if it ends up being a successful dish.
There’s also an element of teamwork in the show as well, right?
Yes, but it’s definitely a competition. At a restaurant it’s about being a team, but Top Chef is a competition and it’s great. But, if someone watches that and thinks that’s how a restaurant runs they’re definitely mistaken.
Do you find yourself ever taking inspiration from Top Chef? Have you ever incorporated things into your menus that inspire you on the show?
There are definitely some instances. Kevin Gillespie’s bacon jam, I used. We don’t get a recipe when chefs put the dishes out, but I looked at it and said, “Okay, I can do that and I’m going to try that.” It’s hard to get out and eat and not be influenced. At the same time, the idea of doing the same dish as someone else is absolutely ridiculous. But when we’re talking technique, it’s like music, there are only twelve musical notes. You can’t help but hear the Beach Boys in REM. I’m sure if you asked them they’d agree. It’s not copying, it’s influences, and influences are good when it comes to cooking. But a chef should draw the line at copying a specific dish.
That line’s been crossed maybe on Top Chef a few times no?
Not really, I mean the things that have happened really weren’t anything. If you looked at the second season with that whole thing with Ilan [Hall], that was a classic dish he did. For a classic dish you can’t say “well that was so and so’s dish.” Would you say “oysters and pearls is MY dish”? No. Though, you can say that if it’s a very specific dish. If you’re going to do Claudia Fleming’s tapioca with coconut tuiles and passion fruit sorbet, that’s ridiculous, because that’s very specific.
What are your favorite cities for food? Where do you go there?
To be honest I don’t get out much lately. The food is exciting in Chicago though. Grant Achatz, Paul Kahan, Michael Carlson’s Schwa. All different cuisines, but doing very exciting things.
What about in New York? Any you’ve always loved that never go out of style?
A New York restaurant that never goes out of style is Gotham Bar & Grill. That’s never gone out of style.
Do you have any chefs whose career you’re keeping track of?
This season’s winner of Top Chef, Paul Qui, is just amazing. He’s going to have an amazing career.
Do you have any advice for chefs starting out?
For chefs or cooks?
Maybe cooks that want to become chefs…
For cooks that want to become chefs, be patient. You won’t necessarily be a chef just after two years of culinary school. It’s not just about dishes, it’s about putting those into production, night after night, day after day at a restaurant. It’s easy to go home, cook and perfect a dish. But putting it into production, that’s the art. Also, once you’re a chef you can’t go back. You can’t be a sous chef again; be prepared for that. You also have to be original and do something that’s your own to be successful. It’s when you’re not following but leading that you’re going to succeed.
Is there anything in the dishes at all your restaurants that scream “Tom?”
It’s a bit harder to label what I do. What I do at Craft is very different than what I do at Colicchio and Sons. For me it’s contemporary food, and food being natural. [I.E] Carrots are on that dish for a reason, I want you to taste them. That’s what cooking should be about, natural flavors.
What would your last meal be, and who would it be with?
My mother’s gravy. That’s New Jersey. Then there’s macaroni and sausage, meatballs and braciole. That’s New Jersey baby. And it would be with family.
How do you feel about new potatoes?
I dig new potatoes. There are three things – mushrooms, potatoes and beets – they’re closest to the earth. It’s the closest to eating as natural as you can, those three ingredients. Because, in a sense, we all want to eat the earth.
To view Tom Colicchio’s recipe for Boulangeres Potatoes, click here