Chef Tom Colicchio is more than just a pretty face. Most often recognized due to his stint as judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, Colicchio doesn’t just sit behind a table and critique ill-fated dishes delivered by nerve-wracked cheftestants every day.
He actually cooks in his kitchen.
It’s five o’clock on a Sunday in New York, and the eve of the James Beard Foundation Awards. Colicchio seems calm, cool, and collected as we take a seat in the dining room of Colicchio & Sons, despite being nominated for Outstanding Chef this year. Of course, he’s lost the award before.
“I don’t know how many times they’re going to nominate me in this category before they get tired of me,” he jokes. “They’ll finally say, ‘Just give it to him so we can get rid of him.’”
The restaurant, now in its sixth month, is buzzing with pre-dinner electricity. Crisp, white accents, from staff shirts to table linens, contrast the dark interior of the space. Carefully chosen artwork hangs along the walls to give the room a splash of color, including a mesmerizing, seemingly illuminated cityscape at the back of the restaurant. The décor is classic, comfortable, and personal, complimenting a menu of the same mind.
“You start having children at a late age and you start thinking of legacy. You start thinking about how you want to be known,” the chef explains. “Someone asked me last year, ‘How do you want to be known? Do you want to be known as a chef? A restaurateur? As a TV guy?’ And I don’t want to be known as a TV guy. I’m a chef and restaurateur. So it just got me thinking.”
“With all my restaurants, I’m in the kitchen at some point, but I give my chefs a lot of latitude,” says Colicchio. “But with this, I sat down with my chefs and I said, ‘Listen, I’m happy to hear your ideas, but we’re going with what I want to do.’ I really wanted to put my stamp on it. It was really about getting back in there again.”
In a move that surprised many, Colicchio scrapped his flagship Craftsteak location in the city’s Chelsea district to house Colicchio & Sons.
“I’ve always loved this space. I thought, instead of finding a new space, let’s just do it here. We spent $40,000 to make some changes, mostly up here in the front, and that was it,” he says.
There wasn’t a lot of reconnaissance going on in the development of the new concept, either. Colicchio confesses he didn’t spend much time visiting other restaurants or mulling his ideas over with other chefs.
“When I actually open a restaurant, I usually close myself off more. I almost never go out. I really don’t. I haven’t been to so many places, restaurants that I should go to,” he divulges. “I enjoy going out, and seeing what other people are doing but I think it’s too easy to do something you see. And I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Oh, that’s being done at so-and-so’s restaurant.’ [The menu here] is typically what I want to eat, what I want to do. A lot of it is based on a repertoire of dishes that I’ve had for twenty-five years.“
What? You mean, you’re more than just a judge on a food show? He laughs. “How long do you think it takes to do the show?” he asks.
“Six months?” I guess, haphazardly.
“Twenty days,” he tells me. “The whole shoot takes about a month, and I work every other day.”
Running through a schedule in his head, he corrects himself. “Well, thirty-four days. It takes about thirty-four days to shoot an entire season, with reshoots. That’s it. And the problem is that a lot of people think it takes six months,” he says. “They think that’s all I do. People say things like, ‘Oh, you’re cooking again.’ Well, I haven’t stopped.”
He’s particularly ruffled about a writer who recently alluded to him being more of a personality and less of a chef. “So, I’m trying to get out there, because it’s the journalists I’m worried about,” Colicchio asserts. “It’s something I want to talk about. Quite frankly, when I opened the restaurant, that’s why I started ‘tweeting.’ I wanted people to know that [the show] really is such a small part of what I do.”
With Colicchio & Sons gaining its footing, any plans for future projects? “We have a few things,” the chef admits after hemming and hawing. “I just can’t announce anything yet. “
“We’re definitely doing an eighth season [of Top Chef]. We’ll see about a ninth,” he notes. “It’s been a good run so far.”
“Well, and ultimately, you’re just a chef in a kitchen,” I joke with him.
“Yeah, at least I always have something to fall back on.”
Editor’s note: Colicchio was, indeed, awarded the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef on the evening following our interview and it was fantastic to have the opportunity to congratulate him at the awards ceremony.
You can catch the chef on the premiere of Top Chef Washington D.C. tomorrow night. He’ll also be demoing eats with fellow Top Chef judge Gail Simmons at this week’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
*Photo credits: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender