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An insider's look at the career of Top Chef Tom Colicchio

by Matt DeLucia

July 1st, 2007

    photo of: Tom ColicchioNo one achieves greatness without taking risks, and Tom Colicchio's career by definition has involved diving into unknown waters, extracting knowledge and courage from each experience, then calmly paddling into cooler waters. He has also been defined by a stubborn determination to do his own thing and cook in his own style, beginning in his early 20's when he was lucky enough to find jobs where he was able to experiment -a rarity for any young chef - with the ideas that were brewing in his head after reading as many fine dining cookbooks as he could.

His time running Gramercy Tavern's kitchen and the multitude of awards he won there was what placed him in the national limelight. But seven years in one restaurant was an anomaly for his generally restless nature; he had rarely stayed at any one restaurant for longer than one year. While Gramercy showed us his creativity and flair for extracting incredible flavor and presentation from local ingredients, his rapidly expanding and highly successful Craft branded restaurant chain shows off his versatility and entrepreneurial skills. As we go to press, he is readying another Craft in L.A., and one more in Atlanta. On a national stage, the "Top Chef " reality series showed us another side of him - not another screaming, abusive television chef, but a respectful and thoughtful one. When we see him chatting with the show's contestants, its clear that he's one of them; just another talented chef who just happened to dive into the right pools at the right times.

Q: When was your first realization that cooking might be your life's work?
A: I guess when I was about 15. I had already worked in a snack bar at a country club and I loved food. I always cooked at home, and my dad suggested that I become a chef. After high school we took a trip up to CIA, but you had to work in two restaurants before they would accept you. So I decided to start working in restaurants.

Q: Would you have gone right into CIA if they had let you at that point?
A: Possibly, although I really hated school -hated it. I was bored to tears. I would have been diagnosed with ADD if they were diagnosing that stuff back then. Two years of school? Forget it.

Q: What were your first restaurant experiences?
A: The first restaurant I worked at was a restaurant called Evelyn's. It was in Elizabeth, New Jersey where I grew up, a seafood restaurant that originated down in Belmar. The best thing about it was they had a prep cook, an old black guy from down south named Slim. Any of the prep cooking, the actual cooking that was going on, he did it all. He took me under his wing and I worked all the stations; in the bakery, on the line, as garde manger. I worked there for about a year-and-a-half. Then I worked in another restaurant called the Chestnut Tavern, which was a red-sauce Italian restaurant. I was working garde manger, and I was able to work that station at night plus a bunch of other things, because it was such an easy station to work. I would come in in the morning to get my station set up, and the chef who was there in the morning was butchering. Twice a week, we'd get legs of veal in, and I learned how to butcher legs of veal and filet mignon and things like that.

    photo of: Braised White Asparagus with Summer Truffles

Q: You still hadn't had any formal training at this point, were you still planning some culinary schooling?
A: During this time, I read everything that I could read about cooking, and somehow Jacques Pepin's "La Technique" made it into my house. I'm not sure where it came from. My dad was a correction officer in the county jail, and I think he brought it home from the jail library. In the last paragraph of the introduction to the book, it said, "Don't look at this as a cookbook. Look at this as an apprenticeship." So I thought about it, and I said "Why do I have to go to culinary school to learn how to cook? I can learn how to cook on the job." So I would buy certain cookbooks, and I remember buying Chez Panisse's cookbook, and I would cook from it. I would go home and cook from the books, because what I was doing in the restaurant wasn't stuff that I wanted to do. I was looking at Cuisine Magazine and saying, "This is what I want to do."

Q: When did you first get to run a kitchen by yourself?
A: When I left Chestnut Tavern, I took a position in a hotel because I wanted to get some hotel experience. I worked at the Secaucus Hilton in Secaucus, New Jersey. After working there for a month, they gave me the position of night chef. So, I'm 24 years old and I'm running the kitchen at night. There was a set menu and it was junk, but they gave me a free hand to do specials. I would go to my cookbooks and produce dishes, and they loved it.

Q: You've often referred to your next job at 40 Main Street to be a turning point for you, how did you run across that job?
A: That restaurant was in Short Hill, Millburn, New Jersey, and they were advertising for a sous chef. The ad said "New American Cuisine." I went there and applied for the job, and although they had just hired a sous chef, they wanted to know if I would stay on as a cook. They were getting good ingredients; wild mushrooms and truffles, great fish. It was completely different, because the chef worked days and the restaurant wasn't open for lunch, so he would just get the kitchen set up, and then we'd run it at night. We had a great time, and then we got three stars
in the Times.

Q: After that you left to come to New York, why did you leave 40 Main?
A: Everybody had always told me, "You get one shot in New York, you can't screw it up," so I just wanted to wait. Two of the guys who worked in that restaurant and had also worked in New York said to me, "You should just go and get your resume out there." So I put a resume together and shopped it around New York. I was referred to Gotham Bar & Grill -Alfred Portale had just started working there for only about three or four days when he hired me. I worked there for about a week, and then Barry Wine (from The Quilted Giraffe restaurant) called me and said, "I got your resume, I wanna talk to you."

    photo of: Speck-wrapped Sturgeon with Red Wine Shallots and Wild Watercress

Q: So after only a week, you had to tell Alfred you were leaving.
A: Well, there were only two 4-star restaurants at the time; there was Lutèce and there was Quilted. I remember reading an article in Cuisine Magazine about these new-style restaurants. They talked about certain restaurants in France, and then they talked about Quilted. I was just like, "I've gotta do this," so I told Alfred I'm leaving. Alfred had been there for a week, and I said, "I've got to take this opportunity," and he said okay. It was a great experience. Number one, the restaurant was open five days a week, Monday through Friday. They closed Saturday and Sunday, and they were only open for dinner. They did 130 covers every night, whether it was a Monday or a Friday. If they opened Saturday, they were only going to do 130 covers on Saturday, so they decided they might as well close Saturday and Sunday. It was a great model, having the same people in the same position every night. Every single night, everybody did the same thing. So the restaurant was run just like a clock.

Q: The ingredients you had to work with there must have been on a whole new level.
A: Barry was so ahead of his time. He had a farm up in New Paltz and he was growing his own vegetables for the restaurant. Once every weekend, someone in the restaurant would go up there and work the farm. The cooks would go up there on the weekend and see what was growing, and then every Monday they brought all the stuff
back. It was just amazing. I left there after a year, because the owner of 40 Main Street called me and offered me a chef 's position at that restaurant.

Q: After coming to New York and finding your way into a four-star restaurant, you went back to New Jersey?
A: I knew that I wanted to find my own style of cooking. For too long I was just reading books and emulating people, and I knew that if I continued to do that, it was just copying. I wanted to do something of
my own. So I thought that going back to New Jersey out of the spotlight of New York, I could work on dishes and work on my style and not have to worry about New York.

Q: How long did you stay at 40 Main Street your second time there?
A: I stayed for about a year, and then I went to France. I worked at the Hôtel de France in Auch, Gascony with Ariane Daguin's father from D'Artagnan. Her father had a 2-star restaurant there in Gascony.

    photo of: Frisee with Pistachio Vinaigrette and Fried Ham

Q: What do you remember from that experience in France?
A: I was there three or four months, but then I ended up in the middle of a family feud. Arnaud Daguin, who is Ariane's brother, was the chef de cuisine of the kitchen. I think he really wanted to step out on his own, and then he brought this woman home who I thought was great, but his family didn't like her. He ended up marrying her, and they essentially threw him out. We were supposed to get jobs in Paris, and when we got to Paris, we were told to go talk to so-and-so, and they said, "We don't have jobs for you." What happened was that Arnaud's dad had told his son, "Fine, you want to be the big chef? You set them up with restaurants in Paris." And then he told all his friends in Paris not to hire us! But it worked out great. I spent a month there with Kerry Heffernan who had worked in Paris before, and he knew a bunch of people there. So we had places to stay. I slept on someone's couch. We would get up every morning and just hang out and run around the city. I had a credit card, and somehow I figured out that we could get cash out of it - this was before ATMs or anything -but I figured out if I went into the American Express office, I was able to get cash off the card. As soon as I got back home, I got a letter saying, "Please turn in your credit card." I was like 26 or so. It was like spring break for a month in Paris.

Q: When you returned from Paris did you come back to New York, or New Jersey?
A: I came back to New York and ended up working at Rakel with Thomas Keller. That was one hell of a kitchen! I was there right after they opened up, and I worked for about a year, and I was a sous chef when I left. From there I ended up going to Virginia Beach to help out a friend of mine who was opening a restaurant. I stayed there for almost a year, because I was having a lot of fun. They gave me a townhouse on the beach as part of the deal for me going there to work!

Q: My guess is that somehow you made it back to New York from Virginia Beach.
A: Yes, I was back in New York for Ariane's daughter's christening, and I ran into Dennis Foy there. We start talking, and someone pointed to me and said to Dennis, "This is the guy you need to get to run your kitchen when you open in New York." But I had two stages set up in France, I had saved up money when I was in Virginia, and I was ready to go. I was going to spend three months with Ducasse and three months with Michel Gras. So I said no, but soon after that my dad was diagnosed with cancer, so I decided I had to stay home, so I took the job at Mondrian. I worked there for about a month, and after the first two weeks, I said, "Dennis, this isn't for me. I really don't want to do this." Soon after that, my dad passed away. I took some time off, and I went back to work a month later and I basically said, "Dennis, I can't do this," and I gave him notice. Dennis came back one day and he said, "Tom, you know what? The kitchen's yours. Run it."

Q: It sounds like that suddenly turned into a great situation for you.
A: It did, so I took it over and started changing the menu, but it just didn't work out. I ended up going to France and working for Michel Gras for about two months. Then I got a phone call from the owner of Mondrian and he said, "Tom, can you get back here? We want you to come in and take it over." They bought Dennis out, so I came back home and took over as the chef of Mondrian. I changed the menu, hired a new staff, and within three or four months, at the age of 26, we got 3 stars from the Times from Bryan Miller.

Q: So Mondrian was your first big review that made you a well-known chef in New York?
A: Yes, that really came out of nowhere. It was a cool period of time, because right after that review, Daniel (Boulud) started coming in, and Jonathan Waxman, all these guys I always read about were now coming to my restaurant. What the hell did I know? I was a kid from New Jersey, and now I'm up in midtown New York with a 3-star restaurant. That was the best time of my life. Unfortunately, the restaurant never made money. It was a very expensive rent, and it was a very expensive build-out for very few seats, and the restaurant really never did over $3 million. The owners from Morgan Stanley were very happy with me, and they kept feeding it, and finally I pulled the plug and said, "I can't do this any more." On one hand it was successful, but on the other hand I wanted to have financial success as well.

    photo of: Roasted Sirloin with Spring Vegetables and Bordelaise

Q: So how did Mondrian lead to Gramercy Tavern?
A: I won Best New Chef in Food & Wine Magazine in 1991, and Michael Romano won that same year, then I met Danny Meyer at the Aspen Food Festival. In 1992, I was back in Aspen and I had lunch with Danny. At this point I knew I was getting ready to close Mondrian, but I was just feeling him out. I called him up in July and said, "Listen, I'm closing the restaurant, do you want to get together and talk about doing something?" At first he said, "No, I don't think so, I don't want to open another restaurant." But then he called me back and he said, "You know what? Let's meet." So we spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted to do business-wise and what we thought was missing from the industry. We flew to Italy and spent seven days traveling, mostly in the Piedmont area during the white truffle season. Our feeling was that if we can travel together, we can probably work together. When we came back from Italy we essentially had the plan for Gramercy Tavern.

Q: You worked with a lot of great people at Gramercy over the years.
A: There was a period of time when Claudia Fleming was the pastry chef and Paul Greco was running the front of the house, and Nick Mautone was our general manager. We had a great team, I had Marco Canora as a line cook, Jonathan Benno was a line cook. Akhtar Nawab, who's now at E.U., was a line cook there. I can go on and on, Gramercy Tavern spawned so many people.

Q: It must have been difficult to move on from your partnership with Danny Meyer at Gramercy last September.
A: It's almost like it's a marriage that eventually ends. But we're still friends, because we've spent so many years together that it just makes sense to be friends. Most chefs get a piece of the restaurant from the owners, but I actually invested in that restaurant, so it was very different. But I think Gramercy is still a great restaurant, and I'm just proud as hell to have been associated with it. I still mention that I was the founding chef and owner of Gramercy Tavern. It's a very important restaurant, I think.

After opening Gramercy Tavern in 1994 and running the kitchen for 7 years, Colicchio opened Craft in 2001 to wide praise and a coveted three-star New York Times review. He retained his ownership of Gramercy until September 2006 when, after trying to buy out partner Danny Meyer, he decided to sell his share so he could concentrate his efforts on Craft. His growing restaurant empire had quickly expanded to include Craftbar, ‘wichCraft, a CraftSteak in Las Vegas, and three new Crafts; one in Dallas, one in LA to open this summer, and another to open next year in Atlanta. However, the most interesting restaurant story is a local one; Craftsteak new york. This restaurant was unusual in that the concept began in Vegas and was then transplanted here to the Big Apple. Unlike its Nevada parent, Craftsteak new york had serious problems, and after a brutal 1-star New York Times review the chef changed everything in the $7 Million restaurant, from the ovens to the chef to his purveyors. After a complete restaurant makeover that generated enough drama for a reality show of its own, Colicchio somehow managed to have his restaurant re-reviewed by the New York Times. The result? A glowing review, and a very nice bounce from one star to two. Makeover complete. How did he do it?

Q: First of all, how did you come to create a new restaurant concept in Vegas as opposed to New York?
A: Just after we won Best New Restaurant at the Beard Awards for Craft I met a guy named Gamal Aziz, who was Director of Operations at the MGM Grand Hotel. He said, "We'd love to have you in Las Vegas at the MGM." I had never been to Vegas, so they flew me out, and I took a look at the MGM. I said to myself, this is not where I want to be. I want to be in Bellagio, I want to be in the new one! But he said, "Tom, we'll build a restaurant for you with a big space. We're repositioning this property, and we're going to change the entire property, trust me. The only thing is, you're replacing our steakhouse, so we want you to do a steakhouse." I looked at Prime, Jean-Georges' place, and it was doing gangbusters, and the steakhouses all do well in Vegas. So I said, "Fine I'll do a steakhouse, but we're going to call it Craftsteak," so that's how Craftsteak started. Essentially, Craftsteak vegas looks like Craft in New York; the same design elements were used.

    photo of: Marinated Octopus with Avocado and Sea Beans

Q: So then you decided to bring the concept, which was working well, to New York?
A: My partners would go to Craftsteak in Vegas and say, "Tom, this is great, why don't we do one of these in New York?" And I said, "Okay, fine, we'll do one in New York." And then we completely fucked it up. Well maybe not completely, but it came close.

Q: You were reviewed by the New York Times and received one star, not a very good review for someone who was used to getting two or three? What were you doing wrong?
A: It was the first bad review I had in my life! We did pretty much what we were doing in Vegas, but we weren't being compared to steakhouses when we opened, we were being compared to Craft. My regulars would come in and say, "Tom, why should I come here when Craft makes a better steak?" So we took a good, hard look at it and said, "We should not model this based on what we did in Vegas, we should model this on what we do in New York." We took a step back, and essentially we took a look at everything we were doing in the kitchen and made some tough choices.

Q: Including the difficult decision to let some people go?
A: It was a terrible day. In the course of running restaurants for 18 years now, you've got to fire people, and it doesn't ever get easy. But that was a very, very difficult one. I put it off for months, because I couldn't do it during the holiday season. But sometimes that's the responsibility you have in running a business - it's not about making easy decisions. That doesn't keep you on top. It's about making hard decisions.

Q: Another big change was the way you were cooking your steaks, which was discussed in detail in the Times reviews. Can you explain what was changed?
A: You know that char that so many people like in steak? To me, it's burnt, and it tastes bitter. I think everybody's just so used to getting it that way, so when they don't get that they think something's wrong. People use a grill because it's efficient -you can get 30 steaks on a grill. I felt that by getting a griddle I would get the same effect and cook everything on that. The problem with the griddle is it never gets hot enough. The other thing with the griddle is, because you're not putting fat on it, if you're cooking meat on the bone, the meat has a tendency to pull away from the bone a little bit. It's not in contact with a hot surface so it kind of steams first, and that's what we were doing. We were completely fucking up, because we weren't searing the meat hard enough and we weren't getting a good crust on it. Typically what I like to do when I roast meat is to get a good sear on both sides, actually turn it four times, then finish it in the oven in lots of butter. If you go to the French Laundry, or if you go to Daniel, you don't find grills in those restaurants, and they serve plenty of meat. There was never a grill in Gramercy except that wood-burning grill in the front. I'm convinced roasting meat is the best way to cook it. So we finally got rid of the griddle, and we put two Montague stoves in there and now we're roasting it properly. That was the big change; that we were never getting a proper sear on the meat, and everybody thought that was the intention. It was not the intention, we completely screwed up.

    photo of: Braised Short Rib with Roasted Vegetables

Q: How did you manage to get another review of Craftsteak new york so quickly?
A: I called Bruni up, not yelling and screaming and carrying on, but I told him that I disagree with the amount of stars, but I agree with a lot of what he said. I said "I'm gonna fix the problem, and hopefully you'll come back in and see us." And he said, "Well, I can't re-review you," and I said "Listen, you said it's the best steakhouse all around the edges except for the meat, we're going to fix the meat problem, and when we get it fixed I hope you come in." Again he said, "I can't re-review you," and I said "I know you can't but you have that Diner's Journal and you can at least let people know that we've straightened out our problem." And he said "All right, that sounds good, I'll check back with you."

Q: So that was 10 months ago, did you know when the reviewer was coming back?
A: We knew he was back, yeah, but we never knew he was at Craftbar. So that was it, I made a few jokes as well with him but that's all I had said to him, that I disagreed with some of what he said, but I agreed with the problems he had brought up.

To anyone in the food world, the Top Chef reality series on Bravo needs no introduction. It's become the highest rated food show on cable, with 4 million viewers tuning in to Season Three's finale, beating out all food shows in America with the exception of "Hells Kitchen," which has the advantage of being on the much larger Fox network. Colicchio started off Season Three by telling the chefs that "I'm not your mentor, I'm the head judge," which immediately set the tone for the relationship between the star of the show and his contestants. But it's easy to see from his give-and-take in the kitchen how easily he connects with the cooks while they are working, and his talent for seeing what they are doing wrong as well as which contestants have the most talent. In essence it's a microcosm of what Colicchio has done all his life – push others around him to work their hardest and use their creativity, while making sure everything is completed on time. But most important, that the food looks and tastes good enough to be served in Colicchio's own restaurant, which is not an easy task.

    photo of: Tom Colicchio

Q: How did you first become involved in Top Chef?
A: Two years before the first season, I got a call from a producer who wanted me to do a show called "Faking It." Essentially I was supposed to teach someone how to cook in like one week, and then they were gonna come in and run a kitchen. I told him, "No interest."

Q: Sounds like a wise decision. And then you heard another idea that was a little better?
A: Yes, then I got a call from the producer of "Project Runway," and she asked if I had heard of it and I said "Yeah, I'm familiar with it." And she said, "Well, we're doing the same thing with food, and we really think you're the right guy to do this." I said, "Whatever." So they sent someone over to interview me on video, and she said, "Can you do a screen test?" I said, "No, I'm not doing a screen test!" She was like, "Do you want this?" I said "Not really!"

Q: Sounds like you were playing hard to get.
A: I said, "This is what I'll do, I'll send you a DVD of something I did." ABC News had done a production of the opening of Craft, and it was supposed to air on "Nightline." After 9/11, they killed it, and it aired on PBS. So I said, "I'll send you something, and you tell me what you think." So I sent them the DVD, and they called back and said, "We want you." They told me what it was going to be like, and I said, "Fine, I'll do it." Then I found out how little they paid, and I was like, "This is terrible!"

Q: So clearly you didn't do it for the money. But I'm sure you had seen other chefs try their luck at a reality series and the results were not always good, so why did you do the show?
A: I'll tell you why, because I met with them and they were very serious about doing this. "Listen, we really want to attract really great talent. You're going be the authority on the show." I was nervous about looking like a jackass on TV, I mean, I don't need help doing that, I can do it all by myself. They said, "We want you to be the authority, You're gonna come out looking great. We have no desire to make you look bad at all." My wife's a filmmaker, so I know what editing can do, and I was concerned that once it's taken out of your hands, they can do whatever they want.

Q: Were you surprised by how popular it has become?
A: Shocked. But when we first shot it, I was concerned. There are times when you're shooting and you're going, "What is this shit? It's like some nightmare." You know, part of it is that sometimes it's 4:00 o'clock in the morning and you're still working, and you're like "This is just a disaster." But after the first season, I started getting phone calls from Eric Ripert and people like that asking, "How do I get on the show?"

Q: Any surprises in Season Three?
A: We've got some real surprise judges. They're people you'd never expect in a million years to be a guest judge. I was shocked, more old-school stuff that you would never expect. When you bring someone like Alfred Portale or Eric Ripert out there, the contestant's jaws drop.

Q: Have you been keeping up with your guitar playing with that band you used to jam with?
A: We were playing every Tuesday night at a studio, but the last time we played we did it at my apartment, actually. We got to the point where we were ready to start playing out, and then I had Season Two of Top Chef, so we had to stop playing. And then we thought about doing something for June at some place, but it's just too busy. I'm not gonna do something on stage unless I'm really prepared. I just go in there with an acoustic guitar and play one or two songs that I know I can play and get the audience singing.

We look forward to seeing that premiere!

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