Tom Colicchio

An In My Backpack interview


A few months ago, I mentioned something on this web site about what a pleasure it had been to meet Tom Colicchio in person.

If you’re willing to trust me and my memory, I told you about how polite and friendly he was… I told you how generous he was with his time during a fabulous evening for my wife and I at a new restaurant… and I started all of my comments quite simply by saying he is a fantastic, down to earth, nice guy.

On the other hand, if you don’t trust my memory (and… to be fair… you probably shouldn’t) and want a bit more… you also might recall how I was certain I had acted like an idiot on that evening, firmly believed I embarrassed myself a bit, and frankly have no clue why he participated in an interview. (It wasn’t really that bad, but my comparison last May was to the old Chris Farley bit with Paul McCartney. I think I told him his work was fantastic and the food was great. On that evening, insightful conversation was not my strong point. I’m fairly certain he still does not know that a St. Bernard and a Labrador… based on their reactions to two very small slices that were shared the next day while enjoying some wonderful leftovers… would like him to not only visit our home, but to permanently replace the current cooks in the house. I’m also guessing no one told him I ordered my steak medium-well.)

In the end though, Tom did agree to speak with me and answer some questions for articles I produced for a couple of other publications. I began doing some research, hoping to have a bit more to discuss with him than I did in our first encounter and it turned out there was no end in sight to the great topics we had to cover.

In June of 2008 I had the pleasure to speak with him over the phone. I have no clue if his assistant told him how much time she and I had arranged, but he spent more than double-that with me (and I wasn’t going to be the one to mention the clock ticking). We covered the material I needed for the assignments quickly, and for you kids out there… do your homework. I prepared as if I would have a day to spend with him, while understanding we might only cover five or six questions and a few subjects. Instead of a quick hello and goodbye though, I wound up with literally dozens of pages of notes and I am grateful and thrilled he allowed me to take that material, format it for the In My Backpack web site, and share most of our interview with you here.

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Tom Colicchio traces his kitchen work back to his family. Actually, this isn’t so unusual… as I’ve found many chefs seem to say that a special family meal, or that family meals in general, were very important in driving their desire to cook. For Tom, it involves not just alot of family time with food and a kitchen though, but also some time spent fishing.

If you check out such things, you’ll find biographies of Chef Colicchio refer repeatedly to cooking with his mother and his grandmother, as well as to his father suggesting his pursuit of the culinary industry for a career. (You can view a Craft Restaurant bio here, and the Bravo page for Top Chef can be found here.) He readily admits to both of those notes being true and important. But don’t discount even younger days, spent fishing with family members, heading home and being told to clean the fish, which led to ending the day with a family meal. In short, the aspects of cooking played an important part of some great overall days and family moments for him, from his very first memories on.

“It’s funny, because I’m a fisherman,” Tom said during the interview. “I love cooking fish, and I own a boat. So of course, when people recognize me, the conversation goes something like ‘you’re that meat guy.’”

While he doesn’t have the formal training some people bring into the kitchen, keep in mind that many famous musicians can’t read music. And Tom sees a similarity between cooking and music.

“It’s very much like learning to play the guitar. At first you learn some chords, and that moves along into playing some songs. If you keep after it, you start to really learn music and technique. And while you may be playing the guitar early on, when you learn the technique you learn how to make music.”

Tom learned his technique with the assistance of famed chef Jacques Pepin’s well-regarded guides… La Technique and La Méthode. He entered the New York restaurant world, and when he reached Mondrian everything came together.

While a young executive chef at Mondrian, the restaurant earned a three star rating from the New York Times, and Tom was recognized by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the country’s best new chefs. By 1994, Tom had joined together with Danny Meyer to start Gramercy Tavern, and… well… things got a bit crazy.

Tom was part of yet another three star rating from the New York Times at Gramercy Tavern (a third such rating would follow when Craft opened in New York in 2001). He also began earning nominations for one of the top awards in the culinary world… the James Beard Awards. In 2000, he won the first of his five James Beard Awards to date. And when considering all of the ones he has earned for himself or been a part of winning with his restaurants and efforts, they span an impressive range of categories, including James Beard’s Best Chef New York and the James Beard KitchenAid Cookbook Award for Tom, Outstanding Service for Gramercy Tavern, and James Beard’s Best New Restaurant for Craft.

His approach at Craft has been very interesting… buy the best ingredients, keep things simple, and let those marvelous ingredients work their magic. In stressing outstanding guest service, he also wants people to feel comfortable while being treated well. The top restaurant ratings and overall success that has followed him leaves no room to doubt that many people approve of his ideas.

Despite all of the accolades, awards and rave reviews, the questions still followed him when he took on a different challenge… head judge for a brand new television show. You know… a little thing on Bravo called Top Chef.

“Years ago, if you had asked, I would have immediately told you I had no desire to look into television. Then about six or seven years ago, the Craft brand began to consider reaching out beyond New York. I still can recall in season one of Top Chef we were getting feedback like ‘Who’s Colicchio?’ and comments about how they had never seen me on the Food Network.”

Hmm… “Who’s Colicchio?” Well… Top Chef keeps growing, having become a significant presence on television. The fourth season averaged more viewers per episode than any previous year, and in November of 2008 the fifth season started off with strong ratings. His Craft approach to restaurants has led to successful and award-winning Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar and ’Wichcraft locations across the country. And today Tom is generally regarded as one of the most respected voices in any area of cooking.

(Yeah… not many people are asking who he is any more.)

Just three things to mention before we get to it…

First… I want to extend a huge thank you to Katie and Christina. Tom was the one that flashed the green light for this project, but these two wonderful ladies made it all possible. Katie was beyond professional and helpful, both when I met her in person and through an e-mail exchange. Christina… well… words don’t do it justice for her. She was patient, kind and helpful. She provided me with more information and assistance than I deserved, and I can only hope I didn’t wear my welcome too thin. If these two are any indication of the type of team Tom has assembled at Craft (and in my experience, they are), it’s no wonder awards and positive responses follow where Craft goes.

Second… I want to thank Tom. I can’t tell you how impressed I have been with the way many participants have treated me when I’ve conducted interviews for this site. They share their time, they share their stories and experiences, and every person you see listed for these columns has been a genuinely terrific person to meet and work with. Just great people. Tom went beyond all of that. By the end of our conversation, he was asking me questions about some of my interests. He gave careful and thoughtful consideration to every topic I brought up or comment I made. And, you could tell he wasn’t censoring himself with his answers. He treated me as if we had known each other for years, with a respect and trust that I’ve been fortunate to feel before, but not at this level of comfort. I appreciate his time, and even in our limited contact to date, I can tell you that I value his friendship. I definitely hope to have the opportunity to work with him and his team again in the future.

And third… this interview was conducted as season four of Top Chef was preparing to air its finale in June of 2008. As I post this article, season five is running on Bravo. These great new episodes hadn’t even been filmed when we spoke. As such, I have tried to update some material and post notations of events that have transpired since our conversation.

Ok… let’s get to the interview… and you might want to get a beverage and a snack, because it’s going to last longer than seven questions.

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Terms like “reinvent” seem to get associated with your cooking quite often. I don’t know that I agree, thinking stripped back might be a better starting point when it comes to a description. It’s almost more of a focus on quality, flavors and combinations instead of too much frosting and not enough cake.

Overall that’s probably correct. Certainly I don’t think of it as reinventing anything. And I’m definitely not inventing.

Craft is the result of a natural progression for me that comes from looking back at more than 20-years of work, and continuing what we were doing at Gramercy Tavern. I think you get more confidence in yourself as you get older and realize you don’t have to overwhelm people with complex efforts. For me, it started showing up primarily in seasonal dishes we were working on, where every time we revisited a dish we found that we were usually taking away an ingredient from the preparation and rarely adding.

Everyone at the time was talking about simplicity as a concept, but really no one was doing it. And from that we arrived at Craft – more about craft, about technique and preparation, and less about art. This is especially true in our presentation.

For lack of a better way of saying it, do you think any of that comes from being self-taught? I know you credit some of the books of Jacques Pepin in your development.

You’re right in that I wasn’t formerly trained, and I never really had a mentor. I’m glad to say that over the years I’ve gotten to know Jacques and he’s a good friend, but even La Technique and La Méthode, for me at least, it was about learning how to organize my thoughts and my approach. And over the years, that has also influenced my cooking methods and how to teach.

It’s very much like learning to play the guitar. At first you learn some chords, and that moves along into playing some songs. If you keep after it, you start to really learn music and technique. And while you may be playing the guitar early on, when you learn the technique you learn how to make music.

The whole progression is the foundation that we used when putting together Think Like a Chef.

Could this development have something to do with why you seem to so strongly focus on quality instead of degree of difficulty?


Here’s a good story about that. Years ago I was at Gramercy Tavern. I’m a big believer in customer service and acknowledgement, so when we get a complaint we’ll investigate it and try to respond with a letter or a phone call.

One day a letter showed up from the husband of a woman that had been very excited to come to our restaurant. He described her as a good cook in her own right, and that the entire family and all of their friends enjoyed her efforts. But she hadn’t enjoyed her meal with us. So I gave her a call.

As we spoke, she said the problem wasn’t that the food was bad, but instead just seemed so ordinary. When I asked her to explain what she meant, she said the salmon surprised her because it tasted like salmon. She went on to say the lamb tasted like lamb. And the chocolate, well it was bitter.

I told her that I wished she hadn’t been disappointed, but I probably wasn’t going to be able to help her. She had just paid me three tremendous compliments. For the salmon, the lamb and the chocolate – I tend to like giving chocolate a less sweet and more natural taste, which is bitter – for them to taste like salmon, lamb and chocolate, well, that was my goal.

When we opened Craft, someone told me they had no idea that scallops could be so delicious. I loved hearing that. We purposely keep it simple, especially in the steakhouse. It creates a cleaner way of eating. And, to be honest, in order to pay for the best ingredients, the result is going to be higher prices. So why mask their amazing flavors and tastes when you are charging top dollar so people can experience them?

The truth is, we don’t live in a time when foods need to be drowned in seasonings. If you go back about 100 years, the conditions for food preservation were horrible. The meats weren’t just poor, in many cases they were bad. So the seasonings were being used to mask the flavors of poor food.

And honestly, to me, there is nothing better than a simply prepared, perfectly cooked, good piece of fish.

My sister lives in Australia, so occasionally I find myself looking at articles from their on-line newspapers. I won’t pretend to be able to convey the full story, but a few days ago I stumbled across an article about “culinary heretics” that talked about concepts like “back-to-front” cooking and using new techniques like advanced sous vide cooking. One quote I was really surprised to see, and considering your approach of using simple seasonings like salt and pepper I believe might surprise you as well, was one where a chef was quoted as saying he “(relied) less on salt and pepper now.” How do you feel about some of the newer approaches and styles being used to cook?

The truth is that sous vide cooking isn’t new at all. That frozen broccoli with cheese sauce in the plastic bag that you dropped into boiling water? Sous vide cooking. We didn’t have the equipment that kitchens have now, but years ago we were putting things into plastic bags and placing those into hot water to cook.

I’m not against some of the new stuff. There are alot of things that I like. What I can tell you though is that when you try to make something idiot-proof you usually take away the spontaneity. And I don’t know that the best dishes come from a lack of spontaneity.

The problem is that for many young chefs, this is the stuff they are learning, and it’s all they are learning. They know what to do, but haven’t figured out why they’re doing it.

Over in Spain there’s a chef named Ferran Adria. I think you could rightfully compare him to a Monet or a Picasso. Well, if you look at some of the later stuff Monet and Picasso did, and then look at their early stuff, you’re going to see that these guys could really paint. But learning all these new ways of doing things before you actually know how to cook – it doesn’t work.

That said, I certainly think there is a place for it. I absolutely love what some guys are doing. Chefs such as Grant Achatz and Wiley Dufresne are brilliant at what they do.

In fact, Grant is a perfect example of what I am talking about. One of his first exposures to working in a kitchen came at The French Laundry. That restaurant is out in Napa and run by Thomas Keller, and is one of the best in the country – if not in the world. And Tom is fairly traditional.

So Grant has alot of experience in traditional cooking methods, but that wasn’t where his true desires were at work. He just won another James Beard Award, and his restaurant, Alinea, is a tremendous restaurant.

I guess the easiest thing to say is that I truly believe there is a place for many of these approaches, even though some of them aren’t really new. The problem I have at times – for instance, the thing that keeps me on the fence about some of this molecular approach – is that it uses things like chemicals, and for years we’ve been trying to get the chemicals out of the food.

(This question, and other season-specific questions that follow, refers to the fourth season of Top Chef.) On a similar idea, as far as technique, in watching Top Chef this season I’ve been very impressed in how so many of the episodes have focused on important skills that really don’t get alot of attention. In particular the recent episode featuring the group butchering tomahawk chops comes to mind.

I liked that episode as well – “High Steaks” it was called. Butchering are skills that have served me well over the years. At our restaurants, we do our own butchering, and we encourage our cooks to learn it, since so many have no experience with it.

Does the notoriety that comes with something such as a successful show like Top Chef – or advertising that features your name and picture – add any pressure?

Sure, the TV show has added a level to it. When I see complaints, almost all of them have the words ‘I’m a big fan of Top Chef’ involved in some way. So the pressure is there.

It all started back at Mondrian, between 1988 and 1992. We won a three star rating from the New York Times and I was recognized by Food & Wine Magazine. And we brought that to Gramercy Tavern and into Craft, where we won Beard Awards.

But if you want to grow, you have to be willing to check your ego at the door. We really trust what Craft is about in technique and in presentation. And the staff at all of our places work very hard to deliver the best.

Most of our chefs have spent years with us, coming up through the ranks of our kitchens. We all share the same experiences, and we all have similar approaches. And if a person isn’t comfortable making a decision, I’m a big believer in creating an atmosphere where that person will be comfortable asking a question.

So sure – it’s nice to have my name there. But alot of people have worked very hard with me for more than a decade.

Ok… a really dumb thought… but I have to mention it. You have paintings of cows on the walls, and those cows have names.

(Laughing) Yeah, they’re great. An artist named Stephanie Jordan makes them, and she names each of the cows. Her sister worked with us here at Craft and she brought them to me one day. I really liked them.

(Note – This observation was made at a Craftsteak location. Stephanie has a web site of her own. You can check it out here.)

What do you think are good expectations for a guest… fair expectations… to have of a restaurant?

I have a really simple answer for this question, and it’s one that has stuck with me for several years.

After 9/11, I saw a lot of people with New York businesses being interviewed, and all of them were being asked some version of a “what are you doing differently since…” question. One of the people said they were really focusing on the customer now. And that just hit me as wrong. I mean – if that’s what you’re doing now – what were you doing before?

Alot of places use the maitre ‘d as a gatekeeper. We don’t. At Craft we try to never say no. There are times when you can’t accommodate the specific request, but is there something you can do to say no without saying no? We try to find out how long a person is visiting for, or if their plans allow for them to come back on a different night or for reservations at a different time.

Let’s move over to Top Chef for a few thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed this season. Two of the episodes – “Restaurant Wars” and “High Steaks” – were about as close to perfect as you may ever get. And also, the one about cooking for families with specific limitations – I believe it was called “Common Threads” – using low budgets and incorporating children, was great fun to watch. Can you give us a bit about these episodes and about Top Chef overall.

Well, to begin with, I sometimes wonder if people understand the filming schedule we use. I’ll get back to this in a second, but you have to understand that we shoot just about the entire season in no more than five weeks. It can be a real grind, even for those of us like Padma and myself that aren’t involved every day or in every shot.

I agree that the episode with the kids was fun, and it’s something we try to work in to each season in some way. It’s enjoyable to do, and I think this one really hit home. Another thing the kids do is allow all of us to act a bit differently. It really changed the kitchen having them involved. It’s great and it’s a lot of fun.

The steak challenge is one of my favorites. Often times the producers have an idea for a quickfire or an elimination challenge and they’ll ask us about it. When I heard how they wanted to approach this one, which had one chef assigned to appetizers and another assigned to entrees and so on, I didn’t like the idea. The way it played out was my version of the challenge, with each chef essentially conceptualizing a single appetizer and a single entrée. I thought that helped them relax a bit. And I loved working with them in the kitchen. We really don’t have that much contact with the contestants, and expediting that night really allowed me to see them work a bit differently than I usually do.

“Restaurant Wars” was a different type of episode for me, and I covered that on my blog. I wasn’t there for that show, so I saw all of the events for the first time just like our viewers did. And based on what I saw, I expected Lisa to be sent home. The way it was edited, the way Dale seemed to have one poor dish while Lisa had two, and the way Dale seemed involved in the one good dish produced by the team, it just all seemed to point to Lisa for me.

I’m thrilled that we have a loyal and passionate following, and that more viewers are tuning in to our show. The unfortunate thing is that it’s really hard to tell exactly what happened based on what the audience gets to see. Each episode takes at least two days to shoot. The producers edit the show to create a sense of balance and suspense. You don’t want people to tune in, know who’s going home in ten seconds, and change the channel.

In the first round of the finals, it seemed like there was a close decision to be made between Lisa and Antonia. It really wasn’t. If you could have tasted the food, you would have sent Antonia home too.

I also recall that in that episode, you mentioned the lines at the tables.

Exactly. Richard and Stephanie had people going back for more. Lisa had a few people heading to her table. There wasn’t anyone returning to Antonia’s. So I understand many of the comments I see and hear, but it’s all about the food, and Antonia was gone.

And let me say something else. We don’t care who wins.

I know a lot of people think we have favorites or want to work the ratings. And many people mention that disclaimer in the credits. The disclaimer is there for legal reasons. That’s it. Bravo and Magical Elves, the company that produces the show, want to have a successful show that people are watching. But they don’t step in and they let us make our decisions.

The funny thing is, we really couldn’t make decisions based on ratings if we wanted to. The bulk of the show is shot well before the ratings are in, before the first show of the season even airs.

I understand that some people would like a bit of history to be considered from one show to the next, but the guest judges don’t know the past of the contestants. And often the big mistakes that are made on any day are big enough that saying you are only as good as your last dish is very fair.

I’m very aware that Lisa is not one of the favorites for our audience. But for her, and any of the other contestants, we don’t know that while we are recording the show. We’re not even allowed to talk to them during the competition. Padma will walk in during the quickfire, announce the elimination challenge, and she’s done. I walk in during the walk-through and make some evaluations, but I’m in and out right away. We actually have staff to keep the judges and the contestants separated so we aren’t in contact. If one of them tries to approach us, they get sent away. So all of that other stuff you see worked into each week’s show is usually material we are completely unaware of.

Do you find yourself traveling more because of the show or the multiple restaurant locations? Has it pulled you out of the kitchen? I’ve seen other times when a celebrity chef says that the celebrity part virtually ended the chef part.

(Laughing) You know, I actually hate that phrase. You don’t say “celebrity baseball player” or “celebrity actor” so it just doesn’t make sense to me.

It’s strange that you ask the question that way though, because I’m always a bit shocked that so many people seem surprised that I am still working in my restaurants as often as I am.

Because of the way the show is set up, it really only takes about twenty-five days to shoot the full season. I’m there to do the walk-through, for the elimination challenge and the judge’s table. And a lot of that can be time consuming for the day those things take place. But quite often, I’m not involved on the day a quickfire is shot at all. So I can sneak back to New York or fit in other commitments even during the season. I think I said before, it can be a grind. But it also can be productive.

For the most part I try to set up trips to the west coast over weekends. If I’m heading out to Los Angeles, I’ll probably stop in Las Vegas too. Overall though, I spend three weeks every month in New York City.

Most of my traveling for extended periods of time ends up being for openings. I do spend a lot of time in the restaurants, especially when we are approaching an opening day. If anything, the show and the restaurants and other things has meant that I’ve become a bit more selective about requests on my time. I find I’m saying no a lot more than I used to.

One thing to keep in mind about the show is that I don’t own it. I enjoy it, and it works for me. But it’s not like I’m getting paid what the cast of The Sopranos was earning.

We’re even working on a new project for New York right now. It’s a private dining concept that will have me cooking once or twice a month for a group. If you want to know the dirty little secret about cooking, it’s that chefs don’t cook. The chef runs the kitchen. So it’s our dishes being made and our recipes being used, but it seldom is the chef actually cooking. This project has me pretty excited.

(Note: The special project he is referring to has begun… it’s called Tom: Tuesday Dinner.)

This next question may seem a bit strange, but the funny thing is, I just don’t have an answer. I’ve given it alot of thought, and talked with a few friends about it, and we all tried to answer it and – finally, I just decided it was worth asking. Why so little chicken?

You know, for the guests I think a lot of it has to do with the perception – right or wrong – that most chicken dishes are something they could make for themselves at home. It is true that chicken is one of the most commonly used items when people do cook at home. And when you go out, typically you’re looking for something you wouldn’t make for yourself.

It’s also not perceived to have a high value. When you mention shrimp or lobster, the name of it alone is more impressive than chicken.

In fact, take an item like foie gras. Now there’s something that most people consider an elitist ingredient. Foie gras gets a lot of attention when groups start protesting about the treatment of the animals. Its very name just attracts attention.

I guarantee you that if you saw the conditions that most chickens are raised in, you wouldn’t have to think twice, you wouldn’t eat chicken. And that’s true of the chicken coops at most of the major companies producing chicken products these days. I won’t buy it from them, and I won’t use it from them.

But again, chicken is a common item, and it isn’t an elite item, so those protests don’t get much coverage. Instead, foie gras, which is produced in a manner far more humane than the conditions these chickens are exposed to, has lawmakers and protest groups in an uproar. It’s crazy.

We get our chickens from two sources. One is a place called Four Story Hill Farm. Chickens are naturally lactose intolerant, but they have figured out a way to feed baby chickens milk by soaking it in bread. It’s terrific.

So there you go – a lot of different stuff from it – it wasn’t a silly question at all.

What kind of ingredients do you like to work with?

Mushrooms would be one. Beets – I like beets a lot. Shellfish are great to work with. And a roasted piece of beef can be fantastic.

You know, I also just love cooking fish.

It’s funny, because I’m a fisherman. I love cooking fish, and I own a boat. So of course, when people recognize me, the conversation goes something like “you’re that meat guy.”

When I was younger, the shows on television featured Graham Kerr and Julia Child, and a handful of others. It certainly seems like there are significantly more names that people know today, with a higher level of awareness for the industry – even beyond the attention being a guest on Top Chef or a different network might offer. Agree?

Sort of. I think your intent is fair. There is certainly a lot more general awareness these days. But understand, Julia wasn’t a chef. Julia was a wonderful lady and a tremendous personality. She was brilliant. I knew her and have a lot of respect for her. But the term chef means boss, not best cook.

In fact, lots of the people you see on cooking shows these days aren’t chefs, and some aren’t really even cooks. They’re personalities. And I have no problem with that overall. They raise awareness and as long as they aren’t pretending to be something they’re not, it’s fine with me.

The first real chef to step out from behind the stove was Paul Bocuse. And over the years I think the reason so many more of us have done it – the reason you see the raised awareness about so many specific chefs today – is because these days there’s a desire to know the person behind the dish.

It’s almost like what James Lipton has done with Inside the Actors Studio. He presents people in a way that we don’t normally get to see them, just being the person they are. And the audience wants that information. In this case, they like knowing about the people preparing their food.

Years ago, if you had asked, I would have immediately told you I had no desire to look into television. Then about six or seven years ago, the Craft brand began to consider reaching out beyond New York. I still can recall in season one of Top Chef we were getting feedback like “Who’s Colicchio?” and comments about how they had never seen me on the Food Network.

There are some tremendous chefs out there that many people may never find out about. One that immediately comes to mind is Marc Vetri in Philadelphia. He’s an amazing chef and I love his work. And he’s proof that just because you aren’t on television doesn’t mean you aren’t talented.

Emeril has been one of the most successful chefs around for the past ten years or so. He works incredibly hard. What a lot of people don’t remember is that Emeril’s first show wasn’t very good.

The thing is, if you want to grow, you have to be willing to check your ego at the door. There’s a part of it I like and I part of it I don’t. In all honesty, I’d rather be known for my cooking.

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I want to thank Tom Colicchio for his time and consideration, and for participating in this offering. It was an absolute pleasure meeting him and conducting this interview.

Tom continues to be very busy with several projects. You can use the links here to head directly to the Craft web site anbd the Top Chef page at Bravo. But don’t stop with these. Check out several projects Tom has been involved with over the years.

Tom at Craft

Top Chef at Bravo

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at