Tom Colicchio has been a head judge on Top Chef for 11 years now, delivering some of our favorite, most devastatingly bitchy food disses along the way. Choice words like “did Snooki serve this?” and “I love chamomile, but I couldn’t taste it.”
Of course, the reason the show works, and the reason we’re still watching, is that while some of the disses may be bitchy, they’re rarely unfair. You can tell Colicchio isn’t there solely to stir up drama, or even to try to make himself into a big TV star. His criticisms are about the food, and the guy knows his stuff. Having worked in restaurants since he was a teenager, he’s a five-time James Beard Award winner, a veteran of New York’s acclaimed Gramercy Tavern, and current honcho of his Craft Restaurant group. Perhaps more important than all that (to a viewer, anyway) is that in a food show landscape littered with shticky screamers like Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine (or God forbid, Jon Taffer), Colicchio proves that louder isn’t better. And in fact he does more with a well placed smirk or eye roll than Ramsay does with a hundred plates smashed against walls.
Having hosted Best New Restaurant for Bravo and been named a food correspondent for MSNBC (a role which never panned out), he’ll be back for at least a few more seasons of Top Chef. One aspect of Colicchio’s career that receives less attention, however, is his advocacy work, which the New York Times called “arguably unmatched in both stridency and scope.”
He’s been working with food banks for years, as well as lobbying congress over school lunches and helping to promote a legislative scorecard tracking how congresspeople vote on food-related issues. We got the chance to speak with Colicchio over the phone recently as he was promoting America’s Better Sandwich Contest, for which Oroweat, will donate a loaf of bread for every submission. We tried to cover as much ground as we could in 15 minutes, and Colicchio obliged by being, as ever, pithy and succinct.
[Note: this interview took place a few days before Colicchio’s “racially-tinged restaurant name” controversy hit the news, which is why we never asked about it]
So, tell me about the sandwich contest.
So, I teamed up with Arnold, Oroweat and Brownberry and the contest is America’s Better Sandwich Contest. The really cool thing about this is, the contest is you submit your favorite sandwich recipe, and if you win you can win $25,000, but more importantly is Oroweat, Arnold and Brownberry, for every submission, they’re donating a loaf of bread to Feeding America. Feeding America is America’s leading anti-hunger organization. They support food pantries across the country and so, not only, if you win, can you put some bread in your pocket but you could really help to put some bread on to families’ tables that are really struggling.
Very cool. Going to general questions, do you have a first food memory?
Oh, God. A first food memory. Man, that’s a tough one. There are so many. A first one? I used to go fishing at a very young age with my grandfather and every morning, before we’d go fishing, early in the morning, he’d wake up and he would make eggs and peppers. He would fry peppers and onions and then, almost like a frittata, crack eggs in it. That smell, waking up in the morning is one of the first things I remember. I mean, I started going out with him when I was three or four years and I remember that smell. And to this day, if I go out fishing in the morning, I try to make eggs and peppers. In fact, I went out just yesterday. It was my birthday and we went out and I made that dish. But that was one of the first food memories that I can remember, yeah.
Where did you guys fish?
Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.
Speaking of Jersey, I know you’re an Italian-American from Jersey and I’ve heard you bash people on Top Chef for making “Jersey red sauce,” and I think last season you asked someone, “Did Snooki serve this?” Can you tell me about your relationship with New Jersey Italian food?
No, I love it, I think I bashed it because it wasn’t a very good version of it. That’s something I know really well. But everyone has their own family recipe and so, for me, I grew up by my mom’s gravy, as we call it, and it holds a special place and so, I think that was the point that I was giving someone a hard time for giving me red sauce and the fact that I’m from New Jersey. So, I wasn’t bashing New Jersey red sauce. I grew up on it, it’s in my veins.
When you make gravy, [tomato] paste or no paste?
I don’t use it, I don’t use paste. My mother did, I don’t use it, no.
I know you never went to culinary school, do you have strong feelings one way or another about the value of culinary school?
I think education’s important, no matter what school you go to. If you want a career in the culinary arts, I think you need to sort of understand where you want to go. If you want to go to small restaurants, I think the best thing to do is work in restaurants for a couple of years before you go to school. It’s expensive to go to school, you’re paying back student loans, and I think it’s a decision the individual needs to make. I hire kids who have gone to culinary school, kids who didn’t go to culinary school. I don’t really have a preference to either one but I really think you should work in a few restaurants before you make that choice.
Yeah. I mean, sometimes people find out, they work in restaurants after culinary school and they don’t like working in restaurants. I mean, the great thing is that there’s a lot of different career choices you can make if you want to be in food, especially nowadays. There’s a lot of different ways to go. So, I think you should just make sure you like working in restaurants first.
How has the world changed now that you can see what people in Spain or Japan or something are cooking online, without physically being there?
Yeah, you know, that’s a great question. And I’ve talked about this in the past. It used to be, if you wanted to see someone’s food, you’d have to get on a plane. So, I used to go to France every year or Italy every year, I’ve taken trips to Japan, just to really sort of understand what people are doing. Nowadays, with the click of a mouse, you can see someone’s dishes. And so, I think what that does is trends move around the world very quickly. All of a sudden you’ll see a different way of plating food and you’ll see it somewhere and within a week you’ll see it in 10, 20, 30, 40 restaurants.
And so, I think what it does, in a way, is … You know, chefs, you’re not seeing this personal style from chefs. You’re seeing a lot of … And people aren’t taking dishes whole cost from a chef, but there’s just a lot of borrowing that’s going on right now and I think the better chefs really distinguish themselves because they do their own thing, they don’t try to imitate or try to copy and so, again, it’s okay to get out there and see what’s going on, but ultimately, I think if you’re going to be a great chef you’ve got to find your own way and make your own statement.
Right. And speaking on those trends, you as a restaurateur, how much at the mercy of other trends do you feel like you are? Like, what’s the balance between expanding peoples’ palates and having to meet their expectations?
I don’t feel any pressure to follow trends. In fact, I try to really stay away from them, but I think you’re picking on something that is really is important. You should always be attuned to what your customers’ wants and needs are, I think that’s really important. Now, if they’re following trends, then that’s fine, but I think that if you’re going to be a successful restaurateur, successful chef, you need customers. And so, my feeling is that your goal, or at least the goal we have in our restaurants are, is making people happy. And so, if we can do that by providing them something that they want that’s different, new and exciting, great, but yet, if they want something that is basic and approachable, we should be able to that as well.
Is there anything you felt like you had to put on a menu that you were really reluctant to, now or in the past?
Yeah, I’m laughing now, because Craft, we just opened for lunch about a year ago and everyone insists that you have to have a burger on a lunch menu. And I really didn’t want to do it, but I caved in and I did it. I don’t have anything against burgers, but I don’t think you should … As a customer, I don’t think you should expect that every restaurant that you go to there should be a burger.
I mean Le Bernardin is a great seafood restaurant here in New York. I don’t think you’d go there expecting a burger.
Right. So, Top Chef, along with a few other things that I watch, feels like it’s sort of on the cutting edge of making food culture mainstream, and usually that’s a good thing. But have you ever had any customer or fan interactions where you think “Oh, God, we’ve created a monster.”
Oh. All the time. You know, it usually happens if I’m out to dinner and you’re sitting next to a table and you overhear a conversation and I hear them parroting the stuff that I say on the show. It’s like like, oh God, when they’re like “Oh, the amuse-bouche just isn’t really up to speed.” It’s like, really? Come on.
But you know what? It is great. Food has become part of popular culture, in this country and I think around the world. On one hand, it’s kind of funny to see what we’ve created but on the other hand it is really great. And I think what’s really great about it is young kids, now, are really in to food. And that’s good, because part and parcel of being into food is being into nutrition. And if you can get kids into nutritious food at a young age, you get them interested in food at a young age, that will carry through the rest of their life. And so that’s what I’m most proud of on the show, is the amount of young kids we have managed to bring into food culture.
In fact, Top Chef, we just shot a Top Chef Junior. I wasn’t involved in the production, but that’s really neat. So, yeah, you’re right, it has become part of popular culture for good or bad.
Was that something that you’d pushed back on in the past?
Oh, no. Actually, I wanted to do it a long time ago because I kept running in to kids who just love the show and there’s certain complications when you’re working with children, there’s certain rules and regulations. They have to have tutors on the set, they can only work six hours at a time. And so, looking at our production, we’re working 16 hour days. And so, it definitely limits how quickly you can get a show up and running. I think the other shows that were on network, where they spent a little more money in the production, they were able to bring kids in a little easier, but we finally managed to figure it out.
Right. So, on Top Chef, you guys, there’s a … You get the chefs that are winning awards and being honored for certain things, and I always wondered, like, I got 15 restaurants on my street and I haven’t been to half of them. When they’re doing those awards, how do they get a realistic cross-section, I guess?
We have great casting agents and what we do is we cast in probably 8 to 10 different cities and a lot of it is interview process. We’re looking to cast for diversity, for both racial diversity, we’re looking for equal amounts of men and women but you also have to have some serious chops. So, for the most part, we only bring in executive chefs or chef de cuisines, maybe a senior sous chef level. So, obviously, that’s important. But we know, we try to be inclusive and I think that’s also part of our success. The show is interesting. The show is fun, but there’s also serious food as well. So, I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.
As a restaurateur, how do you feel about Yelp reviews?
I think they’re fine. When you look at Yelp, or if you look at any of the other crowd-sourced review sites, you’re not looking at individual reviews. If you respond to individual reviews, you’ll make yourself nuts. You have to look at trends and you have to look at trend lines. And so, if I’m noticing over the course of a week, I’m getting a lot of complaints about salty food, for instance, then I know I have a problem. But then in the course of an evening service, there’s four to six cooks working around a stove, right?
So, now I’ve got to figure out where’s the problem? If someone’s complaining about fish being salty, then I need to go to that fish cook. And so, again, you’re looking at trend lines and not just individual reviews. So, I think, there it’s helpful. But you know, I’ve read reviews on Yelp of restaurants that aren’t even open yet, so. You kind of have to look at the big picture.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite restaurant trends, right now?
Hard to say. I don’t get out that often. I’m actually going out tonight, for dinner, but I don’t get out that often. I think … I’ll say what I like, instead of what I don’t like. I like, right now, that you’re seeing restaurants that are much more focused. You’re seeing menus that are shrinking down, you’re seeing six appetizers, six entrees, and that’s it. And so I think the chefs are realizing that, number one, there’s better economics doing fewer things, I think that you can be specialists and you can be known for doing a certain thing. You don’t have to be known for doing everything. Not everything needs to be what I call the Gap of foods. You don’t have to have something for everyone. I think you need to find your niche and really stick to that. I think right now the marketplace, as you mentioned, 15 restaurants on your block, there’s this over-saturation of restaurants and I think you need to stand out and a way to stand out is to be specialized and not to try to be a generalist.
On that note, are there things that you don’t order when you eat out because you think you can, you know, you’re like “I can cook this better at home.”
No, I probably can’t cook it better at home. No, no, I’m looking at the ingredients that sound different. Every now and then you’ll find a combination of things that you’ve never thought of. Even just this past season, we just shot our 15th season of Top Chef in the spring and someone put together a dish with sour cherries and lovage. Lovage is an herb that kind of tastes like celery and I thought that combination was amazing, I’d never had it before. And so, for me, on the menu, I’m looking for different combinations of things that are different and unique.
Or, quite frankly, what I’m really in the mood to eat. That’s what it comes down to. I’m looking at a menu and it’s like “Am I in the mood for something really challenging or do I want something very simple tonight?” Do I want … I always will come out, for some reason, I always like game birds, so I’m looking at that. Not the season for game birds right now, I think it’s a good season for fish right now, especially local fish. So, it all depends.
What I don’t want to see right now, I certainly don’t want to walk in to a restaurant right now and find butternut squash. I’m looking for something that’s seasonal.
Are there things that you love that you’d want to put on a menu but don’t because it’s too hard to get right or because the economics of it just work out?
No, I don’t think so. We have upscale restaurants and so you can charge what you need to charge for food. There are some things that are challenging in terms of putting food out during a busy service. And for instance, doing something like a fish stew, where you have shellfish and maybe shrimp and lobster and thin fish, all those little things that have to be cooked differently, at different times, so they cook properly, that’s hard to pull off. So, I always keep that in mind, how busy the service is going to be. We may do that just during the week and, on weekends, maybe take it off the menu.
Right, and when you’re judging Top Chef, do you sort of judge by degree of difficulty like that, in addition to just how good it tastes?
No, we’re just looking at how the food tastes. We’re looking at how food tastes, how it’s seasoned, if it’s cooked properly, what the intention of the chef is, and then, does it adhere to the actual challenge, and that’s really it.