The Tastemakers: Tom Colicchio
Welcome to The Tastemakers, a series in which we chat with the most talented, connected and influential people in the world of food and drink.
Tom Colicchio's first job in food came when he was 12 years old: working the snack bar at his parents' swim club. "I was hired to scoop ice cream and run the cash register," he says. "But in a few weeks, I was doing all of the cooking."
Following his dad's advice to pursue his passion for food and become a chef, Colicchio started working in restaurants right out of high school. Now Colicchio has a few restaurants of his own. After unveiling Gramercy Tavern with then-partner Danny Meyer in 1994, Colicchio went on to open Craft, Craftsteak, Colicchio & Sons and others in New York and Las Vegas.
The James Beard Award-winning chef is also known for his impressive stay as the head judge on Top Chef, which he has been involved with since the show's first season in 2006. And in whatever spare time he has, Colicchio is also active in food policy.
We chatted with Colicchio about the dishes he loves to cook, the projects he has in the works and the memories he's formed on Top Chef.
What's the most exciting thing you've worked on in the last year?
"For starters, we opened a restaurant in Miami in April, and we're in the process of opening another restaurant in Manhattan, so that's all very exciting. And then on the policy side, in terms of Food Policy Action, we just produced our fourth Scorecard, and we just keep growing. Organizing 50 chefs to go down and lobby Congress on school lunches was a really big deal.
And, of course, every day just dealing with a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old is always an adventure."
Which dish that's currently on one of your menus are you most proud of?
"It has to be the crab and sea urchin ragoût with limoncello butter at Colicchio & Sons. It's a dish I started over 20 years ago, and it's probably the only dish that I've been doing for that long and that I still put on the menu because it's still relevant and feels of the moment."
How do you feel that the New York restaurant scene has changed since you got your start?
"It's really saturated now, of course. Now you're seeing young chefs who don't want to raise millions of dollars to open a restaurant in Manhattan [instead] taking chances and doing things in the outer boroughs, so that's changed a lot since I started in NYC about 30 years ago. And it doesn't have to be fine dining anymore either. It's much more open and democratic; everything is up for grabs.
When I started working in New York, personal computers had just kind of started as well. Now I think it's really hard to do anything original. If something is happening halfway around the world, you hear about it immediately through the internet and social media. Trends move very, very fast. They used to travel much more slowly, and if you wanted to see what people were doing, you had to go to France or Spain or Italy to experience it. Now you can see it online right away, and that can be kind of bothersome to me.
It's also impossible to find cooks today. It used to be that if you wanted to be a chef, you worked in New York, L.A., SF, maybe Chicago 30 years ago. But now, there are great restaurants everywhere, so you don't have to come to New York and pay New York rent, living six to an apartment to be a cook. You can do it anywhere."
What's your go-to meal when you're cooking for your family at home?
"In the winter, it's chicken soup. For me, that means a whole chicken in the pressure cooker for 20 minutes, and then carrots, onion, celery, leek, parsnip, thyme. Five minutes in the pressure cooker, done. So that's a go-to. In the summer, it's really whatever's coming out of the garden."
Who are a few people you really admire in the food industry?
"People like Marc Vetri and Paul Kahan, Bill Telepan and Michel Nischan. They're working chefs, but they still find time to give back in a really grassroots way. Paul Kahan has a project in Chicago called Pilot Light, where he works in schools to teach children about food, Marc Vetri implemented family style lunches in the Philadelphia schools and Bill Telepan is working for wellness in schools as well. I really admire them, because I know how much work that is. What I do is more on a policy level, getting in front of Congress to protect or enact certain laws, but these guys are really doing a lot of grassroots work, and I admire that. They're very busy running restaurants, but they still find the time to give back."
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Which dish or ingredient are you tired of seeing on restaurant menus?
What have been some of your most memorable moments on Top Chef?
"The Vegas season, I think, had the most talent and was also when we won an Emmy. It was interesting, because you submit individual episodes for Emmys, and the one that won was the most cheffy of all the episodes. They cooked in Joël Robuchon's restaurant, and there were a bunch of French chefs sitting around. We all loved it, but the producers all thought it was boring as hell, but, of course, that was what won.
The fun stuff is hanging out with the crew after we're done shooting, and a lot of us play music, so we'll get together and play and hang out. It's like summer camp for us. We see these people once a year for five weeks, so you hang out for five weeks and then you're off. That's what's fun about it. That, and the fact that I get to see a lot of up-and-coming talent. I would say it's really one of the only reality competition shows where people are coming out and doing some major things."
What advice would you give to young chefs who are just getting their start?
"Don't follow the trends; just do your own thing. Figure out what's personal to you."
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