While most readers know Chef Tom Colicchio as host of Bravo's “Top Chef" for the series' entire run, many don't know that Colicchio was already a sensation in the restaurant community before "Top Chef" hit the air. Co-founder of two world famous restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Craft, Colicchio is the recipient of five James Beard awards and is considered by many to be one of America's finest chefs. But he is also an engaging television personality, playing the role of the “tough love judge” beside the gentler Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons over the entire 10 season run of the show.
Today Colicchio has more pans on the fire than a Saturday night rush at Craft. In addition to his role as host for “Top Chef”, he also serves as main consulting producer for spin-off “Top Chef Masters”, has recently branched into acting with appearances on the HBO series “Treme” and Fox's long running “The Simpsons”, and is now signed on as a spokesman with Bounty Towels as part of that brand's new series of campaigns featuring celebrity chefs.
We spoke with Colicchio by phone to get his thoughts on his partnership with Bounty and everything "Top Chef" related. In part one of our two part interview, we discuss the Bounty promotional event, can food editors really cook, and a judge's view of some of Top Chef's more controversial eliminations.
Starting out, you've begun a new relationship with Bounty to promote their new DuraTowel product. What made you decide to take on this advertising relationship?
Well, to be honest, I've had a long relationship with Bounty but this is “official” so it's a different kind of relationship. The approached me with their new product, the DuraTowel, and part of your training as a chef is keeping things clean and tidy and we were taught that you use hand towels for everything except wiping our hands and wiping surfaces. So it really just becomes our normal towel with things that are hot, and everything is hot in a professional kitchen. But we were told never to wipe the counter with that. Also if you are constantly using a kitchen towel all day long, you're just spreading germs around. So for a long time we just used paper towels in the restaurant. So when Bounty said “we've got the DuraTowel a new paper towel that's more durable, can we send you some?” So I took a few rolls home and it works. It's more durable so I found myself using a little less and if I was wiping things up it didn't fall apart as quickly. It's a great product.
It sounds like they have you and fellow "Top Chef" judge Gail Simmons working together in several events and promotional appearances. Can you tell us about those?
We had an event in December which was kind of a sneak peek for chefs and editors for the DuraTowel. We had a bunch of editors there and some of them were cooking with us, they were encouraged to come up and cook with us. It was a big open cooking space so many of us went through our recipes and demonstrated our recipes. So some editors came up and helped and they were all eating the recipes and trying them out. I did the savory dishes and Gail cooked the sweet dishes.
One question I think anyone who watches the competition cooking shows always wonders when they see the editors and critics judging on "Top Chef" is are those editors and critics actually good cooks themselves?
Most of the people who judge on "Top Chef" are chefs. We've occasionally had people who are actors and what's surprising is that everyone who has come on to judge who isn't a professional is always a really big fan of the show and had the vocabulary with which to discuss food. An example was Charlize Theron who was on and who I have cooked with before and is actually pretty good. They definitely were able to add their voice to it. Also, like Padma may not be a professional chef, but she eats out a lot and while I'm the one who is criticizing the more technical side of things and understand the ins and outs of what the chefs are going through, Padma or some of the others who aren't professional chefs are looking at it from a consumer's point of view, which is valid. For me, as long as you have judges up there who are critiquing to try to get their idea across on what they want to see or what they thought about the food, it's great. If anyone is ever grandstanding or just saying things in a non-constructive way just to be heard, we usually shut that down quickly.
I know as a fan, some of my favorite episodes of "Top Chef" come where the chefs have to cook for children because they're usually just terrified.
Oh yeah! The children are brutally honest. But they're cooking for children but the children typically aren't judging just because they don't have the criteria we have for judging. One of my favorite episodes was when they had to cook for the kids who spent the night in the museum. That was bizarre. These kids were bouncing off the walls because they hadn't slept all night off the museum and it was interesting!
Going back to the event you did to preview Bounty DuraTowels. You said you were responsible for the savory dishes. What did you cook?
I did a braised red snapper. It's a very rich type of dish. It's in a rosemary vinaigrette. So it's lemon juice, lemon segments, rosemary, olive oil, and a little vinegar. I took the fish and seared it on the skin side and then finished it in the vinaigrette so you're cooking it very gently. Then that was served with roasted peppers and sauteed spinach. There was also a fennel salad. It was celery, fennel, endives, radicchio, radishes, and that was dressed in a lemon citrus yogurt dressing with lots of different herbs like chives, dill, thyme, parsley, the cilantro. And the vinaigrette had some cayenne pepper and soy sauce. It's a dish I just started doing recently.
That sounds really good! Speaking of you cooking dishes, for the first few seasons of “Top Chef” you just kind of stood back and did the judging but for the last couple of seasons they've let you step up and show your cooking skill on a couple of different challenges. I think the challenge last season where the chefs had to prepare a dish in the same amount of time you did opened a lot of eyes to your level of talent.
Yeah, people had been telling Bravo they wanted to see me cook. We could never figure out the context in which to do that. That Quickfire was really interesting. But I've been cooking for 30 years, I started when I was 15 years old. It's fun getting in there with the chefs. There's times I do things off the camera, like a while back there was a challenge with the chefs opening clams and they were all struggling. After the cameras stopped I went up there and said “guys, let me show you how to do this.” One of the first jobs I ever had was opening clams in a seafood restaurant so I'm pretty quick at it. But it wasn't really relevant to the challenge.
Also, the judges are not allowed to interact with the contestants at all during shooting unless it's on camera. Unless we're eating their food or at judges table or telling them the challenges. Off camera we're not allowed to talk to them. They're kept away from us. All that stuff behind the scenes, we're not privy to it, we don't see it, and we don't care about it. When people finish watching an episode people always say “didn't you see what was going on there?” and no, we haven't. We simply judge on the food. Nothing else.
That's interesting, so when you're Tweeting about it, you're seeing some of the house interactions when we do?
Well, I see it about two weeks before you see it. Although this past week I didn't get to watch the advance so I was seeing it for the first time live. But all those times things are going on behind the scenes, we don't see it. That's why, this current season when we eliminated Kristin we got a lot of flack because she's clearly the better chef than Josie. But we're judging on that individual dish. A good example is in 2007 the New England Patriots were 18-0 going into the Super Bowl against the Giants who were like 8-6 or something and The Giants beat them. You don't stop the game in the 3rd quarter and say “hang on. New England is the better team here, let's give it to them!” You play the game. We judge solely on that challenge. It's not a cumulative event. If that week your dish is the worst dish, you're going home.
So every week is a clean slate competition?
Exactly! There's a saying in our industry that “you're only as good as your last dish.” Also, it would be very difficult for a guest judge to come in and know what happened in the past. Also, keep in mind we don't have any lag time between episodes so it takes 5 weeks to shoot a whole season. We're just flying through it. Once people see how we judge, I think they come away with a different idea of what we're doing.
Click here for Part 2 of our Tom Colicchio interview, where he talks about the "Top Chef" Cruise, the surprise success of the "Top Chef" franchise, and questions about whether he will ever compete on "Top Chef Masters." Tom was also nice enough to share his recipes from the Bounty event and those will be available in Part 2 as well.