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 discussed what he cooked at the DuraTowel launch event, can food editors really cook, and a judge's view of some of "Top Chef's" more controversial eliminations.
In part two, Colicchio talks about the Top Chef Cruise, the surprising success of many "Top Chef" alumni, and whether he'll ever compete in "Top Chef Masters."
I wanted ask about the "Top Chef" cruise that's coming up. Can you tell us a little about that?
Well, you know Bravo and the production company got us the boat and I'm on the boat, Gail's on the boat, then some past contestants. Spike's on the boat, Jen Carroll is on the boat, several others. During the course of the trip, chefs will get together an do special menus in the restaurants, I think there are 5-6 restaurants on the boat. Then we'll do some Q&A about the show. I'll be doing a few cooking demonstrations. I'm trying to talk them into doing "Top Chef" Jeopardy to find the biggest fan because everyone comes up to me and says “I'm the biggest fan!” so let's find the biggest fan.
Where can they book for the cruise?
You can book by visiting www.topchefthecruise.com. It's going to be interesting!
You mentioned some of the chefs who have been on the cruise and that brings up a question. Has it surprised you that some of the chefs who have been most successful are runners up? Spike comes to mind. Fabio is doing well. And of course, Carla has really sprung up to major success on The View.
Dale Talde, who has three restaurants in Brooklyn now, is another. What many viewers don't take away is that these people are all professional chefs. Many of them have accomplished a lot before they ever get to "Top Chef" although they're not well known. The show just provides them with a platform. There's just one winner and on some seasons you can get numerous chefs that are really good. Even if they don't win, they're all talented. Depending on the season, you can go 5-6 deep of people who could win. Even if they don't, there's still plenty of talent there. I'm not surprised at all.
Someone recently gave me a number, one of the producers, that in the 10 years of Top Chef, chefs that won are responsible for 18 restaurants opening. Then you take into consideration the ones who didn't win and what they've done, it's pretty great to see. That's what really separates "Top Chef" from many shows you see. These people are professional chefs. This isn't a game show where you get famous for eating bugs. These are chefs who are talented and work hard. They aren't on the show just to be famous.
Did you have any idea when Harold won that first season that you guys would still be around 10 years later, doing a cruise, etc?
Not at all! If someone told me we'd be spoofed on "Saturday Night Live?" No! No! When we did the first season, we had no idea what we were doing so we kind of stumbled through it. We were very lucky we had a lot of talent who came out for the show. It was a lot easier doing the show because no one knew who we were so we could go out in the street and do stuff. That's harder now. I would have never guessed it would last 10 seasons. My own concern doing the show was if the industry would accept it, that we wouldn't end up as the joke of the industry. I knew right after the first season when people like Eric Ripert call and asked if they could be a guest judge on the show that we'd been accepted.
Do you feel like there's anything that the home chef can take away from a highly professional show like "Top Chef" to benefit their own cooking?
I think the big thing is organization. The chefs that do well in the challenges are the ones who keep their stations clean and well organized. Even if you're working fast, you can still work clean and organized. If you watch "Top Chef Masters", those are more experienced chefs and you don't see a lot of running around the kitchen. They are more focused and keeping things clean and neat. Even cooking at home, the difference between my wife cooking and me cooking is major. When my wife cooks the kitchen looks like a disaster. When I cook it's completely clean and organized and it doesn't look like anyone has been cooking in there. That's the big take away. It's easier to take a second to clean up as you go than just make a big mess and then you can't find anything.
Since you brought it up, is there any chance we'll ever see Tom Colicchio as a contestant on "Top Chef Masters?"
Absolutely not! -laughs- I'm an Executive Producer, so if I compete and I win, everyone says “it's rigged.” And if I lose, everyone says “well, who the hell is he to judge?” There's no percentage for me. That said, 15 years ago I would have probably said yes. I don't have much to prove right now. Honestly, I don't think I can do it anymore!
Note: Tom and the folks from Bounty were kind enough to give permission share the recipes for the dishes Tom cooked at the DuraTowel launch event. If you ever wanted to cook like a "Top Chef", here's your chance!
Braised Red Snapper
1 red bell pepper
1 pound red snapper filet (skin on)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
About ¼ cup lemon-rosemary vinaigrette (recipe below)
1 or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Char the pepper over an open-burner-flame, then place it in a sealed plastic container until cool
enough to handle. Gently scrape away the charred skin, discard the stem and seeds, and cut out
the veins. Cut the pepper into strips.
Peel and remove any pith from the lemon (discard the pith but reserve the peel for another purpose).
Divide the lemon into segments and set aside.
Dry the snapper filet thoroughly with paper towels, then cut it crosswise into 4 equal pieces. Salt
and pepper the fish. Heat the oil over medium heat in a medium skillet, add the fish, skin-side down, and cook it until the skin crisps, about 3 minutes. Remove the fish and wipe out the skillet.
Place the peppers and lemon segments in the skillet. Add enough vinaigrette to cover the bottom of the skillet (the vinaigrette should surround, not cover, the lemons and peppers). Nestle the fish,
skin-side up, among the peppers and lemons. Bring the vinaigrette to a simmer over medium heat and cook, basting the fish frequently, until it flakes easily, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Makes about ½ cup
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves picked and chopped
Zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, rosemary, lemon zest and salt and pepper in a small bowl.
Whisking constantly, gradually add the olive oil. Serve immediately.
Fennel Salad with Yogurt Vinaigrette
1 bulb of fennel, trimmed and cored
1 head endive
1 apple, cored
½ cup of sheeps milk yogurt*
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (mint, chive, cilantro, basil, parsley, etc.)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Juice of one lemon
With a mandolin, thinly slice the fennel, cucumber and radishes and add the watercress and endive.
For the vinaigrette, whisk together the yogurt, lemon, vinegar, soy sauce and cayenne and slowly
add the olive oil. Add chopped fresh herbs.
Toss the vegetables with the vinaigrette and serve.
*Plain or Greek yogurt can be used as substitutes
In the coming weeks, we'll be bringing you more interviews and features on top celebrity chefs, including an interview with Tom Colicchio's "Top Chef" judging partner Gail Simmons. Click subscribe at the top of the page to get all of these delivered right to your inbox.