If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you know that Tom Colicchio—lead judge of the show for 17-odd years now and a successful restaurateur in his own right—is kind of an intimidating guy. It’s not because he’s physically large or because he yells a lot (with all due respect to Robert Irvine, Gordon Ramsay, et. al.) it’s more because he’s clearly sharp, and maybe a little withholding. Every season, contestants make a parlor game of trying to decipher Colicchio’s subtle reactions and leading questions before he’s ready to deliver his verdict at Judge’s Table.
He’s like that in person too. It’s not just the weight of having watched Colicchio act as the arbiter of acceptable flavors for the past 20 seasons (though that surely has an effect), it’s also that he’s every bit the skeptical New Yorker (who, in classic NYC fashion, is actually from Jersey). When you ask Colicchio a question, he does basically the opposite of “yes and” (the old improv mantra), frowning a bit and inclined to disagree until you scramble to justify what you’ve just asked and why you’ve asked it. Once you have, he tends to brighten up and expound, making you feel not only relief but a sense of accomplishment. You reflexively want to please him, which immediately makes clear why he’s so good at his job.
Having covered Top Chef for the better part of the past decade, this wasn’t the first time I’d interviewed Colicchio, but it was the first time I’d done so in person. Feeling the scrutiny of those steely blue eyes and furrowed brow directed at you certainly hits differently than it does on TV or a Zoom call.
The event was a Top Chef dinner at Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in Century City. The plan was for the winning team from this season’s “Restaurant Wars” challenge to recreate their show menu. I sat down with Colicchio for a scheduled interview before the dinner, and afterwards dithered in the bar area drowning my insecurities in the caviar blinis they were serving as hors d’ouvres (I think I had about 15). I ended up being one of the last to sit down and quickly found signs that I hadn’t been the only one to find Colicchio slightly intimidating. The only open seat still left at my assigned table? Yep, right next to Tom.
In many ways, the dinner turned out to be more instructive (and less intense) than the one-on-one chat. Over the course of more natural conversation, Colicchio revealed some surprising insights — like that he loves FX’s The Bear and apparently “hated” Mark Mylod’s delicious foodie comedy-horror The Menu (“too broad”). And that he considers Top Chef season six, Las Vegas, to be the show’s “high-water mark” in terms of chef talent (hard to argue against, with competitors like the Voltaggio brothers, Jenn Carroll, and Kevin Gillespie).
As for clues to this season’s upcoming finale, all I can convey is what I saw. During a recreation of the winning Restaurant Wars dinner from episode nine, prepared by four chefs, three of whom are moving on to the finale in Paris (sorry, Amar Santana), Tom’s clear favorite seemed to be Kentuckian Sara Bradley’s take on “Cullen Skink.” Out of the corner of my eye I watched Colicchio polish off his plate of smoky, deconstructed seafood chowder in about 40 seconds. He was finished before Bradley had even introduced the dish to the room. With God as my witness, he even dragged his finger through a spare bit of sauce and licked it off. So maybe the presumed favorite, Buddha Lo, isn’t as much of a lock as most Top Chef watchers seem to think.
GQ: What’s it been like shooting in London for the new season? Has the food been any different, flavor-wise?
Tom Colicchio: No, I think the difference this season is that the chefs have all competed on Top Chef in their own countries. So there’s contestants from Poland, there’s contestants from Germany, Thailand, Brazil, France, Canada, America. Probably missing a few, but they did bring in their own culture and sensibilities. But nothing tastes so different.
Not even from having to shop at different places than they do normally on the show?
I mean, the food there is spectacular. I was living in Notting Hill and there was a store around the corner called Notting Hill Fish and Meat. Stuff there was extraordinary. Especially the cream and cheese and butter and meats and stuff. But no, wherever you go, there’s good food.
After 20 seasons of doing this, are there specific dishes that you still think about?
You know what? I’ll be honest with you. I forget them almost immediately. Like, right now, I couldn’t tell you what they’re making for Restaurant Wars. Anybody. And we shot in August, September, October. I don’t remember the dishes. The season is over.
From your years working in the kitchen, do you have a worst kitchen injury? Any kitchen scars?
Not personally mine. I’ve got some stuff, maybe a couple stitches in my finger once. Burns. But I’ve seen some pretty nasty ones. We had one woman on her last day of working for me—she’s such a good cook. She had two five-gallon buckets of hot stock coming out of the kettle. She decided to walk both of them downstairs to the walk-in and I guess one tipped and splashed and then she went the other way and they came the other way and she ended up with third-degree burns on her thighs. And then I saw another really gruesome accident where two of my sous chefs, their sous chefs’ office was a narrow office and there was a long desk on one side of the wall and one guy was walking in with a brand new blade for the food processor. There’s like three blades on it, brand new, super sharp. [Here Colicchio does a pantomime of what happened that’s impossible to convey in text]. Bad cuts, on his arms, his thighs… his legs were punctured—it’s a mess. I mean, it looked like someone got stabbed. In fact the police came, and the police officer pulled me aside and said “Who stabbed him?” Nobody stabbed him, I said. “Those are stab wounds. Was there a fight?”
I had to explain to him what happened and yeah, that was pretty nasty, but those are the two worst that I’ve seen.
Do you have a most demanding boss that stands out when you were coming up in your career?
Probably Thomas Keller. He and I worked together at a restaurant called Rakel in New York and he was tough. He was very demanding and very exact in his calling. He was tough in a good sense of the word. There wasn’t a whole lot of yelling and screaming and carrying on, but it’s very managed. Like, if something wasn’t done right, he’d let you know.
Do you still have nightmares about any dishes that are just a pain in the ass every time?
Well, yes, there are dishes that I’ve done myself or I’ve done as a cook that are pain-in-the-ass dishes, but the real artistry in what we do isn’t the recipes. Anyone can go buy the French Laundry cookbook and master some of those dishes. The real difficulty is taking those dishes and putting them into a kitchen, night after night, to recreate for 100 to 200 people. How do you set up the kitchen? How do you prep so that everyone’s in a position where they can thrive? How do you set up the stations? How do you expedite? That’s all the real artistry.
So I’m trying to think of the latest restaurant scandal. Like there was the Horses restaurant thing that happened this week–
Yeah, I heard about that. I still don’t know what happened there. I heard something about some cat got… the guy killed a cat?
There are some different versions of it floating around, but as a restaurant investor yourself, how do you protect yourself from stuff like that? It seems like every third person in the restaurant industry ends up in some sort of scandal.
You say investor, I invest in my own restaurants.
Right. Well, you still have to hire general managers and chefs and…
Oh, yeah, of course. You’re asking me how I do it? Start with culture. You have a certain culture in the restaurant, and you have to keep your eye on it. If something is brought to your attention, it’s an HR issue. You need to quickly investigate it and take action. You can’t let it sit. It doesn’t matter who it is, you have to act quickly and you have to let the staff know that your words have meanings. You can’t tell your staff that you’re going to act one way and if something happens you don’t do anything; then they know you’re full of shit. So, to me, it’s about setting that culture up from the beginning, and everyone that comes into that restaurant, they’re going to know what that culture is. I’ve had employees that have been with me for 21 years. Here at Craft, we’re open 22 years, I have three employees that have been there from day one, not including myself.
So hire well and stick with them?
Hire well, but also it starts at the top. When the whole Me Too thing in restaurants started happening, I sat with my staff and I said, “You’ll never have to worry about whether I cornered someone in the walk-in, that I touched someone inappropriately—I can tell you right now it’s never happened.” So, you know, you hold yourself to very high standards.
Do you think the restaurant industry learned anything from COVID? Do you think it changed coming out of that?
It’s hard to say. I suspect that a lot of things that restaurateurs and chefs had to do to deal with the pandemic, they’re already starting to go by the wayside because you get busy. So that little side hustle’s gone, box dinners gone, a lot of to-go stuff, forget it, we’re not doing it anymore. So that much hasn’t changed. But I think our industry was starting to change before that. There was a lot of talk already about equity in the workplace. There was a lot of talk about the paychecks hadn’t changed. I think when the pandemic came, the big change was that… and again, I think this was happening in the labor market anyway – that pay scale changed, for one. Which was fun. And I think because of inflation, we’re able to charge more. And so even though we’re paying more per hour for labor, and we’re probably paying more for food, we’re also able to, at least in high-end restaurants there is a little more price elasticity. So we were able to price a little more freely. I think with mom and pop restaurants it’s tougher because they don’t have that elasticity in pricing. So, I think there’s a lot more that we’ve learned that had nothing to do with the restaurants.