COLICCHIO THE CRAFTSMAN MAKES A MIAMI DEBUT
Up close and personal with celebrity Top Chef Tom Colicchio
By Dale King, Julia Hebert and Robin Jay
Chef extraordinaire Tom Colicchio has spent three-plus decades creating delicious dishes for faithful foodies at dining spots along America’s East Coast and in France. He’s frequently seen on food-related TV shows, including his own, Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where he’s served as a judge since 2006. His reputation for purveying tempting delicacies, from wasabi pizza to beluga caviar and everything in between, certainly precedes him.
But perhaps his funkiest epicurean involvement occurred in a 2011 episode of “The Simpsons.” In a dream, Marge Simpson is a contestant on “Master Chef: Extreme Snack Edition.” Voicing his own animated character, Colicchio judges her concoction of a peanut butter cracker a winner, especially given “the added touch of a slice of apple.”
Honing His Craft
In real life, Colicchio caters both to foodies and wordies. One might call him “crafty” for inserting the word “craft” into the names of many of his dining spots: Craft, in New York and L.A.; Craftsteak in the MGM Grand, Las Vegas; Beachcraft in Miami and ‘wichcraft,’ a sandwich shop at various sites.
“Craft” is less a stylistic name, more an “ingredient-driven cuisine,” said the multitalented chef. “What I started focusing on were simple ingredients; the idea that when peas are first in season and they’re fresh shucked and sweet as sugar, I want a bowl of that. I don’t want a few scattered around a pasta dish, I want a bowl of those peas. That became the idea for Craft.”
His wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, came up with “’wichcraft” as the name for a sandwich place. Colicchio opened his first in New York, around the corner from the award-winning Craft location.
“Beachcraft in Miami,” said Colicchio, “is a little different. Design-wise, it’s much lighter than anything we’ve done. You can tell the pedigree if you look at some of our other restaurants, but it’s definitely lighter.” Calling it “a bit of a mash-up,” he explained: “For the last couple of years, spending some time in Mexico and in Asia, it’s kind of hard not to have bits and pieces of these experiences creep into your creative process.”
“We did another restaurant at the Mirage in Las Vegas called Heritage Steak, one where cooking is done over wood. There’s no gas at all, it’s all wood, so there’s a good flavor of smoke. The food is also a little spicier than anything I’ve done before,” Colicchio said.
Colicchio’s Domestic Side
A family man with a wife, three children and a vast vegetable garden at home, Colicchio’s name is practically a household word, as are his gourmet skills that have won him eight James Beard Awards since 2000: Best Chef in New York for Gramercy Tavern; Outstanding Service in New York at Gramercy; for his book, “Think Like a Chef”; Best Restaurant, for Craft; award for Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America; Best New Restaurant; Best Special or Documentary and Best TV Program, the last in 2011. But Colicchio likes to keep it low-key at home. “One day my son came home from school and asked, ‘Dad, are you famous?’ I shook my head…no, son, only to you,” he said with a smile.
Colicchio developed a love of cooking early and jumped into the culinary trade in his late teens. He remembers “kind of messing around” in the kitchen of his Elizabeth, N.J. home at age 13, “making pancakes and things like that. I just had an interest in food; it was something that fascinated me.”
He found it difficult to follow recipes until his father “brought home the book, ‘La Technique,’ from Jacques Pepin. The whole premise was to teach technique and methods as opposed to recipes that I had struggled with. It was a road map for me.”
The cook-in-the-making worked at several eateries “before I landed a job at The Quilted Giraffe” in New York. He quickly moved up to sous chef there, then left for France. “It was almost like going to graduate school.” He recalls working with influential chef Michael Bras in Laguiole during the second of two overseas journeys.
A Mover & A Shaker
Still a 20-something, Colicchio was on the move again. He came back to the U.S. to work at Mondrian for four years until it closed. “Then, I opened Gramercy Tavern with partner Danny Meyer. We visited Italy together and figured if we can travel together and get along, we can probably open a restaurant together.” They sketched out a plan “on the back of a napkin.”
The top chef has sandwiched restaurant ownership with producing TV shows and writing three cookbooks. He just opened the luxury Fowler & Wells restaurant in a restored 19th century building next to the Beekman Hotel in New York.
Throughout his career, he has endeavored to deliver great dining experiences. “That’s where it gets difficult; that’s what the average person doesn’t see. You have to create a culture in the restaurant that is focused on excellence.
“If you go to our offices in New York, you’ll see a big red sign that says, ‘Make people happy.’ That’s what our restaurants are all about. We do that in many different ways. One is with great food.”
When visiting Miami Beach, brunch Colicchio style at Beachcraft. With wicked-good smoked meats, charcuterie, fresh fish and bottomless cocktails served with an ocean view, it simply doesn’t get any better than that.