September 21, 2014

This Chef Demands Your Attention

There’s good reason why Top Chef contestants shake in their toques when chef judge Tom Colicchio critiques their dishes during the reality show challenges. Unlike other celebrity judges who fling insulting zingers for drama’s sake, Colicchio’s experience in running kitchens, creating new tastes and even new dining styles makes him a force to be reckoned with—and listened to.

The young chefs on Bravo’s Top Chef are critiqued and mentored by Colicchio, the co-founder of the highly acclaimed Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan. In 2001, he developed Craft, a new style of dining for New York where diners can mix and match their protein and side dishes. The concept took off, and Colicchio has expanded the Craft brand to Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas. He’s also got Craftsteak in Las Vegas and several more restaurants in the works around the country. Colicchio will be making a stop in Florida to prepare a Friday night dinner for Karen and Bob Scott during this month’s Naples Winter Wine Festival.

With dishes like roasted diver sea scallops with mortadella and spiced mallard duck with kumquat marmalade that he prepared at last year’s dinner at the Scotts’, Colicchio is known for his inventive blend of flavors and unparalleled craftsmanship. This all developed through years of studying French culinary techniques and incorporating his Italian family’s love for cooking. You put skill along with a chef’s personality and background, and that’s how you separate the good chefs from the great, he says.

"If you’re a thinking chef, it’s impossible not to put a piece of you in your food. It’s hard to deny it," Colicchio says. "What makes a chef special is when they’re really doing something that’s different."

Colicchio points to the recent fascination with food sciences as an example of how a French chef like Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 restaurant in New York produced something extraordinary by using chemicals to create things like fried mayonnaise.

"There was something in his personality that led him to do that. That food is about him and his personality," Colicchio says. "The chefs who are doing it have a real curiosity for the chemistry side of cooking and how far they can push an idea."

Another idea Colicchio lauds is the small plates trend. "From a diner’s perspective, I can’t sit down and have a big meal anymore," he says. "But I like the idea of sitting down and getting different flavors and seeing different things. I find if I get an entrée, I’m bored halfway through it, anyway."

Colicchio says season four of Top Chef recently wrapped, with all the drama and awe-inspiring ideas foodies and reality show junkies have come to expect.

"The idea of these reality shows where people eat bugs and do outrageous things—to me that’s not compelling at all," he says. "To watch real professionals in a competition to win something—I think that is interesting.

"I look at our show as two things: it’s a reality show, and it’s a game show," he says. "So to me, it’s a good combination."

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