Tom Colicchio’s Manhattan restaurant Craft opened 15 years ago this summer, just a few months before the Twin Towers fell.
Its brand of stripped-back ingredient-centric fine dining seemed radical at the time. But as the world unraveled that fall, its homey comfort cooking allowed for a form of collective healing through family-style nourishment. It was the right restaurant at the right time.
Over the years its influence has spread wide and far. A who’s who of talented chefs has passed through Craft’s kitchen. The now-ubiquitous side dishes and shared middle courses originated there, as did the pared-down fine-dining aesthetic now found in dining rooms across the country—including the restaurant’s signature bare wooden tables, artful placemats and dangling Edison bulbs.
And it is no small feat for a New York restaurant to turn 15, when most establishments in the five boroughs are lucky to hold on for even a year or two.
I talked to Colicchio and key members of his opening team about the restaurant’s beginnings and its major milestone.
Tom Colicchio, chef and TV personality, owner of eight restaurants across the country
On the initial concept:
“I knew I wanted to do a second restaurant and knew it wasn’t going to happen with Danny [Meyer]. I was still an owner and the chef at Gramercy Tavern when the space around the corner became available. At the time, so much was being talked about buying from farms, about sustainable fish. It was all about sourcing and simplifying. I said, let’s really simplify this. So if we’re going to roast a piece of fish, roast it with fresh herbs, drizzle it with olive oil—is that enough? Can we get away with that? Not that we were pulling something over on people, but if we’re going to that extreme will people like it? The answer was yes. To do roasted scallops and have someone say, ‘Wow I never knew scallops tasted like this.’ You’re eating stuff that’s sauced and garnished you forget what food tastes like. That’s what we were focused on—what’s the essence of this particular ingredient, the best way to get flavor out of it?”
On the restaurant’s design:
“The name came about because I really believed this style of cooking is more about the craftsmanship and less about the artistry. The design of the restaurant followed from that. I wanted to see how things were put together. I wanted to see the filaments in the lightbulbs, to see the weld in the wine cabinet. We wanted to limit the amount of ingredients we used in the design, the textures—there’s leather, steel, wood—and to do as few painted surfaces as possible. We had these beautiful cherry wood tables and I wanted people to see them, not to cover them. Those Chilewich placemats, we were the first ones to use them. Katie Grieco [former general manager] saw them in the Museum of Modern Art store.”
Marco Canora, opening head chef at Craft, chef/owner Hearth and Terroir in New York, broth evangelist
On sourcing the ingredients:
“In the early stages, it wasn’t about dishes, it was about products—about finding poulards from Four Story Hill Farms in Vermont. It was new territory at the time, letting the procurement of the item be the thing rather than the artistry of the chef. The maitake mushrooms, the hen-of-the- woods [mushrooms]. At the time, they weren’t everywhere. D’Artagnan started importing them from Japan and we got hold of them and were all super excited. That simple dish of roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom was kind of a big deal back then. It was all about technique and execution, not about look how creative I can be. We stepped away from that. We were getting tremendous Belon oysters from Maine, beautiful live sea scallops, dover sole. It was all about procurement.”
On the choose-your-own-adventure menu:
“We loved this notion of giving the guest the reins to customize their meal. The idea was you couldn’t mess it up—it all worked. You could have scallops with a side of zucchini or a side of Swiss chard, it really didn’t matter. But early on, when we opened, we also had condiments and sauces as a category on the menu. What an ill-conceived notion that was. On top of the big picture decisions we gave guests the option of adding a Bordelaise or a béarnaise sauce or a simple jus, and then there were the condiments—we had preserved lemon, salsa verde, minced roasted peppers. It was a nightmare. The tickets that came into the kitchen were really long, impossible to expedite. We gave that up after a week, I think.”
Jonathan Benno, opening sous chef at Craft, head chef at Lincoln Ristorante in New York
On the restaurant’s opening team:
“We all worked together at Gramercy Tavern while Tom was there, so it was a pretty tight group that knew how to cook well and how to work together. That’s one of the hardest things when you open a restaurant and start to build a team—there’s no rhythm. It takes time to build that. That was the first thing we had going for us. We were all friends and respected Marco and Tom and had worked together in a great kitchen.”
On carrying on the Gramercy Tavern tradition:
“All the things we’re tired of hearing about today—farm-to-table and nose-to-tail—they were all happening at Gramercy Tavern 20 years ago and certainly continued to happen at Craft. Tom was shopping at the greenmarket, sourcing seafood from local fishermen, breaking down whole animals. Working with great ingredients, respecting ingredients, serving them simply: These are the things Tom talked about when we opened Craft. As a cook it was really exciting to be able to source a great piece of beef and focus on cooking it really, really well and not have to worry about timing it with 11 other things that go on the plate.”
Damon Wise, former head chef at Craft (after Marco Canora), chef/owner of Scarecrow, Feathertop Kitchen and Wise-Buck Smoked Meats, all in Charleston, South Carolina
On landing a job at Craft:
“I was just back from a year and a half in Paris and thought I wanted to work in a French kitchen in New York, for Daniel [Boulud] or someone like that. I was standing on the corner in Union Square and Tom walked by. He was like, ‘What are you doing here? I’m getting ready to open this restaurant. I’ve got a job for you.’ Tom was like that. I didn’t really have any money—I’d spent it all in France—so I took the job at Craft. I wasn’t planning on being there for a long time. I ended up spending 12 years working with Tom.”
On absorbing the lessons of Craft:
“Tom is a very mature cook. When he was on the line, the way he cooked, things were kind of spare but so technical and involved at the same time. Looking back on the original Craft menus, you can see it. And now that I’m getting older I appreciate that style more, making the ingredients sing, don’t overdo it. When I was younger, I always wanted to push the envelope. Now I want to take care of the guest, keep it simple, but make it interesting. That’s full circle what I’ve taken from Craft.”
Akhtar Nawab, member of the opening team at Craft, former head chef at Craftbar, chef/owner Choza Taqueria and Indie Fresh, consulting chef at Table in Washington, D.C.
On understanding the establishment’s concept:
“Having spent time in Italy, I understood what it meant to have a good piece of fish well prepared with nothing on it. But it didn’t really translate to what people were doing here, or how customers wanted to eat, I thought. I was wrong, obviously. A lot of other chefs drank the Kool-Aid and copied it pretty much verbatim. BLT jumped on the concept pretty early on. And we started seeing those Chilewich placemats all over that no one had ever used before.”
On cooking at Craft:
“We got this massive order of copperware from Paris to serve our food in, which was kind of different. And everything was really simple. Polenta was just polenta with thyme leaves and cracked pepper and olive oil. Our job was to find the best polenta we could and cook it properly and serve it right. There was very little margin for error. Seasoning of food became critical. Skate wing, for example, has a natural salinity, it doesn’t require as much salt as halibut. You have to know that. You couldn’t work there if you weren’t a good cook.”