Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio: Cooking Rules
The celebrity chef dishes on the challenges of the New York restaurant scene, why he doesn’t use recipes, and the problem with microgreens.
Some chefs are strict about measuring ingredients, others not so much. Which camp do you fall into? “No, no, no. I’m not a chef that measures. In fact, when I was young I most likely would have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and I couldn’t follow recipes. They would freak me out. And when I got Jacques Pépin’s La Technique it completely changed my life. I was 15, 16 years old when I got it. Because he stressed this idea where you just focus on technique and don’t worry about recipes. We hardly use recipes in my kitchen. I just teach technique.”
Do you have a big collection of cookbooks? “I only have a big collection of cookbooks because I get sent a lot. Some I buy. They are mostly in the office. I have some at home. I like cookbooks to just look at pictures. I don’t ever really use them to cook.”
Is there one thing that you bring back from your travels, like salt or hot sauce? “No, there’s nothing. I’m a chef. I love food. I love to cook. I’m not a foodie. You know what I’m saying?”
What’s the differentiation for you? “Working in restaurants you’re doing a certain kind of cooking and it’s more technical and it’s more about figuring out how to create a dish that you can put into a system, which you can replicate over and over again. Everything is being prepped for you and it all just comes together. When I’m home cooking, I do everything myself. And I love it. So, for me the experience is about being in it and actually cooking, it’s not about so much the culture that surrounds cooking or food.”
You love playing the guitar. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the music that plays when you’re eating or cooking? “I don’t. I’ve gotten lazy when it comes to music these days. I still play a lot but it’s usually Spotify or Pandora. So, for me, if I’m cooking I want music in the background but it just depends on what mood I’m in. But it doesn’t inform the food at all.”
A lot of restaurants are closing or have recently closed in New York, including your Craftbar and Colicchio & Sons. Do you think we’re seeing the end of a food era in the city? “Yes and no. The restaurants I’m closing, I’m closing because leases are up and I can’t see spending $60,000 a month on rent. From that standpoint, in Manhattan I think we’re not going to see young chefs [opening restaurants]. If you look right now, LA is really hot because of downtown. Why? Because rents are cheap. So, young chefs are just moving out there.”
Is there hope for the Big Apple? “In New York, you’ll see Queens start to happen. Brooklyn, I think has already happened. I think you’re going to start seeing second, third, fourth floor spaces open up for restaurants like in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Landlords are going to get smart and start marketing those spaces. As long as they renovate their lobbies and elevator to make that experience of going upstairs OK, I think that will work. But I think we’re going to see a slew of restaurants close.”
Because of rent increases? “There’s only so much you can charge people between labor and rent. In a couple year’s time, you’re not going to see an entrée under $40. It’s just not going to happen.”
Are chefs leaving New York for other markets? “Cooks have been hard to find for a while. But if you can go to Minneapolis and work in a good restaurant to learn why do you come to New York where the rents are too high?”
And I imagine you’re getting contestants on Top Chef from wider variety of cities. “Yes. And that’s what’s great about what’s going on right now in America because you can go anywhere and get great food. You can eat well all over.”
But the internet has, no doubt sped up the speed that food trends rocket around the country. “In New York, back in the ’80s I could look at a plate of food from Jean Georges, from Charlie Palmer, from Alfred Portale, from David Burke… I could tell you looking at the dish whose dish it was. They all had their own styles. Now everything looks the same. So, when I opened Fowler & Wells, I told the chef there, two things I don’t want to see: I don’t want to see a pureed vegetable swoosh and I don’t want to see microgreens. Gone. I just don’t want to see them. It’s a crutch. Let’s make sauces again that are sticky. Let’s plate the center of the plate, where it’s the garnish, the protein, the sauce. Done.”
I know some chefs break out in hives when they see people using tweezers in the kitchen. Do you? “We don’t use tweezers. I don’t break out in hives. We just don’t use them.”
The interview was conducted at SXSW where Tom Colicchio was on a panel called Are We Becoming Nutrient ‘Dense’?
Interview has been condensed and edited.