Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio – the man behind the massive reality hit Top Chef and co-owner of the Craft restaurant empire – isn’t much different from his TV persona. When I spoke to him, he discussed both his personal and public life in the same straightforward, fast-talking way he interacts with contestants on his show. But his no-nonsense New York personality softens when he talks about his three loves outside of the kitchen – wife, Lori and his two sons, Dante, sixteen, and Luka, who was born last August. No doubt about it, Tom is a family-first, food-second kind of guy, though he makes it clear he’s very serious about both. Luckily, he took a few minutes out his very busy day – he was hosting a dinner party that night – to share his thoughts on bland kid’s menus, what chefs really eat, and how to handle a screaming baby in a restaurant. – Andrea Zimmerman
Congrats on the new addition to the family. How’s it going so far? Are you exhausted yet?
No, it’s actually fine. He’s ten weeks old now so we sleep a little longer. My wife [Lori Silverbush] and I decided to tag team with feedings. My feeling is you can go one night without sleep but two nights is too hard so we’re trying to break it up a bit.
Have you taken him out to a restaurant yet?
Sure. We were in Napa Valley the other day so we took him to [Thomas Keller’s] Ad Hoc. I feel like before your baby turns one you can take them pretty much anywhere and they’ll just go to sleep but after that, put them away for a couple years.
I used to be a waitress and we had some loud screaming babies in the middle of our restaurant.
My feeling is if the baby is loud and screaming, you’ve gotta leave. If something’s going on and you can’t get him quiet, just pick him and leave. Say, “Sorry, I gotta go.”
Do you let your kids order from the kid’s menu?
No, kids should order off the menu. I think they’re better off ordering appetizers. Some kids are picky eaters but I think a lot of it has to do with parents saying, “Oh, you won’t like that. You don’t want to eat that.” Why? You don’t know what they like until they try it.
How would a parent go about exposing their child to new foods so they don’t end up with a kid who wants to eat mac and cheese every day?
From a very early age, I think it’s a good idea to open them up to new flavors, new foods and different ethnic cuisines. Traveling is always great. But again, I think a lot of the problem is that kids eat like their parents and their parents aren’t trying. I remember giving my kid oysters and saying, “Here, try it. It’s not going to bother you.” But when they get to school, his classmates go, “Oh my god, you eat that? That’s horrible.”
So leading by example.
Right. My son’s mother, she doesn’t use mustard. Hates it. So my son hates mustard. Chefs are notoriously bad eaters. Are you kidding me? I eat steak and cheeseburgers.
You’re talking about Dante, who’s sixteen. At that age, I thought my parents were the most uncool people ever. But he can’t possibly think that – you’re a judge on Top Chef!
Yeah, he was pretty easy until the baby came home and all of a sudden, he was like, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing!” All of a sudden he became a teenager. But no, I think he still likes hanging out with us.
Was he excited about becoming an older brother?
Oh yeah. He was actually in the delivery room at the very end – he wasn’t at the business end of things. And he took a little video, which was pretty cool.
Did he get the cooking genes?
No, not so much the cooking the end of it. He’s into food, he loves eating. He likes going out to dinner – he gets that from both his mom and me. We have him try everything. If he doesn’t like it, that’s fine, but he can’t not eat it just because it’s green. He does help me every now and then but it’s not something that he’s passionate for. He’s really into photography.
When did your interest in cooking start?
When I was thirteen. I loved food. Food was always very important. I would go fishing with my grandfather at a very young age and it was my job to clean the fish. For some reason I was interested in not just eating but also the process of it, and at thirteen I realized I was pretty good at it. I never thought [food] was a mystery. I was never afraid to cook. You put something in a pan, you change it, you look at it and you figure it out. It’s not that difficult.
Could you have ever seen yourself with someone who just had no interest in food?
It would make things difficult.
So your wife’s into cooking, I presume?
Oh yeah. We both cook. There are times when she cooks and there are times that I do. Usually at home it’s very simple. The other night, I literally had a bunch of vegetables that were starting to turn in the refrigerator so I cut them all into thin slices. Butternut squash, leeks, green beans, shallots, turnips and a little bit of garlic. And I had this little tiny pasta. I started with a little bit of bacon I cut really fine, then added the vegetables and kept cooking it really slowly, adding some chicken until it was almost like a soup. Then I put the pasta in and finished it with a good amount of basil. And that was it. That was dinner. That’s the kind of stuff we eat at home. Pretty simple. If I’m doing a dinner party, a simple roast or braised meat or something. Nothing fancy. I certainly don’t do restaurant dishes at all.
I think your TV audience likes to assume you’re having gourmet meals every night.
Chinese, sometimes we’ll order pizza. Chefs are notoriously bad eaters. It’s this mystique that we go out and have gourmet meals every night. Are you kidding me? I eat steak and cheeseburgers.
You make it look so easy doing all these things – judging Top Chef, running your Craft restaurants, being a Dad – where do you get the time?
How much time do you think I spend on Top Chef versus my regular stuff? I like to see how people view what I do.
Maybe thirty percent?
I’ve never hired anybody who was on the show because I don’t want anybody to get the idea that there’s favoritism. Top Chef takes one month to shoot. That’s the whole season. And I work every other day when we’re shooting, so I spend about twenty days doing the whole season. It’s a tiny part of my life. But the assumption is that I spend the majority of my time on the show and I’m not a cook anymore. Today, I came home early because we’re hosting a dinner party, but other than that I’m in the restaurant.
So when you’re not doing Top Chef, what’s an average day for you?
An average day if I’m home in New York is usually wake up around seven, hang out with my wife until 10:30, then go to the gym. Then after the gym I’m in my office from noon to around five, then in the kitchen for a few hours, then either doing something at night that’s work-related. I’m usually out from about 10:30 to midnight every night. Occasionally, I’m home. So the question of how I do it all? I have a great staff. I have great people. I have a great assistant. My wife is obviously very accommodating, but she has a career herself. I have great people in the restaurant. And the show is not nearly as difficult as it appears to be.
And you’re happy?
Oh yeah. I enjoy doing the show for reasons that probably aren’t so apparent. I end up meeting a lot of talented chefs I normally wouldn’t meet. I don’t know if I’d meet the guy who has a restaurant in Maryland, but I meet him on the show and realize the guy’s very talented. So that’s great.
Do you keep in touch with former contestants?
I stayed close with Harold [Dieterle] from Season 1 because he works in New York and we have a lot of mutual friends. In fact, he goes fishing with me. I’ve also kept in touch with Tiffani [Faison] from Season 1 who I thought was really talented – every now and then we’ll exchange e-mails and I’ll occasionally run into her at an event. Sam [Talbot] from Season 2; he lives in New York and we have a lot of mutual friends so I’ll occasionally see him out. If I’m traveling, it’s to where I have a restaurant. It’s business. If [a former contestant] pops in, we’ll have a beer or something. But I try not to. I’ve never hired anybody who was on the show because I don’t want anybody to get the idea that there’s favoritism. I try to keep that very separate from my workplace.
We hear there’s a Top Chef Desserts premiering in September.
It’s called Just Desserts. It’s in Top Chef format so it’s eight pastry chefs living in a house and competing with elimination once a week.
Are you attached to it?
I think so. I may make an on-air appearance but I’m not going to have a prime judge’s role on that show. Just like Masters I wouldn’t do it because the [contestants] are all friends of mine. They’re my peers. I can’t judge them. A young chef that’s up and coming, fine, but I’m not gonna judge Jonathan Waxman. I’ve known the guy forever. I couldn’t do that to him.
Hungry yet? Check out all the delish recipes in Tom’s book, ‘Wichcraft.