Crafty fellow: ‘Top Chef’ co-host hits Dallas

Posted on 08 Jul 2010 at 1:57pm

Craft chef and reality star Tom Colicchio makes a rare Dallas visit — and toys with his bear fans

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

‘Top Chef’ judge Tom Colicchio
BEAR BAIT | Just the presence of ‘Top Chef’ judge Tom Colicchio in town sent local reservations at Craft soaring, but he says Dallas’ kitchen is the best at staying true to his vision of simple but exceptional food. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Lots of great chefs get their first culinary experience in inauspicious settings. Stephan Pyles trained at his family’s West Texas truck stop. Rick Bayless learned in an Oklahoma barbecue joint.

For Tom Colicchio, it a snack bar in Elizabeth, N.J.

“My parents belonged to a swim club,” he says from the cushiony bar in the lobby of the W Victory Hotel Downtown. “I got to go to work in shorts, no shoes, no shirt. It was the best job I ever had.” He eventually moved up to Burger King.

And then finally, he became Tom Colicchio. Which makes him possibly America’s most famous chef.

He knows why, of course: Television. Colicchio is the co-host and senior judge on Top Chef, the hit Bravo reality competition series that puts lesser-known cooks through the paces to discover the best young chef in the country. He’s also the creator of Top Chef Masters, which pits Colicchio’s friends and colleagues against each other for charity … and bragging rights.

“I was very hesitant to do TV. I said no three times before I said yes. But I think we are making quality television.”

Still, while TV has brought him (more) fame and (more) money, it’s not something he’d necessarily want on his gravestone.

“I spend maybe 20 days a season working on the show,” he says, slightly flustered. “And I don’t do the Top Chef tours. No one ever prints that.”
But neither can he ignore that the recognition associated with celebrity has brought him sincere if unusual attention. Short, shaved-headed and stockily built, Colicchio has been a sex object to gay men, especially in the bear community, almost since the show first aired. It’s a role the straight chef accepts with humor and grace.

“I was on Andy Cohen’s show on Bravo [Watch What Happens, which films in Los Angeles] and said I was mad at the bear community:  The gay Pride parade was going on, and no one had asked me to be on a float,” he says. The show was soon flooded with calls, including the editor of Bear’s Life magazine. The end result? Colicchio is already booked to ride on a bear float in next year’s L.A. Pride parade.

It was just over seven years ago that Colicchio sold Gramercy Tavern, his acclaimed New York bistro, and started a new concept — Craft, which uses as much local, sustainable and organic small-production food as possible in simple yet flavorful preparations. Its success — there are now eight in the chain — brought him his second wave of fame; TV just added to it.

Colicchio was in Dallas (coincidentally) on the third anniversary of the opening of Craft Dallas inside the W, cooking alongside his on-site exec chef, Jeff Harris. It’s a rare experience for him, but one he relishes.

“All my chefs know that 50 percent of their job is quality control — getting best ingredients,” he says. And the Dallas branch is as good as any in his fleet at staying true to the concept.

“The biggest challenge is getting the chefs to keep it simple — they always want to push it. And I’m always saying, ‘Pull it back! Pull it back!’ Jeff is good at that.”

It’s not always easy keeping things in check. Colicchio is dedicated to sourcing his food from smaller, family-owned farms, though he balks at insisting on the term “local.” “If you’re truly local, you wouldn’t have any lemons or tea,” he says. “How far do you take it?” But it’s his resistance to go for corporate farming is what keeps prices high at his restaurant.

“The food we use is expensive — I’m not charging to rip people off. That’s the real price of food,” he says, when it’s not subsidized.

Organic, farm fresh food is a passion for him. And that’s a long way from flipping burgers poolside.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 9, 2010.

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