Tom Colicchio, "America's Top Chef" and owner of Craft Restaurants, has been cooking for as long as he can remember. He was introduced to the culinary world through fishing with his grandfather when he was only 4.
"It was my job to come home — I had to clean the fish," Colicchio said. "So, I learned to filet fish when I was about 4 years old. And then we would just cook all afternoon and eat that night, and it would last all night long.
"So, something as simple as going out for day fishing turned into a feast. I didn't know any other way, that's just the way I was raised, and I kind of expect that from everybody."
Colicchio said being in an Italian family, food was always "central" in their household. His mother cooked dinner and they sat down together as a family to eat every night.
"It was a way of her expressing love and it was clear that it was so important to her to have a meal on the table and have us all sitting together," Colicchio said of his mother. "And I think that really also transfers into what I do today — ultimately, we're here to make people happy, and that I got from my mom."
It was fitting, then, that Colicchio sought out careers throughout his life that centered around food. In fact, his first job was as a snack bar cook at 13 years old.
He worked his way up from scooping ice cream, to working the cash register, finally to manning the grill. The work was under the table and physically exhausting, but Colicchio loved every minute of it.
"It was the best job I ever had," Colicchio said. "I found out how much I really enjoyed it. Not only did I enjoy it but I enjoyed the physical aspect of it, sort of working the griddle and sort of timing everything and getting everything down — it was a blast, it was a lot of fun."
When Colicchio was 15, his father suggested that he should become a chef. "It's probably one of the few times I listened to him," he said.
Colicchio's father had been a corrections officer in a county jail, and before that, a barber. Colicchio said his father wasn't passionate about either career, something that stuck with him.
"I think he really just hated what he did," Colicchio said. "There was no passion behind it, and he was a passionate guy, but clearly didn't bring it to his job. Somewhere, we just knew that that was really something you really needed to do to be successful, to have that drive."
Colicchio decided to heed the advice of his father and planned to attend culinary school, working for two different restaurants right after high school in order to be accepted into one.
He worked at Chestnut Tavern, a "red sauce" Italian restaurant in his hometown of Elizabeth, N.J., and then moved on to a Hilton Hotel restaurant. His experiences there taught him new skills, but also showed him that he still had a lot to learn.
"I knew that I needed to go back and learn," Colicchio said. "I would try to do a recipe and it didn't work out, so I knew that somewhere I was missing out on a technique, or something."
Colicchio taught himself many techniques by reading Jacque Pepin's book "La Technique and La Method." The techniques he learned in that book helped give him the ability and confidence to stray from the recipes.
"Technique is so important," said Colicchio. "I realized it wasn't so much about the recipe, it was about technique, and once you learned technique, you really didn't need recipes anymore."