'Nightline' Platelist: Tom Colicchio

Craft Restaurants owner Tom Colicchio lets the ingredients speak for themseves.

February 26, 2008, 4:54 PM

Feb. 26, 2008— -- 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."

Because of Pepin's teachings, Colicchio decided he didn't need to attend culinary school, and could learn on the job, instead. He spent his time working for different restaurants, experimenting with different foods and developing his own style.

"It's something I actually suggest to other chefs," said Colicchio. "You know, finding your own style is probably the most important thing because you know you can emulate a Thomas Keller or a Charlie Trotter or a Daniel whoever, but somewhere along the line, you have to find your own way, and you have to find your own style. "

Colicchio got his big break when he was 26 and working for the Mondrian, a $3 million restaurant in Manhattan. The head chef and owner of the restaurant decided he wanted to leave New York and left Colicchio in charge.

"So, I was 26 years old, running this $3 million restaurant in Manhattan, and got a three-star review," Colicchio recalled. "I think, at the time, I was the youngest chef to ever get a three-star review. And that was it — it put me on the culinary map."

From there, he continued to be successful, earning Best New Chef in Food & Wine magazine in 1991. At Mondrian, Colicchio also met fellow chef Danny Meyer and tried to convince him to start a new restaurant together.

"At first he said no," Colicchio said. "A week later, he called me back and said, 'well, we should talk.' And we took a trip to Italy together. ... We figured if we could travel together, we could work together."

And with that, the Gramercy Tavern was born — inspired by their trip to Italy. They wanted to create a place that was comfortable, gourmet, but not pretentious.

"We talked about having this place where the food was great and the service was fabulous and the hospitality was warm, but it was a place where you didn't have to get dressed up, a place that did everything right, but without pretense or errors."

The Gramercy Tavern was successful, and in 2005, ranked 15th in Restaurant Magazine UK's top 50 restaurants in the world. He opened Craft Restaurant in 2001, which received the James Beard Award for best new restaurant nationwide, in 2002. Craft did so well that Colicchio later created three spin-offs: Craft Steak, a steakhouse; Craft Bar, an informal sister restaurant; and Witchcraft, a sandwich restaurant.

Colicchio enjoys more simple style of cooking, which was the idea behind Craft Restaurant.

"It was stripped down, it was very elemental and really focused on the ingredients," Colicchio said of Craft. "I would say that my style really nowadays is about simplicity. It's about focusing on those ingredients, honoring those ingredients, and sort of staying out of their way, try not to mess them up, and let them speak for themselves."

His passion for simple, fresh, natural ingredients is unmatchable. Colicchio said, among his biggest influences, are the farmers who bring him those fresh ingredients.

"I think farmers are really the next rock stars of the industry," Colicchio said. "Whether it's you, just raising lamb or rabbits, or growing vegetables, or fishermen who are going out there one day at a time, and bringing fish back, it's just impeccably fresh."

Colicchio said food is all about "sustenance" and "getting in touch with nature," which is why, he explained, mushrooms are one of his favorite things to eat and cook.

"It's the closest thing you can get to eating dirt, it really is," Colicchio said of mushrooms. "It has that earthy dirt quality to it, it smells like, in the spring, when you dig your hands into the earth and you smell it, that's like mushrooms. To me, it's really a way to connect you to the Earth."

While Colicchio is able to describe an earthy, dirty mushroom as if it were gold, he cannot fully verbalize how important food is to him.

"It's so hard to sort of put into words what food means because I've had a long love affair with it, and had no mistresses so far."

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