Neighbor: Tom Colicchio, Chef

Tom Colicchio
Tom Colicchio, Photo: ZagatBuzz (Flickr Commons)

“Major chef” only begins to describe a man who has received FIVE James Beard awards. But if Tom Colicchio—who has just opened the Topping Rose Inn in Bridgehampton, a huge love letter to the East End’s tradition, and recent resurgence, of small farms—ever gets tired of being a celebrity chef, he might have a new career ahead of him as
an EMT.

At a party in Washington, D.C. Colicchio performed the Heimlich maneuver on a choking Joan Nathan, who is also, coincidentally, in the food biz. Colicchio saw cookbook author Nathan’s distress, came to her rescue, and then returned to the conversation he had been having with other guests. The judge of Bravo’s “Top Chef” just took the event in stride, although he was pretty jazzed about receiving a letter from Dr. Heimlich afterwards.

Unflappable and fearless seems to be Colicchio’s personal style, and it works. He has received five James Beard Foundation Medals for his accomplishments in cooking.

He founded the Craft and Colicchio and Sons restaurants. After 9/11, Colicchio, along with others in the restaurant business, went to Ground Zero to serve food to rescue workers. He boxes to stay in shape and he isn’t afraid to throw a punch or take one. He’s made cameo appearances on “The Simpsons” and HBO’s acclaimed series “Treme”. He’s even got film creds, having cameo’d in “The Smurfs.” There isn’t much that Colicchio doesn’t take in stride, including the recent opening of the Topping Rose Inn.

Most people wouldn’t open a restaurant in the Hamptons after Labor Day, but Colicchio shrugs and remarks, “We opened as soon as we could.” The off-season opening won’t deter dedicated foodies who have been eagerly awaiting Colicchio’s first foray into the frenzied Hamptons restaurant scene. The restored 1842 Judge Abraham Topping Rose House, a Greek Revival mansion that had a previous incarnation as the Bull’s Head Inn, is a “jewel-box” of a restaurant with an intimate 50 seats and a one-acre vegetable garden to help fulfill Colicchio’s mandate of farm-to-table dining. To go along with the restaurant, Colicchio and partners Bill Campbell and Simon Critchell are planning to open an inn with 22 guest rooms and a spa in 2013. It’s a crowning achievement for the Jersey-born Colicchio.

With blue-collar roots in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Colicchio grew up in an Italian-American household, watching his mother and grandmother cook. His mother managed a school cafeteria, but it was actually his father, a correctional officer, who suggested Colicchio consider a career in food. It was definitely a father-knows-best moment.

At 15, Colicchio started out on his career path, taking a job as a short order cook in a snack bar at a swim club. The menu consisted of burgers, grilled cheese and fries, but it was a start that Colicchio remembers in an Esquire interview as “the best job I ever had.” His next step was the kitchen at Evelyn’s Seafood Restaurant, in his hometown. Then 18 years old, Colicchio, a self-taught chef who had read and re-read famed chef Jacques Pepin’s legendary tomes on French cooking, La Technique and La Methode, honed his skills prior to launching himself into the New York restaurant scene.

Colicchio worked at some of the finest New York had to offer—Mondrian, The Gotham Bar and Grill and the Quilted Giraffe, where he moved up the ranks to sous chef in just four months. With partner Danny Meyer, Colicchio opened the Gramercy Tavern in 1994. Hot doesn’t begin to describe the impact the restaurant had on the city food scene. Gramercy Tavern was good for Colicchio professionally and personally. His wife, Lori Silverbush, a filmmaker, was waiting tables at the restaurant. They fell in love and planned to marry. By now, Colicchio had opened Craft, just a block away from Gramercy Tavern. “I wanted to showcase the craftsmanship of cooking, not the artistry,” was Colicchio’s mantra for Craft. Just a year later the James Beard Foundation named Craft the Best New Restaurant of the year. Colicchio was on a roll.

He and Silverbush had planned their wedding for September 15, 2001, but when they arrived at Martha’s Vineyard on the 11th, the couple learned of the attacks on New York and Washington. People Colicchio knew, former Gramercy Tavern employees who had been working at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center, were missing. Colicchio and Silverbush thought about cancelling the wedding, unable to contemplate celebrating in the face of tragedy, but friends urged them to go on with their plans as scheduled. After the wedding, they postponed their honeymoon and Colicchio returned to New York to cook for the rescue workers at Ground Zero.

Colicchio now has a whole family of Craft sibling restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and other locales. He also has a new mission in school lunch reform. Standing next to lawmakers and researchers, Colicchio, describing himself as “the son of a lunch lady,” testified before the House of Representatives urging them to mandate higher nutritional standards for school lunches. He also participated in The Great American Family Dinner Challenge—a cooking exhibition. Colicchio and Maria Hines competed against fellow James Beard award winners Mind Tsai and Holly Smith to create a sumptuous dinner on a food stamp budget in 30 minutes. Colicchio and Hines were victorious.

When he’s not running his restaurant empire, remaining as hands-on as possible, Colicchio stays involved with his three sons, one from a previous relationship and two with Silverbush. He also enjoys fishing and has a few favorite spots on the North Fork, where he owns
a home.

With the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton open for business, maybe Colicchio will find himself spending more time out East. Not only has he got a new restaurant and boutique hotel to contemplate, but the “Top Chef” judge has a private label underway with Lieb Cellars on the North Fork to bottle a Craft bubbly, “Craft by LIEB Cellars, Brut Blanc de Blancs.” This Blanc de Blancs was made using the French Methode Champenoise with 100% Pinot Blanc.

Even with the TV appearances, best-selling cookbooks, and successful restaurants, it seems Colicchio hasn’t changed that much from his Jersey boyhood. In a The New York Times interview, he remarked that his favorite cookbook is still Pepin’s La Methode; although he no longer has the copy he had when he was fifteen.

“I have a new one,” he said, “signed by Jacques Pepin.”

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