Back in 2005 when the producers of Top Chef came calling, Tom Colicchio turned them down, three times. Having opened Gramercy Tavern just as the Food Network launched into mainstream America, he recalled Mario Batali coming into Gramercy just after signing his first TV contract. Colicchio witnessed the rise of chefs as TV celebrities, and he simply didn't want to go there himself.
With a third call from Bravo, the tenacious producers sent someone to get a clip of Colicchio on a flip camera. After that followed a call inviting him to LA for a screen test. His response, "Absolutely not, I don't want to do this." But, Colicchio said, "I did send them a documentary about the opening of my restaurant Craft that got scrapped from Nightline."
The producers contacted Colicchio yet again, this time wanting to make him an offer. "They were so persistent, so I finally talked to them about what it was they were actually doing, because I never had before. Once I got an idea of the show, I realized it wasn't about me. I was being asked to be a judge and a mentor, so I decided to consider it."
Eleven seasons, and a great deal of exposure later, I asked Tom Colicchio how Top Chef has changed his life. He told me he didn't think it had changed who he is very much at all. "Yes, a lot of people recognize me. But you keep it all in perspective. I don't live an extravagant life style, I'm home most nights. You don't read about me on Page 6, you don't see me dancing on a bar in Vegas. I have two small kids and I get up at 5 in the morning with them, I can't stay out until 2 partying. It's just not me."
What is Tom Colicchio is one hard-working chef who got his start back in the day when there weren't any chefs on TV. His aspirations starting out were fulfilled in kitchens, with stages under both Alain Ducasse and Michel Bras in France. "I saw what Bras was doing. It was new and different and I wanted to be a part of it. He actually let me work next to him at the pass!" Colicchio was also sous chef under the acclaimed chef Thomas Keller.
Colicchio didn't think he would ever be on TV, or even publish a book for that matter (he's published four). Articulating his perspective on those times, he said that on television back then you only had Julia Child and similar personalities that followed in her footsteps. "They weren't chefs, they were instructors teaching people how to cook at home."
Like most of the TV chefs I've interviewed, one big downside to television fame are some assumptions people make about their primary work, as chefs and restaurateurs. People assume that because you're on television you're no longer at your restaurant, or restaurants, that you're no longer in the kitchen. As it happened, Tom was at his restaurant when I spoke with him.
"My show runs for four months, and the assumption is I'm working on the show all four months. It takes five weeks to film, and if we're shooting in or near New York, I'm back and forth from the restaurants every day."
Colicchio laughed a lot about the fact that whenever he's at one of his restaurants at night and Top Chef is about to go on the air, customers, and even people who work for him, will ask, almost in a panic... 'Hey don't you have a show to get to??'
When I turned the conversation to the "reality TV" side of Top Chef, the side that focuses more on fights than food, the side that many people think determines who moves on in the competition and who doesn't, Colicchio made the situation very clear. "All that reality stuff, who made out with whom, the fights... we don't know about it."
He went on to explain what it's like to be a host and judge, and how he doesn't have a clue what's going on back at the base camp, who forms alliances, what personality the home audience likes the most, and so on... Speaking for all the judges, Colicchio said "If we're not on camera, we don't associate with the chefs. We don't know what's going on with anything outside the kitchen, and we don't care."
Stating without any hesitation that the chefs who advance week by week, and the chef who ultimately wins, aren't determined by the reality TV side of the show, Colicchio explained, "The producers, Bravo, nobody has anything to say on who stays and who goes. That's up to the judges. The judges don't talk to the chefs, and the producers don't taste the food."
The judging and mentoring side of Top Chef remains dear to Colicchio despite the sometimes controversial "reality" side. He sees how it can help highly talented chefs to catapult their careers "if they're focused," and how it has brought mainstream America a higher appreciation for gastronomy. "A lot of young people across America watch Top Chef and think that a career in the culinary arts is viable. I meet nine- and ten-year-olds who are already interested in food. That's really neat to see!"
Circling back to the fame that Colicchio himself has earned, and that so many Top Chef alumni and winners have to grapple with, he cautioned, "The downside of fame is that you get a lot of offers, you get pulled in a lot of different directions, you get seduced by it. But you have to learn to say No. I could travel every week to some culinary event somewhere in the world, but I've got to stay home and take care of business."
With two children under age four, a veritable restaurant empire, a serious commitment to food security, children's and human rights issues, and a contract with Top Chef taking him through Season 14, that's a lot of business to take care of. Clearly Chef Colicchio isn't one to shy away from hard work, and admittedly, that's the key to his success both on and off screen.
Regina Varolli is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Going To Culinary School" praised by Bobby Flay as "An answer to every question I've ever gotten about Cooking Schools."