by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
November 7, 2005
I followed a labyrinthine path in finding out who Tom Colicchio is and how he works. Instead of talking to him directly, I started by tasting the foods at his New York restaurants, then interviewing all his hand-picked executive chefs at these restaurants before finally squaring up to my subject and interviewing Tom himself. I wanted to get a more complete picture through multiple perspectives. Yet in the end it all came down to one thing — a solid philosophy that extends equally to cooking, business, and relationships. That may sound like the feat of a superhero but it’s actually something a mere mortal can achieve with the proper insight and motivation. Let me explain.
Tom always wanted to be a chef; you can even find such testaments in his high school yearbook. But up to about twenty years ago being a chef meant something very different from what it means today. Cooking was a blue-collar job, a labor-intensive career that involved a lot of sweating in the kitchen. (The only celebrity chefs were more cookbook writers than stars at destination restaurants: James Beard, Julia Child, and Jacques Pépin.) But then personalities like Wolfgang Puck paved the way and started changing the role of the chef from just a behind-the-scenes cook to the face of a restaurant.
This was a new groove and Tom just eased right in and extended his hard-won chef status to restaurateur and consultant, both of which allow him to take on a larger role and share his talents outside the kitchen. With four restaurants in New York, the upcoming Craftsteak opening next year, the original Craftsteak, the new ‘wichcraft in Las Vegas, his consulting-chef position at Voysey’s on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, and his private-label line of olive oils and condiments, Craftkitchen, he is constantly traveling. Tom is energetic, vivacious and driven, so it’s a joy for him, but at the same time he has mixed feelings because it has taken him out of what he loves most — cooking in the kitchen. He misses the direct relationships he used to have with young cooks.
Tom is a born leader. He enjoys the role of teaching and understands that there are different ways to educate. Learning from his own experiences, he treats people the way he wants to be treated. He doesn’t see any necessity in ever being harsh or peremptory with anyone — after all, the kitchen is not a battlefield; it’s a team effort like a film crew or orchestra. A restaurant should be a comfortable and mutually creative social environment. He told me something that reassures me he’s a good mentor: "It’s easy to yell at someone, but it’s much harder to sit down with the person and explain what the problem is and talk it through." This is useful advice, not only in the kitchen, but also in life.
Taking someone under his wing and watching him or her grow and achieve success is exciting for Tom. The executive chefs at his restaurants, John Schaefer, Damon Wise, Christopher Albrecht, Akhtar Nawab and Sisha Ortúzar, have all been part of the Gramercy Tavern/Craft family for a long while. In fact, John from Gramercy Tavern has been with Tom for over fifteen years. Tom has incredible confidence in these younger chefs, and is comfortable letting them experiment on their own. John, Damon, Chris, Akhtar and Sisha believe in Tom’s philosophy — they are devoted to the highest quality of cooking and ingredients used, and in their own right are becoming mentors to their staffs. The chefs are all close, and this includes Craft alumnus Marco Canora of Hearth. Tom’s created a large empire, but it’s really more of a large family.
The secret to his success may be Tom’s hearty good spirits and his positive energy — for love, life and food. He believes in a balanced lifestyle. In addition to cooking, opening new restaurants, consulting, and writing cookbooks, he loves spending time with family, saltwater fly fishing, golfing, and playing the guitar. I am inspired but curious: where does he find the time to do all this?!
Click here to read about our feature cravings from Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurants.