Jim Poris / March 2005
Food Arts presents the March 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Tom Colicchio, a cook's cook and restaurant lifer, who has been instrumental in imprinting the seasonal credo on the expanding minds of the dining public. First at Gramercy Tavern (1994) and then at Craft (2001), his two New York City restaurants, which back up to each other from 19th and 20th Streets, Colicchio combs markets—both local and far-flung—and then picks from an ample quiver of culinary techniques to target the textural and flavor profiles of well-groomed products.
"For me, the product is the most important, and I hope I'm known as someone who didn't overdo it," Colicchio says. He assured himself of that recognition with what he terms "a simplified version of food" at Craft, where the menu lists seasonal ingredients and the method by which they're cooked and diners are left to compose a dish and then a meal from those singular elements.
"Two things stand out about Tom: his approach to cooking as a trade or craft, which is why he named his restaurant that way, and how he manages people," states Jonathan Benno, chef de cuisine at Per Se (New York City), who worked for 2 1/2 years at Gramercy Tavern and was the opening sous chef at Craft. "He's good at mentoring and nurturing people; it's remarkable the amount of talent he's influenced"—including Amy Scherber, Kerry Heffernan, Scott Bryan, Claudia Fleming, Rocco DiSpirito, and Marco Canora.
The highlights of Colicchio's own professional story line read like those plotted more often by European chefs than by Americans: a bright but indifferent student possessed by the abbondanza of his Italian-American household in Elizabeth, New Jersey, starts peeling shrimp in a Jersey Shore restaurant at 17, teaches himself how to cook by practicing everything Jacques Pépin lays out in La Technique and La Méthode, and then, in the 1980s, knocks around restaurants in Jersey and New York City, where, Zelig-like, he pops up alongside the likes of Barry Wine, Alfred Portale, and Thomas Keller as they experience their first brush with fame. Then it was Colicchio's time: a three-star New York Times review as the chef at Mondrian ("I was 26, and it couldn't get any better"); a partnership with Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern, which opened to much fanfare; and then his own gig at Craft, which begat the easygoing Craftbar and the soup-and-sandwich takeout 'wichcraft and led Las Vegas to call for Craftsteak at the MGM Grand. Not to mention, also, two books—Think Like a Chef and Craft of Cooking—and a James Beard Award in 2000 as the city's best chef.
"If someone had asked when I was in my 20s about what I'd like to do in this business, I'd have answered, ‘To be successful,'" Colicchio muses. "But while that's important, I'd like to be remembered by my peers as a chef who gave something back to the industry, someone who cooked food that was important, yes, but also someone who brought others along, as others did for me."