Food News

The Arts Behind Craft

This is Tom Colicchio's official photo on the Craft Web site. He doesn't really have this much hair. Or any, really. That's what opening new restaurants'll do to ya.

Tonight, the W Hotel in Victory Park official opens with a red-carpet shindig; should be many celebs there, though I don't know if Mayor Laura will be attending, and, sadly, I think Jim Schutze will be unable to make it. There is one person I know will be around: chef Tom Colicchio, whose Craft is the sole restaurant for the W, which means when you order room service or have your meeting or wedding or whatever catered in the hotel, you're being served from the menu of the man considered a Top Chef. Aside from having TV-show celebrity status, the man does possess several James Beard Foundation awards for, among other things, being the best new chef some years back, writing the best cookbook and having the best restaurant; the TV gig's just a little extra sumpin-sumpin, like the roasted wild mushrooms and sweet corn I ordered with the soft-shelled crab at Craft last week, just before dying and going to heaven.

In the paper version of Unfair Park this week there's a short piece about how Colicchio wound up bringing Craft to Dallas, only the second time he's opened a joint outside of New York (there's also Craftsteak in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand). In short, some guys in Dallas had the money to bring him here, and Colicchio knows good bread when he smells it. But during the course of our hour-long conversation last week, on Craft's unofficial opening day when already the dinner reservations were full and people were casually and curiously meandering in for the first serving of lumch, Colicchio dished about a few other things, like what to expect from Dallas diners, how he put together the crew at Craft (which includes Kevin Maxey, former chef at Colicchio's other renown restraurant Gramercy Tavern) and what to expect next season on Top Chef (in short, no more Mrs. Billy Joel). There's much, much more with Colicchio after the jump.

Craftsteak in Las Vegas was a difficult debut. You've said the Dallas opening's gone much smoother. What's the difference, just the fact you've done this a few times now?

I think that has something to do with it, but it's also because the hotel has a deadline. The hotel has to open. Things have to get done. I have done this a couple of times now, but I don't know if its gets easier. I think we're just a little more organized now. I hope they all go like this. This is wonderful.

Given how extraordinarily picky you are about the people who work for you, and that you're bringing Kevin back to work for you, how hard was it to put together a crew down here?

I have two of my cooks that were with me at Craft, one who's from Dallas and wanted to come back home and another guy who has decided to come down here and work. One of the waiters was a captain at Craft in New York for about two years and decided he wanted to come here, and we had another woman who was working for us for maybe three or four months who just also volunteered to come down. So there are a bunch of Craft employees that are permanent team members.

Why did they want to come here?

Just new challenges, new things to do. Ya know, New York is tough to live in, so I think Dallas has a lot to offer. It's a good city, it's not huge but you get around. There's culture, nice areas, things going on, so it's not like you're somewhere out in the sticks. I think it's also an opportunity for them to spread their winds. That's the reason I do things too. But before I made this decision, I also wanted to call Kevin and see if he was interested in coming down, and he was.

One of the defining trademarks of Craft is the deceptive simplicity of the menu. How did you work toward that, because initially that's not the kind of cooking you were doing?

There's no difference in what the average person wants to eat and what I want to eat. We're not doing food that's dipped in liquid nitrogen that turns into these packages of liquid things that burst into your mouth. We're doing food that I think people want to eat. Theres a place for that stuff, and I thinkI''m interested in that kind of food as a curiousity, but I think that Craft was about a sort of relief from all that stuff. Several things kinda happened at the same time, and a lot of chefs are talking about simplicity, but I just noticed every year that I was taking things away from the dish, and I thought all the bells and whistles really didn't need to be there. I thought the food was better because of it. I think as you get older and more confident you don't need bells and whistles, so I started stripping everything down. I kept it clean, where it became very simple. I thought, "What better way to showcase great ingredients than to keep it simple as possible?" Then I wrote the first cookbook, and it's like almost you have someone sitting next to you asking you why everytime you do something, and you have to ask yourself these same questions: What do you want? What do you like? And I just thought that this style of dining was missing. I would like to go out and not have to sit there and look at a plate and not know how to eat it or have someone come by and explain it or somebody walk by and spray olive oil at me.

And I thought, "This how I want eat good." I wanna go and get a simple piece of fish with a small bit of garnish and bring it to the table and dig in. I also thought that was missing from the average New Yorker's experience, because most New Yorkers don't eat at home. So the idea of passing food around the table, I thought it was missing. They're adults, they can figure out how to eat food, serve themselves. It worked out. It's something that can work out in many places as long as we can find the ingredients.

A few years ago, you said something I always found profound when it came to the dining-out experience: People are no longer choosing want they wanted to eat, but choosing what they didn't want to eat because everything was being served with 84 different things on top of it or on the side.

I would do the same thing. You go to a restaurant and you look at something and go, "Well, that sounds good and that sounds good, but that? That's too much." There's a place for it, but that's not what I want every day. It's not what interests me as far as what I wanna cook and what I wanna eat. I cook food that I wanna eat, but I also keep in mind what people would enjoy. Again, I don't think my taste is that eclectic that other people aren't going to enjoy it. The biggest kick I get is someone eats scallops and they say, "Wow, I never knew scallops tasted like that." That's the goal: to get someone to eat chicken and go, "Oh, my God, that's chicken!?"

You start shooting the second season of Top Chef next month in Los Angeles, where Craft will open its next outpost. You once said you wouldn't do TV--and I always thought you meant a cooking show, anyway--but certainly doing Top Chef's been the best publicity possible as you begin opening new Crafts outside of New York.

It's part of why I did the show, because I'm up in New York, where everyone knows me, but I open in Atlanta and Dallas, and no one knows me. Why am I kidding myself? TV helps. Funny thing about it is, you cook for 25 years, between Mondrian and Gramercy Tavern and Craft, and now I'm known as the Top Chef guy. I get a kick out of it. I find it funny. It was embarrassing yesterday. A woman came up to me and said, "You're just like Tom Cruise!" Get outta here! Are you kidding me?? C'mon, its cable! Stop that. I think it's funny as hell.

TV just helps you do what you want to do.

It does, but I also think it can set you up for failure, because the expectations are higher. We under-promise and over-deliver, and it's harder to do that. You don't have to go to a table and shout and jump up and down about how great the menu is going to be. Just greet people and give them a menu. Just set the stage, and let's overwhelm them instead of underwhelm them. With TV now I think that people are coming in expecting something. I follow the message boards on Bravo's Web site, and it's brutal. All of the sudden, if I kicked someone off popular. I started getting, "Oh, I went to Craft, and it wasn't all that good." Like I said, funny as hell. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky