MenuMasters 2011: Tom Colicchio

MenuMasters 2011: Tom Colicchio

Fast-fine pioneer is this year's Hall of Fame inductee

Even after opening 15 successful fast-casual sandwich shops, eight critically acclaimed full-service restaurants and serving as top judge of “Top Chef,” an Emmy-award-winning television cooking competition, Tom Colicchio said he hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle of his career. The 48-year-old chef said he is currently producing the project that will make him most proud.

He and his wife are working on a documentary about domestic hunger. The film’s goal will be to increase awareness regarding the magnitude of hunger in the United States among children, military families and the elderly, and to point out “what can be done to fix it,” he said, adding that the government “needs to stand up and play a more active role.”

“We are the only industrialized country that doesn’t take care of our poor,” he said. “And the charity model doesn’t work. This is the work that, looking forward, I will be most proud of.”

Along with his activism to end hunger, Colicchio also is known for supporting fellow chefs and being a generous mentor to up-and-coming cooks.
“I think his mentoring is an amazing thing,” said Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor of Food & Wine magazine, which was one of the first national publications to recognize Colicchio as a culinary leader when it named him one of the country’s 10 “Best New Chefs” in 1991. At the time he was chef of Mondrian in New York.

In addition, Ujlaki said she admires the chef for not letting fame get to his head.
“He is largely the same man I met 20 years ago,” she said. “A lot of people take their celebrity and keep it all for themselves.”

Title: chef/owner Craft restaurants and ’wichcraft
Birth date: Aug. 15, 1962
Hometown: Elizabeth, N.J.
Education: high school degree
Career highlights: earning four three-star New York Times reviews from four different reviewers for New York’s Mondrian, Gramercy Tavern, Craft and Tom: Tuesday Dinner restaurants; being named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 1991; winning an Emmy for “Top Chef”; receiving six awards from the James Beard Foundation; winning Bon Appétit’s Chef of the Year and Food Arts’ Silver Spoon awards. “But being a good father and husband is the hardest part,” he said.
Personal: married, three sons ranging in age from 18 years to two months
Hobbies: saltwater fly-fishing, playing the guitar

Taking a cue from clothes

“He can play it high and he can play it low,” Ujlaki said. In fact, he intentionally copied the model of successful clothing manufacturers like Ralph Lauren, who offers variously priced lines of garments. The chef rolled out diversely priced dining options, ranging from fast food to steakhouses to fine-dining restaurants.

“It’s all about being relevant,” Colicchio said.

Ujlaki agrees.

“As expensive as Craft [Restaurant] was, I think it moved the market conversation forward by leaps and bounds by moving what was always at the side of the plate to the center of the plate,” Ujlaki said of the flagship eatery that opened in 2001 in New York.

Before that Colicchio was in a partnership with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group at Gramercy Tavern, also in Manhattan.

“Craft was the first restaurant that put the composition of the meal, unless you count the smorgasbord, in the hands of the diner,” Ujlaki continued. “Now everyone wants everything prepared their way.”

Feeding diners’ growing desire for quickly served, inexpensive and high-quality food, Colicchio next entered the so-called “fast-fine” chain business in 2003 with the ’wichcraft sandwich concept.

“That was just another example of him being a maverick,” Ujlaki said.

At the time, few fine-dining chefs opened casual chains. Now some of the world’s most highly regarded chefs, such as France’s Paul Bocuse and Spain’s Ferran Adrià, run quick-service operations.

“He was definitely ahead of the curve,” Ujlaki added. “And who knew that we were heading for a sandwich craze?”

Colicchio coined the term “fast fine” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen 2007 to describe the food at his ’wichcraft chain, which served sandwiches made from fine-dining ingredients in a fast-casual setting.

The debut of ’wichcraft was actually a bit backward, however. Colicchio’s wife came up with the name before he developed the restaurant concept and found the first location. Colicchio credits his partner, Sisha Ortuzar, for conceiving the concept. Ortuzar actually suggested that they build a sandwich store when a space opened on the same street as Craft. But the quick-service business turned out to be slightly more challenging than it looked.

“It’s a funny business,” Colicchio admitted. The last two locations he opened in New York haven’t performed as well as anticipated. They also were undercapitalized, the chef/owner said.

Every unit “makes money,” he said. “But the margins are razor thin,” and even smaller than those he was used to at full-service operations. He reported this year a same-store sales gain of 1.2 percent to 1.3 percent at ’wichcraft.

And he plans to grow those gains going forward. He is considering offering a line of grab-and-go dishes to shorten lines and wait times, which he noted is a common customer complaint. He said he is concerned, however, that if diners see premade packaged dishes, which are already available since items are prepared in a central commissary, it could weaken ’wichcraft’s image of serving high-quality, fresh food.

If Colicchio is able to fund expansion properly, he aims to open locations in the Washington, D.C., market. He has targeted the area in part because it’s close to his New York home base. Currently, all but two of the sandwich stores are in New York.

The others are in San Francisco and Las Vegas.

But before he opens more units, Colicchio said he would establish better systems.

“We grew at such a fast rate,” he said. “We learned that our systems weren’t what they should be.”

For instance, his business needs to act faster when prices of ingredients change, he said, noting that selling prices need to reflect changes in food cost.

A price to fame

Colicchio also became aware that television fame could be a “double-edged sword.”
He said most viewers of the hit show “Top Chef” think he spends more time filming it than cooking in his restaurants. Many assume that he’s not a real working chef who puts out quality food, he said.

In fact, the show’s executive producer for the first five seasons, Shauna Minoprio, said she recruited Colicchio partly because he is so respected within the professional chef community. She wanted participants and viewers to experience the “real deal, not reality shenanigans.”

“He didn’t come across as a TV chef,” Minoprio said.

Actually, Colicchio didn’t want to be on the show at first and repeatedly turned down the producer’s offers.

“He was pretty leery about getting involved,” Minoprio explained. “It took a bit of persuading. He wanted to know that he was in business with people who were making something that was as high quality and as authentic as possible.

“I think that it worked brilliantly,” the producer said. “He is very charismatic and he brings an authenticity to the show. He gave the show its backbone.”

Besides making Colicchio a household name, “Top Chef” helped to elevate the restaurant industry, she said.

“I feel like the show itself has definitely shone a light on professional restaurant chefs,” Minoprio added. “It’s the first show that brought people into that world.

And that sort of expanded the interest and contributed to the burgeoning foodie culture. It taught people more about chefs like Tom. And Tom embracing his fellow [New York] chefs like Wylie Dufresne [of wd~50] and Eric Ripert [of Le Bernardin] made them household names. I would imagine that it’s all great PR for the restaurant industry.”