Top Chef Tom Colicchio greets the world with his famous grin and relaxed manner in the new, Peter Bentel-designed, Los Angeles Craft. This high-profile chef fits in nicely with the talent agents and celebrities who find their way to his door. With three Crafts and another opening soon in Atlanta, two Craftsteaks, 10 ‘wichcrafts, Craftbars, television appearances and several cookbooks. He sat with RH contributor Libby Platus in one of Craft's outside cabanas and shared his insights into the Hollywood scene.
RH: Why the move west?
Colicchio: Trammell Crow, the developers, approached us. Then, one of the principals at CAA (Creative Arts Agency) encouraged me. We already had a Los Angeles client base at our New York and Las Vegas restaurants. There are great restaurants here and the green markets are amazing: we buy for New York and Las Vegas from the Santa Monica Market. And, it's not a bad place to come when New York is -10 degrees.
RH: CAA headquarters is located in this development and ICM (International Creative Management) is around the corner in the MGM Tower. Did the talent agencies affect your decision to locate here, as well?
Colicchio: I knew that we had a strong built-in lunch business between ICM and CAA, plus the other offices. We just need to make this more of a dinner destination.
RH: Agents are notorious for demanding top-level service. How will you deal with that?
Colicchio: I don't know the politics out here and who's who. So, we'll just figure it out. New York is very demanding, too. Whether it's a visiting Top Chef fan or an agent, we are in the business of saying yes to people.
RH: What if some guy calls you in the middle of lunch when you are all booked and says, “I've got Tom Cruise here. I need a table.”
Colicchio: If I'm booked, I'm booked. If we don't have a seat, I'm not going to throw somebody out of their seat. That said, years ago in New York, at Gramercy Tavern, Tom Cruise called and said, “I'm coming in from a premiere and I'm not going to get there 'til quarter to 11, can you keep the restaurant open?” Sure! No problem. Hopefully, with outdoor and indoor, we have enough seats to accommodate everybody. But, like most restaurants, you hold back tables for regulars.
RH: What about the “power table” game, where seating designates status?
Colicchio: We'll work that out. I'll do the best I can. We're in the business for one reason only: to make people happy.
RH: Agents often take celebrities to lunch. How will you handle the paparazzi?
Colicchio: That is one thing we did think about. This is private property, so we can ask them to leave. We have security here 24/7. There is hidden access to the restaurant: CAA has a special way to come from their building to Craft without going outside.
RH: Some Los Angeles restaurant owners go out of their way to get stars and entertainment industry leaders as investors. Have you involved the industry in that way?
Colicchio: I don't have a star as an investor. For the most part, we have the same investors we've had all along.
RH: On Top Chef, you are the genial host/judge. Your guest judges are polite and considerate. How much attitude and atmosphere stem from you?
Colicchio: I am not an actor. All I can do is be myself on the show. I feel the restaurant business is very demanding. I don't allow my chefs to yell in the kitchen. When I was coming through the ranks, 30 years ago, if a chef yelled at me, I quit. You can talk to someone sternly without making it personal. If they are not doing their job, you train them. After training them, you make a decision as to whether they work there.
RH: How much do you think your reputation from television helps your restaurant business?
Colicchio: It definitely helps business. I love what I do on Top Chef. I take it very seriously. But it's such a small part of what I do. This (pointing to Craft) is what I do.
RH: Last year you predicted that “fine fast” would be the next new direction in foodservice, a category that would go beyond fast casual and feature excellent ingredients. What are some examples of that?
Colicchio: ‘wichcraft and, others, like Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bakery. We are taking the best of fine dining and marrying it with fast-casual qualities to make great food accessible.
RH: Both Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal grew their business in L.A. through catering. Will you cater?
Colicchio: No. I don't like the business. We have a private dining room in the restaurant. It holds 40 people. We'll do that. We've done big parties, but I'm not pursuing it. If a person with a catering business really wants to partner with me, I'll think about it. I've turned down several people.
RH: When did you get started cooking?
Colicchio: At home, I was 13 and loved it. Later, after four months working at the Quilted Giraffe (in New York), I became sous chef. I had been planning to go to culinary school but decided not to go. My dad said, “You clearly love what you are doing; you should be a chef.”
RH: When did you realize you wanted to own more restaurants?
Colicchio: After you have one restaurant and you're successful, you want to do more. I'm 44 and it's very difficult to stay on my feet all day long. You have to find ways to focus your energy. There is nothing like getting a group of people together to open a restaurant. It's about creating an atmosphere and it starts with the staff. My opening night message is, “Nobody dies on the operating table here!” Everybody relax! Half of our team are actors or writers. If someone says, “I have to go on an audition,” we accommodate them. I'm not kidding myself. If they get cast, they're gone. It's okay. All I ask is, when they're here, give it what they would some other job.
RH: You are opening in time to be considered by Michelin for the first LA listings. Does that competition influence your plans?
Colicchio: In America, we never yearn for Michelin stars. If the L.A. Times gives me a good review, that's important. Craft New York got one Michelin star. Michelin is funny. I don't know how they go about it. I think the Zagat Survey has a lot more power than Michelin. Europeans follow Michelin. Here, people have a favorite reviewer they follow.