I was not excited to talk to Tom Colicchio. I called the chef and television host as he was on his way to the set of Top Chef’s tenth season, and I found myself hoping he didn’t pick up the phone. But he did.
I have been a fan of him, and the show, for years, and my loyalty to Tom (and Padma; she seems nice) has kept me from watching either the Masters or Desserts editions of the program. I don’t like sweets, or masters. But I love Tom.
All that being said, for years I’ve mockingly recapped Top Chef for Eater, and assuming he had come across it, I thought he might be itching for a fight. He’s a tough guy from Jersey, and maybe he would not realize that I hate confrontation. I have no quarrel with Tom Colicchio! But as Loki says in The Avengers, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.” That simile doesn’t fully check out, as ants don’t write blog posts making fun of the things the boot does for a living. Also, technically, this ant is taller than that boot. But Chef Colicchio was very charming.
As is custom with Bravo, he couldn’t say much about the new season, partly because he didn’t know much. He shows up, and he does his job. Colicchio hopes, as he does with every cycle, that this year focuses more on the food. “I’m not as interested in that Mean Girls stuff.” (I assume Tom means he is not interested in judging 16-year-old home-schooled children of zoologist parents who get rough educations in high school’s caste system.) “Without giving too much away, you’ll see some real kitchen stuff this season.” There may be a surprise new judge. Though, Colicchio said, he’s at his best with Gail by his side. I have never met Gail, but I feel the same way. It’s like when Jack Nicholson compliments Helen Hunt in As Good As It Tastes. “You make me wanna be a better judge.”
Ten seasons in, I expected Tom to sound worn down by the Top Chef process, but he seemed eager for it to begin, most likely because it’s a pretty good gig, one we would all be so lucky to have. “My experience is very easy,” he said. Each season shoots in about 25 days, and though it may be hell on the cheftestapants, he only works every other day. Is Tom in a union? There’s a walkthrough of the kitchen the night before a taping, and sometimes the judging sessions go long, but ultimately it doesn’t keep him out of his own kitchens much.
Tom admitted the one downside of doing Top Chef. Though it’s only a brief break from his restaurant kitchens, the ubiquity of the show makes it seem like he no longer cooks. With good humor, Tom brought up Robert Sietsema’s Village Voice piece on New York City’s 17 Greatest Chefs. Sietsema wrote, “Tom Colicchio is not in the running because he’s now much more television leading man (and a good one) than chef.” The irony, Tom pointed out, is that Sietsema’s #1 was Mario Batali, a guy who literally tapes a television show every day. I think Tom was using “irony” in that way that means “shitty thing.”
Tom laughed about all of this, but his Zen attitude seems newly developed. He said that when he first started Top Chef, he was not used to being told when to be places. His time is his time, and at his restaurant, if he wants to show up at 8, he’s in at 8. If he wants to be there at noon, everyone can deal with it. (I would almost always choose noon.)
Not so on a TV set, and it’s all the more frustrating as one learns the hurry-up-and-wait pace of filming. “It took a bit of self-examination,” Tom said, as I imagined a scenario with two hand mirrors. Also, Bravo and Magical Elves got better at making the show. It’s evolved into a more natural process. In the first season, the judges ate the food sitting across from the Chefs, an experience that sounds horrendously awkward, and there was never any discussion immediately after the meal. But after a challenge at a Chicago block-party, the judges found themselves sitting on a stoop and discussing what they liked and didn’t like. Producers urged them to wait until Judges’ Table, when Tom said, “Why don’t you film this?” And they did. The rest is Top Chistory.
Top Chef is bafflingly well covered online, and I asked Tom if he read the recaps and the reaction and the GIFs. “I read it a lot less,” he said. “I used to read every damn blog and get upset about everything that was being said. I end up torturing myself, and you get tired of defending yourself. You keep repeating, ‘No, the producers don’t influence the decisions.’ I finally said, Stop. It’s too much.” Tom then slyly added, “Though I do read yours and enjoy them.” I didn’t believe him (either part), but I appreciated that he said it.
I asked Tom if he could imagine another 10 seasons of Top Chef. This gave him pause. “I don’t know. I’m signed on for three or four more seasons. At a certain point I can’t be 20 seasons in.” Why not? “I can’t keep doing this when I don’t have teeth.” True, but at this point I imagine Bravo would be open to Top Chef: Juices & Puddings.
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