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If Tom Colicchio were only known for restaurants like Craft and Colicchio & Sons, he’d have a wildly successful career as a chef and restaurateur. But the James Beard Award winner has also gained a national profile as the head judge and executive producer of the Bravo reality series Top Chef, dispensing his blunt criticisms of cheftestants’ dishes for eight seasons.
The current season has been a little different from the first seven, with the usual crew of inexperienced chefs replaced by an all-star cast of previous Top Chef contestants; the field is so strong that some people who made it all the way to their season’s final four ended up leaving in the first few weeks. With the all-star season down to its final four—Mike Isabella, Richard Blais, Tiffany Derry, and Antonia Lofaso—Colicchio talked to The A.V. Club about the difficulty of judging chefs you know, working with Cookie Monster and Elmo, and who he thought flamed out earlier than expected.
The A.V. Club: Why did Top Chef decide to do an all-star season? How did the chefs perform this season compared to the expectations going in?
Tom Colicchio: Well, I think the reason was that we had enough chefs that didn’t make it that were really strong. I think it was good to bring people back and to mix up the show a little bit, because we had done seven seasons. So I think it was a good idea. It met my expectations. I was surprised at some of the people who left early. I thought that Jen Carroll would’ve made it much further along than she did. She was the second to go. I thought that Angelo [Sosa] would’ve made it a little further. I thought Tiffani Faison from season one would’ve made it to the finals. I was surprised that some of them blew up.
AVC: What is it about those three in particular that makes you think they left too early?
TC: Well, they performed really well [in their initial seasons]. I mean, Tiffani would’ve won season one, except that she did two tasting menus and she really stretched herself thin. That was very, very close. I thought she was really strong, and she would have made it. Thinking of Jen Carroll, I thought that she was a really strong competitor, that she was always very good, and I was just surprised [she lost], especially that early. The difficult part for us is that, when we shoot the season of new contestants, we don’t know them. We don’t interact with them at all during the season, and it’s just easier to judge, because you don’t know someone. So the chefs coming back is a little more difficult, especially since you get to know them. I would never judge Top Chef Masters, because they’re my peers, and as these chefs start moving along, they almost become your peers. So it becomes very, very difficult. I think, in a way, we were as constructive with the criticism, but not as damning with the criticism [this season]. I wouldn’t say, “This is terrible, I can’t believe this person cooked something like this.” It would be more like, “Well, this is wrong with this, you could’ve done that…” So again, it’s a little more constructive criticism vs. just saying, “I don’t like the dish, this is a terrible dish, and this person really has no business being there,” something like that.
AVC: Is there a bigger sense of disappointment when they don’t come through in a challenge?
TC: Yes. Without a doubt. Because you know them, and you know they can perform well, so you definitely expect more from them. If you have a gifted child, you expect more from that child, not less.
AVC: In which of the challenges this year did you think that the chefs just did not do what they should have done?
TC: Well, I think the [Museum Of Natural History] challenge, the group that had the proteins, I thought they really messed that up. It was really disappointing across the board. That’s the one that comes to mind.
AVC: When you and your fellow producers planned the season out, did you try to make things more challenging, because the contestants are at the top of their game?
TC: I think every season, we try to come up with new things that are different. Some things that we think are going to be hard end up being easy, and some things that we think are going to be easy end up being hard, so it all depends. I don’t think we purposely try to make it hard on them. We try to just come up with interesting challenges, and it usually is location-based. We want to shoot in Chinatown, we come up with a challenge. Actually, that was a disappointing challenge too, if you want disappointing. I mean, we were embarrassed sitting in that room, because so many people were in there—well, the food wasn’t that good to begin with. Some of it was okay, but just the fact that [the chefs] took so long to get food out of the kitchen when there are hungry people looking at us eating, because we were getting food served first… It was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve done on the show.
AVC: How did that happen, considering they’ve done Restaurant Wars and some of them run restaurants?
TC: I don’t know. I don’t think that they understood how quickly people were going to come in. And I think for something like that—you know, I do events where we do small plates, so it was very similar. I had [said to] my cooks, “Just start cooking and don’t stop. Just keep putting up food. Don’t wait until I ask for it, just keep making plates." And no one did that [on the show]. Don’t be like, “I’ll pick up six now, and you pick up six now, and you can give me…” Just put your head down and don’t stop putting up food until you’re done. And no one had enough sense to do that.
AVC: On the other side of the coin, which challenge did you think was going to be hard that they did a good job with?
TC: Well, I mean, my favorite one that I think they did a great job with, I don’t know if it fits the criteria of being hard, but I think the Ellis Island challenge was just great. I can’t tell you how many people sent me messages saying that was the best ever.
AVC: Did you think that was among the best set of dishes you’ve had on the show?
TC: Everything was very, very good. I don’t know if it was the best, but for that challenge, everything was just good. I always want to know what the chef’s intention is. You know, if you’re trying to make gnocchi with a pork marinara sauce that Michael [Isabella] made, that is a very good, simple, homey dish. So I want to know what the intention is, if that’s what he’s trying to do. He made great gnocchi, and the sauce was really delicious. I think that to win this competition, you just need to always put out great food. If I’m doing an event, if it’s a charity event, where it’s a walk-around event, where I gotta put a thousand small plates out in the course of a four-hour event, I gotta make sure I can do something that I know I can produce, that’s going to be consistent and good all night long. And so you don’t go in there and make this overly complicated dish to blow someone’s doors off. Because maybe you will for the first half-hour, but when you get busy, you’re screwed.
AVC: What decisions went into having all five of the chefs from the Ellis Island challenge go to the Bahamas, when usually it’s just the final four?
TC: Well, the thing is, we knew we had to get rid of someone. We went back to the judges’ table, and obviously there are a host of producers around. Especially when you get down to that, you know, you’ve got producers from Magical Elves, you have producers from Bravo. And so we sat there and we were kicking around, just going back and forth, and we said, “Can we just bring everybody back?” The answer immediately was, “Yeah, that’s okay.” I was expecting, “No, you just gotta work this out.” I think part of it was possibly because the [chefs’] parents or their family were involved [in the challenge].
AVC: So is this going to be a four-week finale?
TC: There’s something else that changes too. I don’t know if I can tell you. No, I can’t. Sometimes I’m on the phone with someone who already knows, and they’re sworn not to divulge it, but obviously you’re not, so I can’t say. [Laughs.] You’ve got to look at it this way: Wednesday [March 9], that wasn’t a finale. That was just another challenge that just happened to be in a different location. And I don’t think we’re considering the next one a finale either. The actual finale is the finale. It’s like in sports, you go into the playoffs. It’s a different part of the season, but you know, the Super Bowl’s the Super Bowl.
AVC: When a mishap like the fire in the first Bahamas episode happens, what do you have to do to regroup?
TC: It’s obviously a discussion, because once we start shooting, you can’t lose a day, partly because locations are already set, and it would be hard to get a location for the following day. Plus we have 80 people in our crew, and for them to work a day extra, it costs a shitload of money. So we have to just move on. And that’s what we did. And I think that production costs are a major concern.
AVC: How late did that night go then, with the meal, because of the fire and the cleanup?
TC: Late enough that we had to blacken out the windows to shoot that and make it look like night. [Laughs.]
AVC: You were eating at a Target at 3:00 in the morning on another challenge, so these oddball hours aren’t that unusual.
TC: Well, when they went shopping and started cooking again, we went back to our hotel and took naps. [Laughs.] We came back to the location.
AVC: How does doing a Top Chef season affect the judges, health-wise? Padma Lakshmi has said she gains 12 pounds or something doing the season.
TC: Yeah, okay. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Quite frankly, we don’t eat that much food. You get a bite of something, a bite of this, a bite of that. It’s not like you’re eating full meals. Personally, I think that she puts on weight during the season, and I think I may too, but it’s only because I’m out of my daily routine. I box three days a week. So if I’m on location to where I’m not doing that, and I’m not one to go in a gym or run a treadmill—I hate it—so it just takes me out of my regular routine. Plus, I think when you’re away and you’re in a hotel, you have a tendency to start picking and eating more than you need to eat, because you get bored just sitting around, and [I] just start eating and drinking more than I normally would drink. Not that we’re sitting there pounding cocktails all night long. I mean, I don’t drink every night. I used to. All of a sudden, you’re doing that, so it’s more calories. I think it’s just part of the stress of doing the show, and stress sort of makes you hold weight as well. So I think it’s a few things that do it, but it’s not from the food on the show.
AVC: Last season, you gushed about having dinner with Buzz Aldrin. Was there a moment like that for you this year?
TC: I don’t know if I had that moment this year. I mean, the fishing [episode], I liked. The coolest thing about the fishing thing is, I was out there fishing, too. I have a boat, so I fish a lot. I’ve been trying to get them to do challenges like that for a while. So that was fun to do that. Kerry Heffernan, who was the guest judge for that one, is actually a very good friend of mine, and my fishing partner. So the whole thing was just very organic for me, to be in Montauk. I mean, my boat’s docked there, so it was a good excuse to get a day of fishing in for me. [Laughs.] The Muppets also, that was incredible. That was one of those days on set that the crew just loved the fact that they were producing the show, because they’re so iconic. When we do Quickfires, I don’t go near the set. If I’m not on, I’m not on the set. But I brought my son in. It’s really funny, because he didn’t know Sesame Street yet, and about two months after that, he discovered Elmo. And so now I show him pictures; he actually took a picture with Elmo, and he can’t figure that one out. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did the guys who worked the Muppets taste the food in that challenge?
TC: Yes, they did taste the food. They all did; they were the judges. Those guys are amazing. The coolest part, and I wrote this in my blog, was hanging out with them in the green room and just watching them interact. They’re funny as hell. For the reunion, there’s some outtakes that are hysterical.
AVC: Do you think Angelo didn’t really make it because the back-to-back seasons burned him out?
TC: No. The thing about [this show] is, if you make the worst dish, you’re out, simple as that. They can come to the judges’ table and plea whatever they want to plea. For the most part, we’ve already made a decision. The only thing that we judge on, and I’ve had this interview with several people—I always say this, and no one seems to want to write it—we judge on food and food alone. The producers of the show, with the exception of myself, have absolutely nothing to do with who stays and who goes. It is not about personality; we don’t see the personalities. We don’t know or care about what’s going on behind the scenes. In fact, the executive producers are not allowed to eat the food. It’s a meritocracy, and that’s it. We also do not take in the body of work; a lot of people don’t understand why, but this is just how we judge it. And it’s the way we’ve always done it. So one bad dish will send you home. If you screw up, you’re done. So it wasn’t about being burned out, because Tiffany [Derry] was in this season, and Tiffany made it further, and she stood to be as burned out as he was.
AVC: Did you think that the all-star season would have put that notion to rest, because people would have thought that all the chefs were on equal footing?
TC: Yeah. Listen, people are going to have conspiracy theories about everything—why people go, why people leave. They just, for some reason, can’t accept the obvious: The dish was bad. I can’t tell you how many people on Twitter will say, “Why did you dah dah dah…” and I’ll say, “The dish was bad.” One person finally said, “Stop asking, he’s just going to say the dish was bad.” Well, that’s the truth! That’s it! There’s no other reason. And I don’t understand why people just can’t get that through their heads. In my first blog of the season, I said, “Now we’re going to get it wrong 17 times.” It’s very easy when you go to watch a game, and your team loses, to blame the ref. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the people who left early was Elia Aboumrad. In her exit interview with the press, she came directly at you a couple times, saying that you used to be someone she looked up to, but she doesn’t like what you do anymore. What was your reaction to that?
TC: Well, she was wrong. She doesn’t know what I do. My reaction for the writer was, I know she’s opening a restaurant in Los Angeles. If she’d like, I’ll walk her through the farmers’ market and introduce her to all the farmers that I buy [from], and they’d be happy to sell to her.
AVC: Where would she have gotten some of the notions that she talked about? She complained that you serve corn-fed beef instead of grass-fed beef, for instance.
TC: I’m not sure. I don’t know why, but she was under the impression that I only serve grass-fed beef in [my] Las Vegas [restaurant]. And she said when she spent time in the kitchen—and she’s wrong. I’ve always served corn-fed as well as grass-fed, and that hasn’t changed. We still butcher everything in-house there. She was also focusing only on one restaurant, and that was my steakhouse. Part of me was like, “I don’t need to defend myself. My record speaks for itself.” I was buying from local farmers before it was trendy, so whatever. It was sour grapes. She was gone. She was embarrassed. She was embarrassed and she needed to vent, and it’s fine.
AVC: Except for Elia and Jen, who pushed back a little bit when she left, most of the chefs have been gracious when they’ve been eliminated. Is it because they’ve matured?
TC: Well, I think they know deep—listen, when you’re a chef and you make a bad dish, you know it. I’ve done things and you look at it and you go, “This thing just isn’t right.” If you run your service in your kitchen at night and you’re struggling, you know you’re struggling. There are times you send something out and you say to yourself, “I know this is coming back.” So I don’t think they’re surprised. I think Jen—listen, I don’t mind at all if a chef sits there and defends himself and says, “You’re wrong.” We don’t care. That’s fine. I think on one hand, it makes good TV, but you know, chefs should defend their dishes. I know if I get a bad review, I call the reviewer and defend myself.
AVC: When little incidents happen like with Mike Isabella cribbing the Quickfire dish from Richard Blais, what’s your reaction?
TC: You’d be surprised at how dishes are being stolen. Really stolen. You’ll see on the reunion, but there was a little play back and forth between Richard and Michael. Essentially, everybody thought that Richard was pissed off. Richard was just basically saying, “Hey, I know where that came from, but hey, all right, fine.” Again, he didn’t steal a recipe, and this is, again, what I tried to say in my blog. Everybody said he stole his recipe. No, he didn’t steal a recipe, he stole an idea. The idea was a simple little sketch that said “chicken” and “oyster.” There’s a piece of the chicken right up on the top of the leg that people call the oyster of the chicken. So [Richard] made a little diagram of a chicken oyster in an oyster shell. It’s so abstract. I said [to] Richard, “Would you have done the dish this way?” He said, “Absolutely not. It’d be completely different.”
AVC: Who made it further this year than you expected?
TC: Tiffany Derry. Carla [Hall].
AVC: Carla? Even though she made the finals last time?
TC: Yeah. It wasn’t that I was surprised, I just thought there were chefs that were probably—I thought with Carla, I asked her, “Did you think with your style of cooking that you would make it this far?” She even said that she had doubts, but she wasn’t going to change what she did. So I was surprised because her food is more homey, and sometimes the more polished dishes, the more complicated dishes, more intricate dishes, are things that the judges focus on. Not that she’s not a good chef; I think she’s actually a very, very good cook. I call all chefs cooks. They’re all cooks. That’s what we do, we cook. You’re a chef when you’re running a kitchen. She also, I think, has a very difficult time stepping outside of her comfort zone. Given the varied challenges, I thought that she’d get tripped up along the way. But she’s proven me wrong. And Tiffany Derry, she had probably the least amount of experience of all the chefs, with the exception of maybe Steve Asprinio.
AVC: Who do you think improved their game the most from their original season to now?
TC: I would say Mike Isabella. I would say Carla. I would say, you know, even though Dale [Talde] left early, I think he did too. I think he produced some really, really great stuff over the course of the season, even though he dropped early. I think that as far as a personal growth, someone who grew a lot, matured a lot, I think that would have been Dale.
AVC: Because he’s not really “Angry Dale” anymore.
TC: Right, exactly. Yeah. I think he looked at himself—and again, this is something we talked about that’s in the reunion. He said he didn’t like the person he was on the show. He was embarrassed by it.
AVC: What dynamic did Anthony Bourdain bring to the judges’ table?
TC: You know, obviously levity. He’s very funny and witty and sarcastic. So you always know you’re going to get some good one-liners out of him. For me, I personally like having him. I loved that Gail was next to him. I’m very happy when Gail is on my left. He’s a fun guy to talk to, and great to hang out with.
AVC: Do you think his travels around the world have informed him a little better?
TC: Oh, without a doubt. He knows a lot more about varied cuisines than I do, because he’s traveled so much, extensively around the world. So yeah, of course.
AVC: What would you tell viewers to expect from the chefs and from the show in these next three episodes?
TC: Just a lot of twists and turns.
AVC: Are they unplanned ones? Like the fire?
TC: No, no, not that. It’s just that the judging was all very, very difficult for all the remaining episodes right now. Everybody steps up their game, and some interesting stuff happens.