More often than not, Tom Colicchio does not think of himself as a chef. He knows his place, depending on the kitchen.
The five-time James Beard Award winner will happily accept the title inside his Crafted Hospitality restaurants — from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles — or while tasting a decadent dish with a critical palate as the head judge of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
But in his kitchen at home, he embraces his role as husband, father and cook.
“To me, the word ‘chef’ means boss,” Colicchio said. “So if I’m not cooking in a restaurant and I’m like, ‘I’m the “boss” of my home,’ I don’t think my wife would go for that.”
He laughed lightheartedly from his townhouse in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, Lori Silverbush, and his three sons, when they aren’t spending the day on the North Fork — which, for the celebrity chef, means getting elbow deep in vegetables and flowers in his Mattituck garden.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Colicchio was still basking in the glory of his freshly planted crop from the weekend before. This summer, the bounty will include peas, fava beans, carrots, beets and onions, raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants. Kale, peppers, tomatoes and herbs will make their way into salads, with zucchini and squash as side dishes, and blackberries topping desserts.
His cooking style at home creates more a casual fare than his restaurant menus, and he prefers it that way. This is what the North Fork is about, he said, pulling weeds and all.
“All summer long, I’m cooking out of the garden,” he said. “What’s amazing, too, is it hits a certain point and every day you go out there, there’s just new stuff. I usually spend two hours a day out there. I’m harvesting every day because I’m cooking every day, and I also jar and can stuff. It can be hard to keep up with. I try to do the weeding once every three days or so. That’s the not-so-fun part of the job.”
If gardening is involved, Colicchio speaks quickly and passionately, his sentences bumping into themselves. But it was actually the 56-year-old’s lifelong love of fishing that drew him to the area — to escape the crowds in Montauk.
Fishing for bass and albacore on the Long Island Sound, he found himself transported to his childhood summers on the New Jersey shore, crabbing and clamming as a 5-year-old boy alongside his grandfather in Barnegat Bay — outings that led to his earliest memories of cooking.
“At a very young age, I had two jobs. One was to keep my grandfather awake on the way home — he would nod off — and, when we got home, he was tired so very early on, he taught me how to clean everything,” Colicchio recalled. “So at the age of six, I had a knife in my hand, cleaning fish. I would be horrified to put a knife in my kid’s hand. But I would go down to the basement and scale a fish and gut them and clean everything, and that was my job. I was prepping food at a young age.”
As expected from a large Italian family, the feasts that followed were loud and lively, revolving around a table packed with food. The fish were fried, the clams steamed or served raw, the crabs boiled, stewed in marinara sauce and poured over linguini. “Crab gravy,” they called it.
“We would literally sit around picking crab and eating crab for hours,” Colicchio said. “And, of course, that brings people around a table and it gets people conversing. At the time, I didn’t think of it as anything special, but as I started to cook, I realized the power of food was bringing people together.”
By the time he was a teenager, Colicchio had cooked enough family meals for his father to suggest he pursue it professionally, and brought home a few books for his son to read. Among them was Jacques Pépin’s “La Technique.”
“At the time, I was struggling with recipes. Most likely, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD,” Colicchio said. “I struggled with getting at the point of the recipe and I had a hard time following it, following the instructions and getting distracted with it.”
Pépin’s book explained that technique and method were more important than recipes, and it changed the way the blossoming chef looked at food.
“I was able to look at a recipe and skim through and go, ‘Ah, I see what they’re doing,’ and then just go cook,” he said. “It wasn’t about measuring anything. I was able to just go and create, and that’s when things kind of changed for me.”
Colicchio would cut his culinary teeth in New Jersey, with an eye on the food scene burgeoning across the country. Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower and Ken Frank had taken California by storm. Larry Forgione, Alfred Portale and Patrick Clark were making their own statements in New York, joining the French chefs of La Pavillion who stuck around after the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“I was just there at the right time,” Colicchio said. “I was always, not afraid, but always waiting for the right time to go to New York. I knew the Frank Sinatra song, ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,’ but you only get one shot. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I could see the World Trade Center. I could see the skyline, but I only went there for concerts. And so, I wanted to wait until I had some years of experience until I got to the big city.”
After a brief stint in France, Colicchio landed at Mondrian in New York. It was 1990 and he was 26 years old — and, soon, he would become known as one of the country’s best new chefs.
“We got three stars from [food critic] Bryan Miller and that was it,” he said, referring to the coveted New York Timesreview. “That made my career.”
In 1994, he founded Gramercy Tavern with Danny Meyer, running the New York kitchen that redefined city dining until Michael Anthony took the reins in 2006. The move was painful, but right, Colicchio said, and allowed him to focus on his newest endeavor, Craft Hospitality, which now includes Craft, Riverpark and Temple Court in Manhattan; Craft Los Angeles, Heritage Steak and Craftsteak in Las Vegas; and Small Batch in Garden City.
For the first time since his departure, Colicchio returned to Gramercy Tavern to cook for a culinary event benefiting No Kid Hungry, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger — an issue he speaks out against often, and hard.
Advocating for food quality and accessibility, whether it’s among a group of friends or in front of the U.S. House of Representatives, Colicchio is not a chef or a cook, he said. He is simply Tom, using his celebrity status to fight for the greater good.
“I don’t speak out about hunger issues because I’m a chef. I speak out because it’s something I care about,” he said. “I think for most chefs, hunger is at the very top of our minds because we feed people for a living, so a lot of us believe that there should be a right to food and high-quality food, and good nutrition in this country.”
On the East End, his social and environmental concerns naturally turn toward water quality, overfishing and protecting the resource that, two decades ago, initially drew him to the area.
“These big stripers that people are catching these days? They’ve got to go back in the water. You can’t keep killing these fish, especially those fish. Those are breeders,” he said. “If you find a striped bass that’s 40 pounds, there’s some good genetics there. There’s a reason that fish got to be that big, and we’ve got to be careful to make sure those fish stay in the water and breed.
“Right now, I’m afraid those stripers have been decimated over the last 10 years,” he continued. “Why go spend a day fishing if you can’t catch fish? We would go out there striped bass fishing and catch 20, 30 fish, and release them all. Maybe you kept one. Now, they’re not there. They’re just not around. So we’ve got to protect this resource.”
For the majority of his seafood, Colicchio relies on Charlie Manwaring at Southold Fish Market, scooping up fresh Peeko Oysters there when the mood strikes. For poultry, it’s Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, and 8 Hands Farm in Cutchogue for meat.
Peconic’s Catapano Dairy Farm is the place for goat cheese, he said, and Sang Lee Farms fills in any veggie holes he finds in his garden. Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue is a must when peaches are in season — they “rival anything,” Mr. Colicchio said — and Lombardi’s in Mattituck meets all of the chef’s Italian standards, and then some.
“They make the best mozzarella I’ve ever had,” he said. “And they make it four to five times a day. You get it, it’s warm, it’s never refrigerated. It’s great. They actually make pretty good bread there, as well.”
With a full haul, Mr. Colicchio unloads in his kitchen and heads outside to harvest, mulling over a seasonal menu for that evening’s family meal, hypersensitive to seasonality and finding unique uses for parts of his vegetables that are usually discarded before they arrive at the supermarket, such as fava bean leaves.
“If I take the month of August off, the garden just becomes this Home-Ec project for me: how to be as useful as possible with everything you have, and how nothing goes to waste,” he said. “Whatever vegetables are left over the night before, it goes into a salad for lunch the next day. My wife likes to joke around; she says I should have been a Prussia-era housewife, because I don’t want to waste anything.”
He takes the playful jabs with a grain of salt, and gets right back to his garden.
“For me, having to get out there and work and get my hands dirty and dirt under my fingernails and lugging around compost, you appreciate it a little bit more,” he said. “Everything’s valuable. I think once you see things grow and you’re putting your heart and soul and your time into it, I think you have a different appreciation for it.”