In its nine seasons, Top Chef has become infamous for the devilishness of some of the challenges cheftestants have to endure — they must be called cheftestants, for one, and they’ve had to build kitchens inside Target stores, ride bicycles around the Alamo in search of a Pee Wee Herman-friendly restaurant, and even cook off only the body heat of pulchritudinous Padma Lakshmi (okay, I made that one up). Turns out, if you ask head judge Tom Colicchio about having to do things outside of his comfort zone, he replies with a chuckle, “I’ll be doing it in Santa Barbara.”
Admitting that he doesn’t often do “an evening with” events like the one UCSB Arts & Lectures is presenting February 22, Colicchio plans to “talk a little bit about how I got where I am,” throw in some “anecdotes from cooking and running a restaurant,” and then “talk some about Top Chef.” After that, Colicchio explained, “Usually, I get on the serious side and talk about hunger issues — my wife [Lori Silverbush] is working on a film about hunger in the U.S. called Finding North. [The evening] will end with question-and-answer. Quite honestly, I’d rather do all question-and-answer.”
It’s certainly impossible to question his credentials as a chef and restaurateur. He’s won the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef” prize, craftily built an empire of Craft restaurants nationwide, published cookbooks, and opened a slew of sandwich joints called ’wichcraft. All that success hasn’t dulled the brand, for as the L.A. Times’s Irene Virbila wrote in 2010, “At this point, he could easily rest on his laurels, relax, and let his name bring in the crowds. And yet despite being one of a collection spun off from the original, Craft Los Angeles continues to be a serious restaurant with seriously good food.”
Perhaps one reason is that his life is beyond his wildest dreams from when he started cooking in his hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey (insert your Jersey Turnpike joke here). Especially the TV part. “I said no to the producers three or four times before I agreed [to do Top Chef],” he explained. “I had seen other reality shows and wasn’t a big fan. They told me, ‘We want you to be the voice of authority here, so we never want to make you look bad.’ And I insisted I couldn’t be told I had to keep people on the show.” Colicchio also was a fan of producers Magic Elves, liking their work on Project Greenlight, saying, “I thought that was a good show; I enjoyed it. I just wanted to make sure the production value of what we did would be good, something better than the Food Channel. I’m not knocking them; I just wanted something better.”
He also wanted something to be proud of, claiming, “I wanted something so I could hold my head up amongst my peers. When I got the phone call after season one from Daniel Boulud and he said he wanted to be on the show, I knew it was okay. But to tell the truth, originally, I figured my family would watch and a few other people. I had no idea … ”
Colicchio and his fellow judges generally have very clear ideas as to what dishes on the show work or fail. “Often we don’t have to deliberate; it’s easy to say this is the worst, this is the best. We try to make the comments balanced so as not to tip our hand,” he said. “The danger is viewers turn off the channel. If you’re watching a basketball game and your team is up 30 points in the fourth quarter, you turn it off.”
And as for the sometimes withering looks it seems Colicchio’s searing blues can give, that might just be part of editing. “The funny thing is you never know when I’m giving that look,” he said. “There’s a good seven to 10 minutes of us just staring back and forth when the contestants first walk in for Judges’ Table so they can shoot all the angles. That’s one of the things that’s not practiced; I’m sure I give that look to my wife and kids.”
Tom Colicchio comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, February 22 at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. As a special treat, the Burger Bus, O Street Truck, and Sweet Arleen’s (a cupcake truck from Westlake Village and two-time champion of Cupcake Wars) will be parked in the drop-off loop near Campbell Hall starting at 6:30 p.m.