The ubiquity of food programming on American television has made the following household names: Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Ina Garten. But while all four, and many of their peers, took the traditional path of starting out at Food Network, and either stayed there or got their own broadcast network shows, Chef Tom Colicchio, the founder of the Craftsteak empire, opted for a different, more subtle route.
Tom Colicchio's Early Life
Thomas Patrick Colicchio--an odd first and middle name combo considering both his parents are Italian--was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1962. His mother Beverly, he says, was a good cook. On an episode of Top Chef where the judges were discussing their last meals on Earth, Chef Tom said he'd want a plate of his mother's Sunday gravy. His father, Thomas, was a union organizer. (Fun fact: The Colicchio home welcomed political debate and the first election in which young Tom could vote--1980, Reagan versus Carter--he told his father that the former "didn't look too bad," to which Tom Senior immediately replied, "No, no fucking way.") Food was an integral part of Colicchio's upbringing: one of his first jobs was working at his uncle's vegetable stand in an open-air market; being present for dinner every day, at 7:30 on the dot, was a requirement, no ifs, ands, or buts; his father didn't cook often, but when he did he tried to recreate dishes from restaurants he liked.
By the age of 15, Colicchio loved to cook, read about cooking, think about cooking. His father suggested he become a chef; this encouragement, combined with a successful first job as a New Jersey swim club's grill cook, gave him an early confidence boost. After a series of impressive performances at various restaurants in his home state, Colicchio got a crack first as sauté chef, and then sous chef, at the popular and critically lauded Barry Wine's Quilted Giraffe (a truly sensational name for a restaurant) in New York City. The chef's next stop was at Mondrian; his work there got him a three-star review in the New York Times. In 1994 he opened his first restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, with hospitality legend Danny Meyer. At this joint venture, Colicchio created different nightly tasting menus, by himself, and ensured every employee had money and time to eat at the restaurant as customers. Colicchio opened the first Craft steakhouse in early 2001; more Craft locations opened in the following years, including one at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.
Tom Colicchio and The Top Chef Empire
What about Top Chef, you ask? Colicchio's path to international celebrity was unconventional. By the time he'd done everything in the previous paragraph, not to mention won six James Beard Awards, he still wasn't famous. When a producer from Magical Elves--the production company behind Project Runway--asked the chef if he'd consider hosting a cooking reality show with a structure similar to the hit fashion design show, then hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. Colicchio declined, twice, but the third time, the producer, Shauna Minoprio, sent him several seasons of Project Runway on DVD. This time, he said yes.
Food & Wine only agreed to provide their editor Gail Simmons as a judge for the show because they heard Colicchio was joining the endeavor. Even though the show had trouble finding its identity, Padma Lakshmi taking over for Season One host Katie Lee Biegel helped considerably. Colicchio had some trouble on the show too: I myself have noticed that in those early seasons, his demeanor at Judges' Table was sometimes brusque, bordering on grumpy. But he changed. His presence became less crusty. He came off as good-natured, stern, and never ever criticized anything other than the food presented to him. (My mom and I refer to Colicchio and Lakshmi as the contestants' "dad and mom." Season 17 finalist Stephanie Cmar confirmed a similar sentiment: "You don't want to disappoint Tom.")
By the time Seasons Six and Seven rolled around, no one in the restaurant business took Iron Chef or Guy's Grocery Games as a serious talent pool for the fine dining world. Top Chef has become the sole respected cooking reality show for multiple reasons: judges include culinary figureheads, including Marcus Samuelsson, Jonathan Waxman, Sue Milliken, and Jacques Pepin. Colicchio's critique is often some of the warmest, most detailed on the show. On two very special occasions, Colicchio told two contestants, who were being eliminated quite late in the competition, that although it's very good to be modest, both had long, terrific careers ahead of them as some of America's best chefs. The first was to Season 10 semi-finalist Chef Sheldon Simeon, and the second was Season 18 contestant Chef Byron Gomez. I wept both times.
While it's nothing revolutionary to turn to philanthropy as a celebrity chef, Tom Colicchio has once again decided to strike his own path. After learning about the widespread existence of food deserts, and working with his filmmaker wife Lori Silverbush on A Place at the Table, a documentary about food insecurity, Colicchio went to work. He met with politicians who worked on food policies and even began a nonprofit, called Food Policy Action, that grades elected officials based on how they vote on food issues (although he resigned from the group a few years later).
Once the pandemic began, Colicchio was alarmed to hear then-President Trump downplay the seriousness of Covid-19. Within days of having to lay off staff in and close his own restaurants, Colicchio joined forces with Danny Meyer, called other chefs, lobbyists, and communications professionals to create the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an advocacy group that lobbies Congress and the Senate for government aid to restaurants during the pandemic. These efforts were successful: the CARES Act, passed by the Senate in spring 2020, contained the most important parts of IRC's platform: "four months of unemployment and loans to restaurants, with forgiveness to cover expenses and payroll." Colicchio has publicly questioned capitalism (I cannot name a single celebrity chef who has ever done this) and believes that nutritious food is a human right.
Tom Colicchio's Net Worth
According to Wealthy Persons, Tom Colicchio has a net worth of $25 million. Born on 15 August 1962, Tom Colicchio is 59 years old as of 2022. His height is 5'8 tall. Today, Chef Colicchio lives on Long Island with his wife Lori and sons Luka and Mateo. He has another son, Dante, from a previous relationship.
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