Colicchio Unbottled

And finally the rest of my interview with Tom Colicchio who, earlier this year, shared his thoughts on steak sauces and more. The conversation took place over the phone—the chef, Craft restaurateur, and head judge of Top Chef was in his apartment in New York City. Colicchio was very generous with his time—in earlier blog posts I shared his thoughts on Top Chef. And as he does on television, the chef speaks a mile a minute, making for laborious but worthwhile transcribing:

TC: In thinking about it, I would have to say that probably with the advent of chef-driven steakhouses, I think this is why it happened. I think part of it is, I do a steakhouse, Emeril does a steakhouse, Charlie Palmer does a steakhouse. I think people are looking for just a little more than a perfectly cooked piece of meat on a plate. I think they’re looking for more interesting sides. They’re looking for more interesting sauces. And so I think that’s why it has happened over the last 15 years, especially with Las Vegas courting chefs to come and bring their brands to Vegas. I think that’s why it happened. And for the most part it makes sense. A lot of the time, at least for me, the sauces are put on the side. In our Vegas restaurant [craftsteak] we actually don’t offer them. We offer some—they’re there so if you order a steak sauce, we have our own that we make that we give you. And we also offer chimichurri … it’s not on the steak.

VM: I was there at craftsteak seven years ago. I had the Wagyu.

TC: It doesn’t need anything [laughs]. It really doesn’t. My feeling is it doesn’t. But there are people out there who want steak sauce. I mean, I grew up using A-1—the rare times we actually had steak at home, I liked it, I enjoyed it. Now the steak sauce that I make is actually based on that. It’s based on the original A-1 that had a lot of anchovy and tamarind and a sort of char flavor with a lot of background notes. Our steak sauces, we actually worked out a partnership with Williams-Sonoma, so we actually sell the steak sauce at Williams-Sonoma.

VM: Yes, it reminded me of a rich man’s version of A-1.

TC: Yeah, that’s exactly it, yeah. But I think that’s why it came about. But again, we sort of offer them on the side so if people want them, they can have them. I certainly don’t want to force somebody to have sauce on a steak.

VM: Was it immediately apparent to you when you opened your restaurants that you needed to come up with your own sauce?

TC: Actually it was later on, because what happened was I wanted, in keeping with the sort of “craft” concepts, keeping it very, very simple, and when people started asking for it, and we had to give them A-1, I was like … let’s make our own. And that’s kind of how it started. And then of course some of the other steak sauces, from the South American chimichurri, are very popular, so people started asking for that. And so these trends start, and people ask for it. And, you know, I’m not in the business of saying no to people. And so instead of saying, “No, we don’t do it,” let’s make a good version of our own and that’s what we’ll offer.

VM: I had wondered if the resurgence of sauce had to do with the Europeans and especially the French, as with their Bordelaise, and if that was an influence on the current trend.

TC: We also serve béarnaise and Bordelaise. In fact we put Bordelaise on most of our steaks. But I think it’s because people travel more, they experience more things. And so they start traveling to South America where they learn about grassfed beef, which really you didn’t see a whole lot of here until the trend came up from South America. And also I think the people were going there and seeing chimichurri on steak and liking it and enjoying it. So trends kind of start in a lot of different directions. It’s kind of hard for a trend to start in a single place and go from there. I think if it happens, everything comes together to create a wave.

VM: So chimichurri and soy-miso mustard sauce, that’s here to stay?

TC: I think so. Again, if you differentiate yourself from all the other steakhouses that are out there, it has to be something. And so you should come up with something—and also something we actually like. I mean, I don’t think when whether it’s [Wolfgang Puck’s executive corporate chef] Lee Hefter or Wolfgang who put together that miso-mustard together, I think they did it probably because they liked it. Most likely it was made for something else…. and then it worked for steak, too. So this is sort of how these things happen. It probably happened by chance.

VM: I recently read Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker essay “All You Can Hold For Five Bucks” about the beefsteak dinners in New York in 1939, and there’s a German butcher who made a steak sauce from drippings, butter, and Worcestershire sauce.

TC: Hmm, that’s interesting. Well, you know, nothing’s new. A-1 has been around a long time. What’s the British equivalent?


TC: HP, exactly, yeah. So this stuff has been around for a long time. These are staples, and I just think as chefs cooked, I mean, if you asked me 20 years ago if I would have a steakhouse, I would’ve said absolutely not. And I like steakhouses, but it’s not something I thought I would do. But when I got a call from the president of the MGM who said we’d love for you to do a restaurant here, and they make you an offer you can’t refuse [laughs], and they say you can have anything you want as long as it’s a steakhouse…. And I was like, “I don’t want to do a steakhouse, I want to do craft.” And they were like, “Well, we want a steakhouse.” And I thought about it and, well, I can adopt a craft model to a steakhouse which, in fact, look at what we do at craft, it actually suits a steakhouse.

Funny story: When we opened craft in New York, and the way the menu was set up, people were freaked out, they couldn’t figure it out. It took a long while before people were comfortable with the idea of ordering a protein, ordering sides. Okay? So now we bring it to Las Vegas, we put a steakhouse moniker around it, and people are like, “Okay, I’ll order my steak, I’ll order my sides.” [Laughs.]

VM: All of a sudden it made sense.

TC: It made perfect sense. So I should’ve made it a steakhouse from the beginning. Or called it a steakhouse. But my point is that as much as a lot of chefs would like to say “This is why I do things,” so much of it happens by chance. It really does, just trial and error. You walk through the kitchen one day and you’re sitting there snacking on something that was cut and all of a sudden you put it on something else and “Oh wow, that works really good together, I like that, let’s work on this.”

VM: Have you ever thought about opening up a place in D.C.? We’ll even take a ’wichcraft—the line will be down the block.

TC: I’ve been looking in D.C. I have to say, if we stay in ‘wichcraft, … D.C. would probably be the next place it would go to. And you can quote me on that. If we expand ‘wichcraft to another state, it would be the D.C. area. That’s where we would go. We’ve actually done some studies on it. I like the market there. I love politics as well.

VM: The city is always looking for a good restaurant.

TC: We were looking at bringing craftsteak there before the economy tanked and then, you know, it’s kind of a wait-and-see approach. But I spent some time there during Top Chef and absolutely, it’s lovely, although I didn’t get out to eat so much because we were so busy.

Photo by Bill Bettencourt

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