Tom Colicchio on Keeping 'Top Chef' Fresh, His 'Treme' Arc and Why He Was Cut From the 'Sex and the City' Pilot (Q&A)

Tom Colicchio - H 2012
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Tom Colicchio

Top Chef, Bravo's Emmy-winning culinary Olympics, returns Wednesday for a 10th season of cutthroat challenges and flopsweat-heavy eliminations. The action is set this time in Seattle, where series vets Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and Padma Lakshmi will be joined at the judges' table by Emeril Lagasse, Hugh Acheson and a newcomer to the franchise, if not the world of celebrity: L.A. legend Wolfgang Puck.

Like last season's Top Chef: Texas, the first episode is something of a contestant slaughterhouse, pitting 21 hopefuls against one another for a few coveted spots at the Seattle table. Split into four groups, they are then dropped into the busy kitchens of the judges' restaurants and put to work. Colicchio eyes their butchering and line skills, Lagasse surveys their soup-making finesse, Acheson micro-judges microgreens with a salad challenge, and Puck -- well, he just wants a decent omelette.

Colicchio took a few minutes out of his insanely busy schedule -- in addition to his TV commitments on Top Chef and HBO's Treme, the five-time James Beard Foundation Medal winner runs 12 restaurants around the country -- to talk with The Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter: Hard to believe Top Chef is in its 10th season.

Tom Colicchio: Yup. Who knew?

THR: How long did you initially think the show would last?

Colicchio: I had no idea what to expect, but I figured three or four seasons. We really had no idea.

THR: Does it still feel fresh to you?

Colicchio: We keep changing it up. A lot of what we change happens organically as we shoot. For example, in the [fourth] Chicago season, we were having deliberations for a block party challenge on a stoop, and a producer said, “Save it for judges’ table.” And we said: “Why don’t you just shoot it? We’re here now talking about it, shoot it.” That’s how we started that pre-judging panel at the location before we return to the studio. Plus, every season you get a new crop of chefs. I still look forward to doing it. Hasn’t bored me yet!

THR: This show actually seems to have a great effect on careers. 

Colicchio: Number one, it was important that the industry embrace the show and not just look at it as another reality show that was just a joke. You see it in the talent of the chefs that come on the show; we’re bringing in professional chefs, not home cooks. Yes, we have to make an interesting show, and some of the challenges might seem a little out there, but we as judges don’t care about the challenges -- we care about food. I can’t fake it. I’m not an actor. 

THR: It seems [Dallas Magazine's "Most Hated Chef in Dallas"] John Tesar is being set up to be this season's villain. What’s your history with him? Did that make things awkward when it came to your decision?

Colicchio: It didn’t figure into my choice at all. I don’t know John very well. I know of him; I met him years ago at an event. But he never worked for me, and I never spent time with him outside of a professional setting. I never had a beer with him anywhere. I really think because I knew who he was, I was looking for a little more, if anything. I was being harder on him.

THR: How were you first approached to be on Treme?

Colicchio: Originally what happened is that I got a call from [series creator] David Simon’s office saying they wanted to talk to me about this show they were doing. I knew of David from The Wire.

THR: Were you a fan?

Colicchio: Loved it! I knew who he was. So [Simon] told me: "We’re going to want you to go down there with a few other chefs. You’re going to give [chef character Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens] your business card and become her rabbi, sort of, when she comes to New York.” So we go went down there -- me, Eric [Ripert], Wylie [Dufresne] and David [Chang] -- and shot it. That's how it all started. The great thing is that we are all so busy, but we get to fly down to New Orleans and spend the day and have a good time. I can’t deliver lines, but I can talk about food all night long. 

THR: Was that your first acting job? 

Colicchio: Let me think. No, actually, it wasn’t. I was supposed to do a cameo in a movie, and I completely screwed up my leg the day before shooting and couldn’t do it. Actually, it was the pilot for Sex and the City! It was shot in my restaurant when I had Gramercy Tavern, and they wanted me by the grill. Two things happened: I screwed up my leg, so I was on crutches, and we had a fire in the restaurant the night before, so we couldn’t light the grill. 

THR: So what do you tell someone who loves to cook but sucks. No technique, no decent equipment?

Colicchio: I'd tell them to go out and buy my book Think Like a Chef. [Laughs.] I’m half-serious about that, because when the book was written the whole idea was that I don’t use recipes when I cook, so I wanted to make a cookbook without recipes. Most cooks try to learn by making dishes. Doesn't mean you can cook. It means you can make that dish. When you can cook is when you can go to a farmers market, buy a bunch of stuff, then go home and make something without looking at a recipe. Now you're cooking. 

Top Chef: Seattle premieres at 10 p.m. Nov. 7 on Bravo