The untold truth of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio

Since the launch of Top Chef in 2006, viewers have become enamored of judge and mentor Tom Colicchio, a chef, restaurateur, and political activist whose passion for food and knowledge of cuisine has made him a longstanding fan favorite.

A native of New Jersey, Colicchio's Top Chef bio runs through some of his many accolades: His many well-known restaurants and eateries, the famous kitchens he's worked in over the years, books he's published. His official bio even talks a little about the fact that he co-founded a political action group called Food Policy Action, an organization with a mission to reduce hunger and promote healthy eating. But all that doesn't really scratch the surface, does it?

Colicchio's high profile has only heightened thanks to his association with Top Chef, yet how much do fans of the show really know about Colicchio and his rags-to-riches rise to culinary glory? Find out by exploring the untold truth of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio.

Tom Colicchio has only spat out food on Top Chef twice

Serving as a judge over the course of more than a dozen seasons of Top Chef, Tom Colicchio has tasted a lot of food, and not all of it has been worth tasting. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Colicchio revealed what happened when something he sampled was so vile that he literally couldn't keep it in his mouth.

"There were only two dishes that I spit out," he said, revealing one incident that longtime viewers will recall seeing on the show. "We were in the desert in Las Vegas, and it was about 110 degrees. We were served more-than-room-temperature raw fish. It was pretty gross," he admitted.

The other time he spat out a dish wasn't actually captured on camera. "It was a clam, and it was kind of warm, as well, with lychee, and something about it just made that gag reflex go off," he told THR with a laugh. However, he insisted that the show's overall track record for amazing food has been pretty near impeccable. "We don't get a lot of bad dishes," he said.

Why Tom Colicchio thought his first TV appearance would also be his last

Tom Colicchio may be a seasoned television veteran, but back in 1991 he was a rising superstar chef who had never been in front of a TV camera when he was booked to do a cooking segment on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. As Colicchio recalled to Bon Appetit, he didn't realize he was supposed to attend a rehearsal. This, he said, led to a producer yelling, "You're going to mess this up, I can't believe this, I should just cut you right now."

When something didn't go as planned during the live show, host Regis Philbin joked, "Well, that's what happens when you miss rehearsal." Colicchio assumed that was a barb aimed at him, but soon realized Philbin had also missed rehearsal, and was joking about himself. "He didn't even know I missed it because he wasn't there," recalled Colicchio. 

"So we get through the segment and I get it done in time and it's just perfect. The producer came over after the segment and she just said, 'Wow, that was really great. Anytime you want to come by, just let us know.' And I was like, 'I will never do TV again.'"

The tragic reason Tom Colicchio nearly postponed his wedding

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and wife Lori Silverbush seriously considered calling off their wedding when unforeseen circumstances intervened. The wedding date had long been set, scheduled to take place on September 15, 2001 until the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks took place days before the nuptials were planned. Ultimately, the couple decided to carry through with their plans, reports the New York Times, deciding love would triumph over terror. The couple exchanged vows in front of about 120 family members and friends in attendance, while cancelled flights in the days after the attacks prevented 30 guests from making it. 

According to the Times, the rabbi who performed the ceremony acknowledged the tragedy. "Here in America, and there in Jerusalem, spread over us your canopy of peace," said Rabbi Bonnie Cohen in her prayer. "Amen," answered the crowd in response. 

Colicchio addressed the timing of his nuptials in a 2017 tweet. "My wife + I were married 4 days after 9/11," he wrote, adding that he thought about cancelling, but his wedding ring was inscribed "don't postpone joy." Did you just get chills?

Tom Colicchio produced an important film

In addition to his multiple roles as chef, restaurateur, Top Chef judge and political activist, in 2013 Tom Colicchio added another entry to his résumé: movie producer.

Colicchio, who is also executive producer of Top Chef, served in the same role for A Place at the Table, a probing documentary directed by his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush. The doc addresses a rather harsh statistic: 50 million Americans — and one in four children — go hungry each day. The film, states its official synopsis, demonstrates workable solutions to solve this problem permanently "once the American public decides — as they have in the past — that ending hunger is in the best interests of us all."

Speaking with Time, Colicchio revealed the most surprising thing he learned in the course of making the film is that hunger is something that can be fixed. "It's not something like climate change or terrorism," he explained. "We can fix it and we've fixed it before."

Tom Colicchio was sued for allegedly stealing servers' tips

Tom Colicchio is not the type of celebrity who typically stirs up scandal in the tabloids, yet in May 2019 the Top Chef judge found himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit alleging that one of his companies intentionally stole servers' tips.

Eater offered details of the lawsuit filed by a server who worked events at Colicchio's Temple Court, a restaurant located within the Beekman Hotel. The suit alleges that over a period of six years, tips meant for staff working at private events at the restaurant were held by managers, and not distributed to the staff. In addition, the suit claimed that clients hosting those events were charged $500 staffing fees and a 23 percent administrative fee, which, the suit charged, should have been distributed among staff. 

Colicchio, however, disputed the allegations, saying that tips are not collected at these events, and instead, staff is paid a rate of $25 per hour. He told Eater the private event contract clearly states those fees aren't gratuities meant to be given to event staff, but instead are applied to operating costs. Said Colicchio, "We believe that we operate above-board."

Tom Colicchio quit a food policy group he launched

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio is one of the founders of Food Policy Action, an organization devoted to pushing for federal legislation to "make our food system more balanced and provide healthy, affordable food for all," according to the group's website. He threw the weight of his celebrity behind the organization and its lofty goals — until he wound up exiting it completely in 2018.

Colicchio announced his intention to part ways with Food Policy Action in an Instagram post, admitting it was "with equal parts sadness and appreciation that I am announcing my resignation from the board." 

In an interview with The New York Times, Colicchio shed light on his decision to part ways with the group. As he explained, he remained committed to the organization's mission, but didn't think what it was doing had been particularly effective. "I think lobbying efforts around food aren't going to work, and I'd rather spend my time trying to change Congress instead of shouting into the void," he told the Times. "I'd rather spend my time getting better people elected." 

Tom Colicchio was brutally roasted by Top Chef co-star Padma Lakshmi

Tom Colicchio has never taken himself too seriously, and this came across loud and clear when he agreed to be the subject of the second annual Chef's Roast in 2015.

As The Washingtonian reported, the guest of honour took some shots from Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, who joked about Colicchio recently being honoured by his hometown. "Citizen of the year in Elizabeth, New Jersey is like being named 'Healthiest Food at McDonald's,' or 'The Tallest Midget in the Circus'," Lakshmi quipped.

She also joked about Colicchio's Top Chef eye-rolling when he thinks she can't see him. "I can see you. I've always seen you. I have eyes in my ears. Plus there are 14 cameras rolling. You're not fooling anybody," she said. "But then I realized why he's rolling his eyes. It's the only way he knows how to fake that he's actually listening." She concluded by poking fun at his "simple" tastes. "He wakes up in the morning and he eats his eggs with the same spice-rubbed squash as you and me," she joked.

The heartwarming reason Tom Colicchio loves to go fishing

Tom Colicchio is an avid fisherman, whose love of angling was the focus of a feature about the Top Chef judge in Men's Journal. Fishing, Colicchio told the magazine, was something he's done since he was a kid, though his methods have changed a lot over the years. 

As Colicchio told the Wall Street Journal, it was originally something he did with his dad, a corrections officer who passed away when the chef was just 26. He said he was just 5 when he first started going out on the water with his father on weekend fishing expeditions. "He wasn't a very good fisherman, so I probably learned patience on his boat," said Colicchio. "He always had a fishing line in the water, but most of the time we were crabbing and clamming."

Those trips with his father began his love of fishing — which eventually dovetailed with his passion for cooking, he told Men's Journal. Colicchio's quest to bring fresh, local ingredients to his restaurants led him to become an advocate for sustainable fishing

It also resulted in his own YouTube fishing show Hooked Up with Tom Colicchio, which launched in 2012 as a part of the Hooked Up Channel, and saw him go on fishing trips with celebrities ranging from chef Eddie Huang to Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell.

The first thing Tom Colicchio does every morning — and why it makes him "so happy"

In September 2019, Tom Colicchio and his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, gave Wine Spectator a tour of their Brooklyn brownstone. One of the home's somewhat unique features is the backyard garden, where Colicchio grows herbs and vegetables to use when preparing meals for his family.

In addition to serving as a source of fresh ingredients for his dishes, the backyard garden also proved to be therapeutic to the celebrity chef. "I get up in the morning at six, I'm out in the garden for two hours and then my day starts, and it's just a much better day," he told the magazine. "It makes me so happy." 

Gardening, Colicchio explained, provides him with a constantly blooming reminder that there's only so much about life that can actually be controlled, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. "I don't know exactly what they're going to grow into," he said of his herbs and vegetables. "You just have to let them grow."

Tom Colicchio is pretty obsessed with gardening, for a good reason

If Tom Colicchio's backyard garden in his Brooklyn brownstone has become a place for contemplation and reflection, but it's more than just a hobby. In an interview with Food & Wine, the Top Chef judge admitted he's become somewhat obsessed with gardening. "If I have the whole day and I know I have to get a certain amount done, I can spend the morning, afternoon and evening out there tinkering and harvesting," he said.

"The process is constant, it doesn't stop and that's what I like about it. It's never finished," he explained. And, of course, there's harvest time. "I get to cook everything that I grow," he added.

Another reason he's come to love his garden is the unanticipated health benefits he's experienced from it. "Gardening is really relaxing and it's good for me, both mentally and physically," he revealed. "The first summer I did it, I lost 20 pounds." He also opined about the way working in the garden contributes to "quieting your mind." He did, however, single out one drawback. "The only negative part is it cuts into my fishing time," joked the avid fisherman.

Tom Colicchio once saved someone's life

Not only is Tom Colicchio a Top Chef judge and celebrity chef, he's also quite literally a lifesaver

Back in 2009, Colicchio was attending a fundraising event in Washington, D.C., when somebody began asking in a panicked tone whether anyone knew the Heimlich maneuver. Colicchio did, and performed it on a female part host who was choking on a piece of food that had lodged in her throat. Colicchio's efforts were successful, dislodging the potentially fatal food and saving the woman's life.

That woman was Joan Nathan, an award-winning cookbook author, who wrote about her experience being saved by Colicchio in a piece for the New York Times. In a subsequent interview with Time, Colicchio confirmed his spur-of-the-moment heroism. 

"It's true. It all happened so quickly," said Colicchio, recalling he was in the midst of a conversation when he looked over and saw Nathan holding her throat and two people next to her patting her back." He walked over, asked if she could talk, and when she gestured that she couldn't he performed the maneuver that saved her life. "I had some training," he explained. "I was a lifeguard when I was 17 years old."

Tom Colicchio loses weight filming Top Chef while Padma Lakshmi gains it

One of the weirdest facts to emerge from the annals of Top Chef involves weight changes with two of the show's stars. As host Padma Lakshmi told People, part of her duties on the show involve tasting the contestants' dishes — which can be a lot of food. During the 2008 season, set in Chicago, she wound up gaining 17 pounds. "They wanna win," said Lakshmi of the chefs' caloric creations. "They don't care about my waistline, so there's duck sausage and taleggio and oozing burrata and ground meat, bacon, anything they can shove in there to make it decadent and juicy!"

In a subsequent interview with People, Tom Colicchio revealed that when he works on the show he tends to actually lose weight. "She eats more than I do on the set because she does the quickfire challenges and the eliminations and I only do the eliminations," Colicchio said of Lakshmi. "I actually tend to lose weight believe it or not."

Tom Colicchio doesn't see everything that Top Chef viewers do during filming

Speaking with Eater Denver, Tom Colicchio revealed some of the behind-the-scenes facts of which viewers may not be aware. One of these is that judges, by design, are forbidden from having any contact with the contestants until it's time for the judging. "They are not allowed to even say hello to us if we are off camera," Colicchio explained. "And there is someone with them at all times to make sure that that happens."

As a result, Colicchio and his fellow judges are unaware of what takes place with the preparation of a dish until the finished product is placed in front of them. "A lot of the stuff you see from behind the scenes, we don't know," he added, admitting all those aspects of the show are kept hidden from the judges in order to allow them to be as impartial as possible when judging each dish.

"I have no idea what is going on right now while they are shopping. I don't know what is going on tonight when they go home," he insisted. "We don't get that information. We don't want it."

The most common mistake Tom Colicchio thinks people make when cooking

Tom Colicchio's knowledge of cooking is unparalleled. Given his vast experience, he shared what he believes to be the most common mistakes that he sees people making in the kitchen. 

Cooking well, he explained in a video for Business Insider, is like anything else: the more you work at it, the better you tend to become. "It's much like learning to play a musical instrument. You have to understand basics, you have to understand theory. And then from there you can improvise," he said. 

The most common thing he sees people doing wrong is how they slice and dice. He recommends that anyone trying to improve their abilities in the kitchen should "work on your knife skills. Getting comfortable with a knife is really important. Not just for speed but for precision as well. So I think, I think that's probably the most important thing."

Another big mistake he points to is sticking too closely to a recipe, which he sees more of "a guideline." According to Colicchio, a recipe "is just a starting off point and you can go from there."