Tom Colicchio Breaks Down What It Takes To Judge On Top Chef - Exclusive

Tom Colicchio knows the in's and out's of the restaurant industry like no one else. According to Bloomberg, Colicchio hasn't just served as Top Chef's head judge and executive producer since the show's original season launched in 2006 (via IMDb), but has also worked professionally in the restaurant industry for decades, having started out as a busboy and prep cook at Elizabeth, NJ's Evelyn's Seafood back in 1980. Over the years, Colicchio rose through the ranks, becoming the executive chef at Mondrian in New York, co-owner and executive chef at Gramercy Tavern, and eventually opening Craft NYC. With this much real-world experience at every level in the restaurant industry, Colicchio has seen it all and knows just what it takes to make it as a chef.

Top Chef returns to television on April 1st for its 18th season, and the judging pool this time features a revolving cast of characters, including Richard Blais, Carrie Baird, Nina Compton, Tiffany Derry, Gregory Gourdet, and more (via Bravo). To find out just what it takes to serve as a judge on the show, chef Colicchio sat down exclusively with Mashed to discuss the roles of judges on Top Chef, his favorite aspects of meeting new chefs on the show, and how to stay out of kitchen drama.

Always focus on the food

When it comes to evaluating Top Chef participants, head judge Tom Colicchio likes to play it cool and stay out of any interpersonal drama. "I mean, for me, it's always been about the food," Colicchio said. "It's not about the drama. Quite frankly, most of that drama that happens behind the scenes, we have no idea it's happening, and so when I get that, 'Well, didn't you see so-and-so did this incident?' No, I didn't do that. I didn't see it. I don't know. I didn't know what happened."

"We care about the food and that's it," Colicchio continued. "And so, that hasn't changed at all. For me, the criteria [is] is something cooked properly, is it seasoned properly? That's where we start. And then after that, then it's, 'Did they adhere to the challenge? How interesting is the dish at that point?'"

According to Colicchio, this sentiment reflects how Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons operate as judges too. "I think having Gail and Padma as part of the judging team for so long, we've all been together, [almost] every season," Colicchio said. "We all kind of have a good sense of what we like and what we care about, and my feeling is we come and we have to make an argument for what we think, why we feel that way, and you make a good argument, and that hasn't changed." This consistent approach helped define the tone of judging on the show and continues to carry over from season to season.

The best part of working with new chefs

As a trained chef, Tom Colicchio knows what to look for in each contestant on Top Chef. Thanks to his years of experience and objective view, Colicchio takes great pleasure in working with each new chef he meets on the show.

"For me, I try to treat each chef [like] they're cooks in my kitchen," Colicchio said. "So, part of what I do... And a lot of this, it doesn't make the cut. A part of it is not just teaching them. Not just critiquing them, but really trying to mentor them and try to sort of help them, and often at the end of the season, we hear from all the chefs said, 'Hey, thanks for the comments, and I think I'm a better cook now.' And when we see them years later, they feel good about the time they spent there. I mean, it's like going through bootcamp — it's hard. Typically, we tell the contestants it's going to be difficult, and they're like, 'Yeah, I work in the restaurant business. I know hard.' Halfway through they're like, 'I've never thought it was going to be this difficult.'"

When Colicchio mentors these up-and-coming chefs, many of them truly heed his advice and wind up making it big. Season eight's winner, Richard Blais, ended up opening a chain of fried chicken restaurants in California, while season four's Stephanie Izard has opened several restaurants since winning as well (via Robb Report).

A new season with the same old attitude

After 17 seasons, you might expect Top Chef to have changed gears several times over, refocusing on different aspects of the restaurant experience. Despite a shifting cast of contestants and judges, the same values and skills have remained consistent.

"No, the judging hasn't changed," Colicchio said. "The cool thing is over the years, I mean, 17 seasons, and I think it's 13 years, you see trends come and go, which is kind of neat. The molecular gastronomy was kind of hot for a couple of seasons, and thank God that's gone."

Colicchio has made sure that only the best parts of the show have stuck. "What parts of it have stayed?" Colicchio asked. "The parts that are legit stayed, and it's kind of neat to see, but for me, the best part about doing the show is being able to meet so much young talent that I probably wouldn't get a chance to meet or know if I were just in my restaurants, doing my thing... So it's really exposed me to a lot of what's going on out there in the world, and that's been great for this many seasons to have been a part of so many chefs' lives and development."

You can catch chef Tom Colicchio on the newest season of Top Chef, premiering April 1st on Bravo, or check out his newest sandwich collaboration with French's.