Tom Colicchio Discusses The New Season Of Top Chef And His Latest Collaboration With French's - Exclusive Interview

If you follow the world of food, you can't miss Tom Colicchio's larger-than-life personality. As a chef, entrepreneur, food judge, and mastermind behind Top Chef, Colicchio has seen it all during his early years in the trenches as a line chef and at the top as the owner of several large restaurants (via Bloomberg). As a food advocate, Colicchio has worked tirelessly to help raise the visibility of healthy food sourcing at restaurants and at home, while finding unique, exciting ways of bringing these same ingredients into the restaurants he manages (via PBS). As a recipient of the coveted James Beard Award and author of several cookbooks, Colicchio can easily put his money where his mouth is and has what it takes to serve up some incredible creations that guarantee to stun us in the best ways possible.

As the new season of Top Chef starts its run, we caught up with Colicchio for an exclusive interview that dives into his latest collaboration making a healthy sandwich with French's, some sneak peeks into this season of Top Chef, insight into what it takes to judge dishes on the show, and much more.

Tom Colicchio's latest culinary masterpiece

I heard that you have a collaboration with French's creating the MustSwitch sandwich. What inspired this collaboration to take place?

Well, I mean, first off, I grew up eating and using French's Mustard. It was the preferred mustard in my house. So when French's called and started talking about the collaboration, it was a pretty simple "yes" for me. And then of course, when they said that they wanted me to come up with a sandwich featuring the mustard, but not just something where it was a re-imagined Reuben sandwich or something, we didn't want to just take the mustard and put it on the bread.

I had to give it some thought and we actually went through a couple of different ideas and then we ended up landing on this braised flank steak. One of my favorite things to put in a sandwich is Ropa Vieja, which is a Mexican dish where they braise a flank steak and then shred it, so I thought, "Well, okay. We can do the same thing, but using mustard instead of the cumin and other flavors that you associate that dish with. We'll just kind of braise it in stock and then mustard and some other spices, and get that part out of the way."

And so we played around with that. It worked really well, and I wanted to sort of add to it. So, [with] the mustard, you get that mustard kick and that high acid kick. From there, I wanted to add a few other elements and I wanted some sweetness, and so we got that from the golden raisins that we use in the marinade with the cauliflower. We get some crispness from the cauliflower because it's essentially raw, and then the sweetness from the golden raisins. [We] definitely were looking for some earthiness and the Hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, that's one of our signatures at Craft, and so I figured we add that, and then arugula to get that little peppery crunch and some freshness to the dish as well. And of course, some additional mustard on the bread, and then ciabatta. I wanted something that could stand up to all the ingredients, but still be soft enough up to take a good bite out of. So, that's how we came up with the dish.

That sounds very much like Craft, and sounds like exactly the flavor combinations you play with over there.

For me, if you're going to make a sandwich, and this is always what we talk about at 'Wichcraft a lot too, is that you still want balance. We always approach sandwich-making the same way we'd approach composing a dish, where you want certain elements of acid and some sweetness and maybe some richness or earthiness. You want all that there, and so, why not do that with a sandwich? I find that [with] a lot of sandwiches, you end up getting a few of those elements, but not all of them, so I think the combination of the cauliflower, the mushroom, and the braised mustard and the beef, I think works really, really well.

Why the ultimate sandwich collaboration made sense for Tom Colicchio

I'm excited to hear your thoughts on the challenge of not using mayo. I saw that part of this [event] is that you can trade in your mayo to get the sandwich.

Well, that's the idea. We want to get people to eat healthy, and one way to do that is to sort of give up a little mayonnaise for some mustard. The mushroom, I think, adds that richness to the dish without adding a ton of fat. That's the whole idea, is that you turn in a jar of mayonnaise. You don't have to, but turn in a jar of mayonnaise, you get a sandwich. You can bring a packet of mayonnaise. You can promise to eat less mayonnaise, and then the cool thing is we're doing this all in my private dining room, which we just renovated right before COVID, so it's a really cool open kitchen and we're turning [it] into the French's pop-up for the two days.

There's this [event] coming up, and then in a few weeks, the new season of Top Chef starts again, right?

It does, in April. I'm not sure of the date. I should know that, but I think it's in April.

I saw it's going to be happening in Portland this time. How did the whole shoot go this time around?

It did. It happened in Portland, and it went really well. Obviously, we had to shoot in a bubble, and we managed that. There were about 150 people on the crew and they all stayed in a hotel, and they were allowed to go from hotel to set, and everyone had to wear a mask on the set except for the contestants when they were cooking and the judges when we were eating and judging. But other than that, we all had to wear masks and it worked for the almost two months we were shooting. No one got sick, no one came down with COVID.

It worked really well, and so yeah, it's a great season, and the contestants were fantastic. Clearly, there were some emotions because of where we are and what we're doing, but it went really well. I mean, unfortunately for us, there are so many great restaurants in Portland, but we couldn't go out. It was kind of frustrating because there were so many great restaurants. A guy who worked for me for ages, started working when he was 15 years old, owns a restaurant in Portland, and this was the first time I'd been there since he moved and opened this restaurant. He was really excited for me to go, and I couldn't go even though the restaurant was open. I think they were down to 25 percent occupancy. We kind of had a deal with our cast and crew that we weren't going out.

I saw also the wildfires were happening during part of it, too.

Yeah, they were ... We lost, I think, one or two days of shooting, but it was rough for a couple days, it was pretty bad.

The best dishes Tom Colicchio has ever tasted on Top Chef

In the upcoming season, do you remember if there was a particular standout dish that really resonated with you?

Yeah, I can't say though. I can't say for this season because I might give something away, but there was some really inspired cooking. There was one particular dish that I liked a lot during Restaurant Wars. I'll leave it at that. But throughout the seasons ... I kind of forgot what I had. There's been so much great food over the years. I mean, some things have been really spectacular ... had some clunkers too over the years.

What do you think the best dish ever was?

It's hard to say because for a long time, I had an easy answer to that, and that was Paul Qui. In our Texas season, [he] did a dish that was very simple. It was a couple of roasted vegetables and dashi, and it just floored me in how simple and how really delicious it was. But since then, I know there are several times I've said, "This is the best thing I've eaten." So, in the course of the season, if I say, "This is the best thing I've eaten," I mean it.

I also imagine during the course of [the series], there must be so many steps that you can mess up on, too. When it comes to these challenges, what do you think the biggest mistake was that had cost someone the victory?

I think the biggest mistake is often sometimes chefs get out of their, I don't even want to say, comfort zone. Out of their core competency, and sometimes they try too hard. They get over eager and they mess things up. They're not cooking in a vacuum, meaning they're not in their kitchen with nothing happening around them, and they're just kind of taking their time, which is the way you would cook if you were cooking at home or whatever, even in a restaurant. It's so set up that you could do a lot. And these cooks are by themselves and they're running around.

When you're in the Top Chef kitchen, your workstation is pretty far away from the stove, and so to have something on a stove and to not be really paying attention to it because you're rushing. You have to do something else, that's where the mistakes happen, and so it's tough. And so, the chefs that could keep track of time in their heads very quickly, when they could think of something that they're going to do and they can keep it simple, they make sure every step along the way, everything is correct — that's the chef who usually does well.

Sometimes when you try too much, it's hard to accomplish all that, given the time constraints. I mean, the clock is not your friend. It's tough. Listen, Top Chef clearly favors a chef that could think fast on their feet. I know friends of mine that are some of the best chefs in the world, but they have to write out the dish, they have to try four or five times before it goes on the menu and they mess with it, mess with it. This wouldn't work for them, but there are certain chefs that could shoot from the hip and those are the chefs that do better on the show.

Tom Colicchio's criteria for judging a Top Chef dish

I'm sure this time with COVID around, that's a whole other component. When we factor those two things together, was it a big challenge [to overcome]?

Well, the one thing is when we were in the studio, I think everybody felt pretty safe. And so for that time that we were shooting in the studio, you kind of forgot that COVID was happening, which was kind of neat. It was a good escape, except for the camera people wearing masks and stuff, but typically when we're shooting, we're so used to cameras, they go away. So, it was kind of nice.

I know you can't say anything else about the upcoming season, but when it comes to being a judge in Top Chef, has that changed at all for you? Is it kind of the same experience every single time?

I don't think much has changed. I mean, for me, it's always been about the food. It's not about the drama. Quite frankly, most of that drama that happens [is] 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. And so, that hasn't changed at all. For me, the criteria 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?"

And then you get down to the nitpicking little things here and there, but no, it hasn't at all. And in fact, I think having Gail and Padma as part of the judging team for so long, we've all been together, every season — Padma didn't do the first season, but we've all been together for a long time. We all kind of have a good sense of what we like and what we care about, and my feeling is [that] we come and we have to make an argument for what we think, why we feel that way, and you make a good argument — that hasn't changed.

Times change but great judging for Tom Colicchio stays the same

It's been the same from the very beginning. For me, I try to treat each chef as if they're cooks in my kitchen. 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 and sort of help them. Often, at the end of the season, we hear from all the chefs who 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 boot camp. 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 it's hard." Halfway through they're like, "I've never thought it was going to be this difficult."

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. What parts of it have stayed? 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, and 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.

Top Chef Season 18 premiered on Bravo on April 1 and you can find Tom Colicchio's recipe for the French's MustSwitch sandwich on French's website.