Catch Him If You Can


Men's Journal - - FRONT PAGE - By Ryan Krogh

When Top Chef star Tom Colic­chio needs to get away, it’s time to go fish­ing.

fatty chewi­ness that only comes from un­der­cook­ing it slightly. He gath­ered the eggs him­self from the chick­ens he raises in the back­yard of his Long Is­land home.

“We have four birds,” he tells me. “We used to have more, but a hawk got them this spring.”

While the in­gre­di­ents are su­perb, the pre­sen­ta­tion—at least for Mr. Top Chef him­self, who earned his rep­u­ta­tion in white-table­cloth es­tab­lish­ments like New York City’s Gramercy Tav­ern—might best be de­scribed as, well, lack­ing. Colic­chio f lopped the sand­wich down on the seat be­tween us, crammed into a zi­plock bag full of them. Then again, his tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter. It’s mid­morn­ing, the 5 a.m. cof­fee kick is wear­ing thin, and the fish we’re chas­ing off the Rhode Is­land coast are nowhere to be found. Even an ob­ses­sive an­gler would tell you: It’s time for break­fast.

“This is when the fish will show up,” he says, more out of habit than in­sight. “It’s al­ways when you’re not pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

In the past month, 56-year-old Colic­chio, the James Beard award–win­ning chef and founder of the restau­rant group Crafted Hos­pi­tal­ity, which op­er­ates a half-dozen res­tau­rants around the coun­try, has av­er­aged three days a week on his 26-foot Reg­u­la­tor boat, with twin Yamaha 250 out­boards. Early in the sum­mer, he was chas­ing mostly af­ter res­i­dent stripers in the waters around the east­ern end of Long Is­land, where he’s lived for the past 16 years. Later, he started pur­su­ing bluefin tuna when they showed up 80 miles off­shore in the Gulf Stream. There was even hope of hook­ing into a white mar­lin when the bite turned on. But now, in late Au­gust, with waves pro­jected at four to six feet, the easy ac­tion is back in­shore, run­ning up and down the Rhode Is­land coast­line, look­ing for striped bass or bonito, a tor­pedo-shaped cousin of the tuna, on a f ly rod.

Schools of bonito tend to bust on the ocean’s sur­face while chas­ing their prey, cre­at­ing a roil­ing, froth­ing mess. On a calm day, like to­day, you can see the dis­tur­bance from hun­dreds of yards off, which means you spend a lot of time gun­ning the boat up and down the coast­line, check­ing out likely spots, look­ing for any sign that the fish are about to erupt into the pis­ca­tory equiv­a­lent of an al­lyou-can-eat buf­fet af­ter happy hour.

“I swear these fish are spon­sored by Exxon­mo­bil, with all the gas you burn try­ing to find them,” says Kerry Hef­fer­nan, the head chef at New York’s Grand Banks Oys­ter Bar and a good friend of Colic­chio’s for 32 years. They met while work­ing at a ho­tel restau­rant in France and have fished to­gether ever since.

As the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and co-host of Top Chef, Colic­chio of­ten con­veys a pro­fes­so­rial tone when judg­ing dishes and dol­ing out cri­tiques to ner­vous con­tes­tants. That, com­bined with his unf linch­ing ad­vo­cacy for var­i­ous food poli­cies on Twit­ter and in D.c.—he’s lob­bied Congress reg­u­larly for the last decade on be­half of anti-hunger pro­grams—can make him seem, well, se­vere. Like he’ll scold you for not clean­ing your plate. On the wa­ter, though, he’s clearly re­laxed. Colic­chio and Hef­fer­nan share opin­ions about the lat­est TV shows, in­clud­ing the mer­its of Bet­ter Call Saul ver­sus Ozark, and dis­cuss the sights on the wa­ter, in­clud­ing the pri­vate, 3,300-acre Gar­diners Is­land and a de­stroyed con­crete bunker ris­ing out of the ocean.

“They used to use that is­land as an old bomb­ing tar­get dur­ing World War II,” says Hef­fer­nan. “Blew it to shit. Now it’s a nest­ing colony for birds.”

As we fin­ish the break­fast sand­wiches, Colic­chio and Hef­fer­nan de­cide to switch tac­tics. “It’s amaz­ing there’s this much bait and no fish,” Colic­chio says. “Some­thing ain’t right.” In­stead of bonito on a fly rod, it’s time to go deep—130 feet deep—and use squid as bait. “A


porgy or sea bass will save the day at this point,” he says. “I like go­ing off­shore. Even if you don’t catch fish, you see whales and por­poises, some­times right off the bow. I don’t even care if I catch fish. I just like be­ing on the wa­ter.”

IN AN AGE WHEN STAR CHEFS serve as both re­al­ity-tv celebri­ties and cul­tural en­light­en­ers of food ethics, Colic­chio has al­ways stood out as the celebrity chef who never specifi- cally chased star­dom or jumped on the lat­est culi­nary trends—even though he ended up defin­ing both. He won an Emmy for his work on Top Chef, and he’s won eight James Beard awards, in­clud­ing be­ing named the na­tion’s best chef in 2010. He did it mostly by re­ly­ing on sim­ple dishes made with just a few su­perb in­gre­di­ents. As he says, “I was us­ing lo­cal stuff be­fore it was a thing to do. It wasn’t to sup­port farm­ers. It was be­cause the food was bet­ter.”

But be­hind the dark suits and chef’s whites is a dis­tinctly blue-col­lar guy who grew up in El­iz­a­beth, New Jer­sey, and found his way to culi­nary star­dom—at least as he tells it— through a lot of hard work and a lit­tle luck. His first kitchen gig was at a seafood restau­rant in his home­town, where he bussed ta­bles and served as a prep cook. As a teenager, he worked a se­ries of restau­rant jobs up and down the Jer­sey coast be­fore mov­ing to New York and the Man­hat­tan restau­rant scene in the early 1980s. His break came in 1988, when he was 26, shortly af­ter his dad, a corrections of­fi­cer, died from can­cer. Colic­chio was in France, work­ing with famed chef Michel Bras, when he got a call from a group of Mor­gan Stan­ley in­vestors who owned Mon­drian, then a strug­gling French restau­rant in Mid­town. The head chef had left, and they needed a re­place­ment im­me­di­ately. Colic­chio packed his knives and came back to New York.

“I was lucky that these guys took a shot with me,” he says. “No one knew who the hell I was.”

Colic­chio re­vamped the menu, adding a num­ber of seafood dishes—a nod to his Jer­sey shore roots—and placed an em­pha­sis

fresh in­gre­di­ents. In France, Bras had been ob­sessed with un­usual foods that he could gather him­self. “Ev­ery­thing was lo­cal,” Colic­chio says. “This guy would ac­tu­ally for­age him­self. I only worked there for a month and a half, two months, but he com­pletely changed the way I cooked.”

At Mon­drian, he be­gan sourc­ing the restau­rant’s veg­eta­bles from the famed Union Square Green Mar­ket. “I started go­ing three times a week,” he says. “I would lit­er­ally take my truck, drive into the mar­ket, load it up, and then drive to the restau­rant on 59th Street.”

The re­views were ef­fu­sive. The New York Times gave him three stars, a coup for the restau­rant, declar­ing, “If Mon­drian in­deed is ex­pir­ing as scut­tle­butt pe­ri­od­i­cally has it, the city’s fine din­ing scene will be poorer for it. Should such a sad day ar­rive, I cer­tainly wouldn’t want to miss the food at the wake.”

It was while at Mon­drian that Colic­chio be­gan in­dulging in his other ob­ses­sion: fish­ing. One of the own­ers reg­u­larly drove to the Delaware River Water­shed, two hours north­west of Man­hat­tan, to chase trout on a fly rod. Colic­chio, who had been fish­ing since he was a kid, but only with a spin­ning rod, be­gan join­ing in.

“When I started fly-fish­ing, that was pretty much it,” he says. “I fished trout for a bunch of years, and then I went on my first bone­fish­ing trip. A friend told me, ‘Once you do that, you’re not go­ing to want to fish trout any­more,’ and for a long time I didn’t.”

The two pas­sions—fish­ing and cook­ing—be­gan merg­ing al­most out of ne­ces­sity. As Colic­chio’s em­pire grew in the wake of launch­ing Crafted Hos­pi­tal­ity in 2001, he had to spend more and more en­ergy on sourc­ing top-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents, in­clud­ing sus­tain­able fish. And be­ing a fish­er­man, he was par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to the sourc­ing.

To­day, he re­li­giously fol­lows the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Mon­terey Bay Aquar­ium’s Seafood Watch, the most trusted pro­gram avail­able for cer­ti­fy­ing sus­tain­able fish and those that are most threat­ened. (Over­fish­ing has caused the col­lapse of nearly 30 per­cent of the ocean’s fish stocks, and 60 per­cent of what’s re­main­ing is fished to ca­pac­ity, mean­ing even a slight change could cause the demise of a par­tic­u­lar species.) Still, as a fish­er­man, with a sur­plus of on-the-wa­ter anec­dotes and decades of first-per­son ex­pe­ri­ence, he has his own opin­ions on the health of fish stocks. Colic­chio also hosted his own short-lived Youtube show, called Hooked Up, which was ded­i­cated to get­ting on the wa­ter with other celebri­ties, like chef Ed­die Huang and for­mer NFL wide re­ceiver Plaxico Buress.

“It was a ton of fun,” Colic­chio says of the show, “mostly be­cause it was an ex­cuse to fish. How of­ten am I on the wa­ter? Not as of­ten as I’d like. That’s the clas­sic fish­er­man’s re­sponse.”

AF­TER SWITCH­ING FLY RODS for bait cast­ers, the ac­tion turns on quickly for Colic­chio and Hef­fer­nan. Be­tween New York’s Fish­ers Is­land and Rhode Is­land is a deep chan­nel that North­east fish­er­men of­ten re­fer to as the Sluice­way, be­cause it’s one of the first spots where the open waters of the At­lantic rush into and out of Long Is­land Sound. It’s re­mark­ably deep for how close it is to shore, 150 feet or more, and no sooner is Colic­chio drop­ping his line to the bot­tom with strips of squid at­tached to cir­cle hooks than he and Hef­fer­nan are reel­ing up black sea bass and small, spiny dog­fish sharks.

“Fish on!” says Hef­fer­nan.

“Fi­nally,” says Colic­chio.

When they get a sea bass in the boat, they quickly break out a mea­sur­ing stick to make sure it meets the size limit be­fore toss­ing it in a live well. As more fish are reeled in, the mood light­ens, and the two start chat­ting about pol­i­tics, spurred on by the sight of a se­ries of U.S. f lags along the coast at half-staff, in trib­ute to Sen­a­tor John Mc­cain, two days af­ter his death.

“They couldn’t even get that right,” says Colic­chio, re­fer­ring to the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the White House’s de­ci­sion to buck tra­di­tion and fully raise its f lag af­ter only one day. “The guy’s a war hero.”

In ad­di­tion to the judg­ing on Top Chef, Colic­chio has earned a rep­u­ta­tion on Twit­ter for his stri­dent po­lit­i­cal views. Less than a week be­fore our fish­ing trip, he woke up to the words “Cuomo=death to Amer­ica” (re­fer­ring to New York gover­nor An­drew Cuomo), “Go Home,” and his wife’s name along with a de­faced Star of David spray-painted in red across his lawn and side­walk.

“When the cops came, they were like, ‘This is some­one you know,’ ” he says. “But it wasn’t. It was ran­dom, maybe some guy who saw my feed and de­cided to in­tim­i­date me.” I ask him if it did. “Nah, no way,” he says. “That’s what they want. What’s fucked up is they went af­ter my wife.”

Colic­chio cred­its his wife, film­maker Lori Sil­ver­bush, for his po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing. The two met while she was a wait­ress at Gramercy Tav­ern when he was run­ning it with restau­ra­teur Danny Meyer, of Shake Shack fame. The two mar­ried in 2001, the year he opened his flag­ship restau­rant, Craft, and in 2007, Sil­ver­bush started men­tor­ing a teenage girl she met through a New York City char­ity. (The

cou­ple have two sons, ages 7 and 9.) One day, her school called to in­form Sil­ver­bush that the girl had been dis­cov­ered for­ag­ing for food in the trash out­side the school.

That ex­pe­ri­ence even­tu­ally led Sil­ver­bush to make the film A Place at the Ta­ble, which fo­cuses on hunger in the U.S. and many of the po­lit­i­cal un­der­pin­nings that ex­ac­er­bate it. Colic­chio ap­peared in the film, and soon af­ter­ward found him­self ques­tion­ing the char­i­ta­ble work he’d been do­ing for years. He started be­com­ing more po­lit­i­cally ac­tive as a way to ef­fect change, and that even­tu­ally led him to co-found Food Pol­icy Ac­tion (FPA) in 2012, an ad­vo­cacy group for bet­ter food poli­cies within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. It was through FPA that he be­came a fix­ture in D.C. and on the Hill, lobbying Congress. But he left the non­profit ear­lier this year af­ter a dis­agree­ment with its new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and on­go­ing frus­tra­tion with the ef­fec­tive­ness of lobbying this par­tic­u­lar Congress.

“The last time I was there,” Colic­chio says, “you’d have a meet­ing with Paul Ryan’s staff or other mem­bers, and they would all say the same thing: ‘No one knows what’s go­ing on.’ ”

In­stead, he de­cided to use his Twit­ter soap­box to ad­vo­cate for bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tives who would lis­ten, which led to the screed on his front lawn. “That was so fucked up,” he says. “But it’s what hap­pens when you stand up for change.”

THESE DAYS, COLIC­CHIO IS as busy as ever. He’s just fin­ished film­ing Sea­son 16 of Top Chef. He’s open­ing a new restau­rant in Roo­sevelt Mall on Long Is­land and is work­ing on a food-court con­cept in Kan­sas City, Mis­souri. This is on top of manag­ing the six cur­rent res­tau­rants un­der Crafted Hos­pi­tal­ity. On the boat, af­ter drop­ping Hef­fer­nan off at his home in Sag Har­bor, Colic­chio takes a busi­ness call to dis­cuss the op­er­a­tions at Crafted Hos­pi­tal­ity, ev­ery­thing from con­cerns about a spe­cific sous chef to as­sess­ing re­cent re­views. He does this while mo­tor­ing up the tidal Pe­conic River. Once docked, he washes his boat, scales the fish he’s kept, and tosses them in the trunk of his Jaguar XF sedan, then heads home, where his two kids and their friends are gath­ered.

The house is an old barn struc­ture that he and Sil­ver­bush ren­o­vated a decade ago. And, yes, the kitchen is as im­pres­sive as you think it would be, with an is­land the size of a 12-per­son din­ing ta­ble as the cen­ter­piece. As he fil­lets a black sea bass and be­gins prep­ping in­gre­di­ents from his back­yard gar­den (see recipe, left), he oc­ca­sion­ally tosses pieces of meat to his flat­coated re­triever, named Piper.

Colic­chio put in the gar­den sev­eral years back. “My grand­fa­ther used to gar­den in five­g­al­lon buck­ets with, like, toma­toes and zuc­chini and eg­g­plant,” he says. “I like do­ing it. It’s good for the kids to see stuff grow.”

Af­ter the fish is cooked, he gives me a tour of the gar­den: There are boxes and boxes of veg­eta­bles—gar­lic, toma­toes, leeks, squash, car­rots, pota­toes, etc. He talks about en­larg­ing it, maybe even in­stalling a green­house to grow crops year-round.

“I love com­ing back here,” he says, clearly proud. “It’s work, but I don’t mind do­ing it.” Then, al­most off hand, he ut­ters an­other clas­sic fish­er­man’s re­tort. “The only thing I worry about,” he says, smil­ing, “is the work cut­ting into my boat time.”


Colic­chio, right, with his long­time friend, chef Kerry Hef­fer­nan, off New York’s Grand Banks.

From left: Colic­chio with a black sea bass he landed off Long Is­land; se­lect­ing lures in the early morn­ing light.

Colic­chio, in his kitchen, fil­let­ing a black sea bass he caught that morn­ing.

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