Tom Colicchio Talks Topping Rose House
by stephanie march
I met Tom Colicchio nearly 12 years ago at his restaurant Craft in Manhattan. I had just started dating a chef myself (my now husband, acclaimed chef Bobby Flay), and I came to understand there was a club, a posse, a brash group of young men in their 30s who ruled the New York food scene. Tom was most certainly among them. It was the last days before the food culture turned into the media juggernaut that it is today—well before top-rated food television, restaurant expansion to Las Vegas, cameras on cell phones, and stadium-style cook-offs. These were the days of late nights at Blue Ribbon, restaurant league basketball games, and when the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen was like a members-only club. We all drank more, traveled less, and everyone knew everyone else. The other thing everyone could do: cook. Man, could Tom cook. Still can. I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Tom at the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton to discuss his brand-new restaurant venture and his love of the Peconic Bay.
Stephanie March: You’ve had a presence in the North Fork for many years, so what drew you to Topping Rose House and Bridgehampton?
Tom Colicchio: I definitely didn’t want to do anything near where I lived [in the Hamptons]; I come out here for downtime, not work time, but when I was approached by Bill Campbell to do this, I thought it was a great opportunity. At first he asked us to do the restaurant and as compelling as that was, it is a great space but a small restaurant, so we made a pitch to run the whole property. It moves us into a new business—a hotel operator—as opposed to just restaurants.
SM: So it was as much about changing the scope of your business as it was about the location?
TC: Yes. There are customers out here who might not come to our places in the city. The Hamptons have become an international playground, and it broadens our reach and expands our clientele.
SM: One of the things I noticed when I ate here is the menu really features the sides and not the main. Can you tell us why that is?
TC: There are two reasons for it. When I go out to eat, I look at the garnishes. I don’t care about the fish or the lamb; I am looking at the sides. Flavor profiles are really in the herbs or the vegetables, not the protein. That is what determines the character of the dish. Also, naturally raised meat is more expensive, so I’ve shrunk the portions and featured the produce. Some people think I’m trying some sort of sleight of hand, but that’s not at all the case. I am trying to feature local, responsibly raised goods. It’s not necessarily any big statement; it’s just where I am in food right now. Anyone who wants to, can stop in and try it.
SM: Almost all your restaurants have great private dining rooms (PDRs) for parties and Topping Rose is no exception.
TC: PDRs are great for specialty dinners. A chef can feature an ingredient or food trend that he might not want to build an entire restaurant around but has an opportunity to play with over a few nights. It’s great for off-season weekends to have wine-pairing dinners, dinners consisting wholly of local game, or even music dinners. It makes the Topping Rose a complete weekend experience with a specialty dinner, the spa, and the local beauty.
SM: What is your favorite menu item right now at Topping Rose?
TC: I like the fluke with watermelon. It has an Asian influence, which is fun and new for me. This is also the first time I’ve ever had a pasta section on a menu. Weirdly, this is the most Italian menu I’ve ever had. My name is “Colicchio,” but I’m not really an Italian-American chef. It’s nice to explore that, too.
SM: Where do you shop for your own food?
TC: When I’m on the North Fork, it’s Sang Lee Farms—great organic produce and the best pepper jelly. They ran out of peppers this summer, and there was probably a month or so where they didn’t have the jelly, so I made a batch. I had to have it. They also have a really good kimchi. We’re fortunate to have Browder’s Birds eggs, the best eggs I’ve had in the United States, bright orange yolks— they’re delicious. We also have a great cheese shop in Mattituck—The Village Cheese Shop. Our downtown is one block, and this shop is world class. And a place called the Salamander General Store in Greenport has the best fried chicken. I remember finding it the first time by walking around Greenport following the smell. You’ve got to pre-order it. It’s a good thing to pick up on Friday night when you drive in. I still think the best fish market on the South Fork is Stuart’s Seafood Market.
SM: What about food for Topping Rose?
TC: We have our own farm in the back. It’s starting to produce. All the lettuces are local; we pick them fresh for the salads by three o’clock. We have carrots and radishes and beets coming in now. We have a whole list of local farms that supply us as well. We are using all local fish. We just got some beautiful lamb in from upstate; I am trying that tonight.
SM: Tell me about your new show called Hooked Up on YouTube’s Reserve Channel.
TC: It’s just me fishing with guests. We fish, and we talk. I mean, that’s what fishing really is—just sitting in a beautiful setting and chatting. Right now it’s tough to get guests because so many people pack up for the fall, but we are shooting some in New York, and we are looking forward to next season.
SM: How do you, your wife, Lori, and your kids celebrate the holidays out here? Any special plans for Christmas?
TC: I enjoy Christmas Eve and cooking “the seven fishes” at the house with the whole family.
SM: When you are in the Hamptons, where do you like to eat?
TC: I love having breakfast on the weekends at Estia’s Little Kitchen. They have it down. When you walk in there to have breakfast, you really feel like you are in the country. Even though this is supposed to be the country, part of the Hamptons can feel more urban, but Estia’s really nails it.
SM: Where do you like to go for a little music?
TC: Stephen Talkhouse, no question.
SM: Where do you like to play your music?
TC: Me? Well, I have a guitar with me. It’s up in my room. If I’m away from home for a week, I will take a guitar with me. I’ve been working so much it hasn’t been out of its case yet, but I’ll use it soon. I play for myself; I haven’t taken it out on the Topping Rose porch yet.
SM: Can we anticipate that?
TC: [Laughs] No. Probably not.
SM: That’s too bad. I was hoping for late nights on the Topping Rose porch. Well, I was going to ask you where you and Lori would go out for a meal here in the Hamptons, but it sounds like you’re at Topping Rose, so you’re probably cooking it.
TC: Yeah, I’m probably cooking it. Sometimes we go to the Lunch Truck on the North Fork. They have great lobster rolls, sandwiches, and pozole. It’s a cool scene because behind the trunk is a little field, where you can bring a blanket and enjoy your food while the kids can run around.
SM: I know from personal experience it is difficult in the restaurant industry to separate the “work self” from the “play self.” How are you going to differentiate your time out here?
TC: [Laughs] I fish a lot; I have a passion for it. This is the best time of year to fish, so I moved the boat to Montauk as opposed to the North Fork. I’m actually staying here [at Topping Rose], so I wake up at six o’clock in the morning, fish for a couple of hours, and come to work.
SM: How did you become such an avid angler?
TC: I’ve been fishing with my grandfather since I was 5 years old. I have to be by the water. It’s very important to me.
SM: You’re going to spend nights here as the restaurant grows into itself?
TC: For the first two months I like to be on property, but at a certain point I am not needed. I’m lucky in that we already have a chef and a whole team here who are doing a great job, so when I feel I am not needed during service, I pull back. I am confident in the team in the kitchen. Most people don’t understand that: Being a chef is about management style, creating a system that can be reproduced, and hiring good people who can do that. I’ve always loved that line by Paul Bocuse; someone asked him years ago when he was traveling who was cooking in his restaurant and he said, “The same person who cooks there every night.”
SM: People always say, “Chef means cook,” and I always say, “No, chef means boss.”
TC: Chef means boss, exactly. In France, Springsteen would be called “chef.”
Photography by Melanie Dunea; Mark Jordan (dining room)
Styling by Sarah Liebowitz; Prop styling by Stephanie DiTullio; Grooming by Kerstin Jaeger for Dior Beauté at BA-Reps.com