Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary. But not just any restaurants—those that were overhyped, in some cases to the point of backlash. Now they have to survive with the rest of the pack.[Krieger, 11/24/09]
Just one month after the market crashed last year, Craftman and celeb chef Tom Colicchio announced he would be opening a new concept in Craft's private dining room. Named Tom: Tuesday Dinner, the bi-weekly restaurant would feature a hyper-seasonal, always changing $150-200 menu cooked by the man himself. And there were only 32 seats a night. While the buzz may have died down over the last year, Colicchio reports the demand has not. They still sell out every dinner, as well as surprise last minute Wednesday dinners. In fact, he likes doing this composed plated food so much—Craft's dishes, served family style, typically highlight a single ingredient—he's opening a TTD-inspired full service restaurant sometime next year. Let Tom explain:
Fall '08 wasn't the best time for fine dining. Why launch this concept? TC: A few reasons. The economy did have something to do with it. Private dining bookings were off, and we had this space next door. So then at least one night a week I knew I could fill it. Also, not having done plated food for at least five or six years—and I'm not counting Craftbar in that equation—I felt like doing it, like doing a tasting menu. It was a way to express myself and have fun. I also liked the idea of an open kitchen. So it's also a performance. It's very immediate and very intimate.
Were you missing that? TC: I think everyone misses it. Especially when you start to grow with multiple restaurants. You start to miss it. I also miss the actual cooking. And I want to be clear in how I say this. Chefs don't cook. It doesn't mean we're not in the kitchens. I spend a good amount of my time in my kitchens, but we're not cooking in the kitchen. I've thought of a good analogy for it. You go see a piece of classical music and the composer's not there. The conductor is not playing the instruments. The conductor is making sure everything happens at the right time and at the right pitch. Same thing with the kitchen. And with TTD, it gave me an opportunity to compose, to conduct, and cook.
When you started, how long did you think you'd do it? TC: We said we'd do it for a year. And I think I've missed two dates since then. I did it eight days after having ACL replacement surgery. It hurt. Even when we were shooting the show in Vegas, I came back on Tuesdays. The show only takes a month to shoot, so it doesn't eat up a lot of my time.
When did you decide to continue indefinitely? TC: About three quarters of the way through we figured we'd keep doing it. Partly it's fun. We have a good time doing it. It's interesting because the chefs that help me are all very senior in the organization. James Tracey who's the chef at Craft. Lauren Hirschberg who's the chef at Craftbar. And Damon Wise who is the executive chef. We barely talk to each other except for laughing. We'll start cooking at 5:30 and we don't stop until 11 at night. There's no time to step outside and hang out. There's no lull. Slammed the whole time? TC: No, because we do reservations, it's never all at once. A lot of people thought that at the beginning, that everyone comes at once and eats together. But that's not the case. We do 32 - 36 covers.
In the beginning when the buzz was crazy, it was impossible to get a reservation. Has it slowed at all? TC: It's still that way. Only 32 slots, 64 slots a month. So, people are still yelling at me. The buzz has calmed down because people just don't think we're doing it anymore.
So there's still an avid interest in it. TC: I think really the best thing to come out of it is most likely sometime next year, I'll find not a permanent home for TTD, but I want to start doing that food again in a permanent setting. A new restaurant. Not a TTD-type one day a week restaurant, but doing this kind of plated food again. As a departure from Craft? TC: Craft is funny. Craft, in the context of what I was doing around the corner [at Gramercy Tavern], made perfect sense, because it was so different. But after leaving Gramercy and having new people being introduced to Craft, they don't know what came before that. And especially in the day and age of bloggers, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of institutional memory. The whole news cycle is shorter. And with that attention spans TC: Yeah, and I had a woman who came in the last TTD and she said, 'Oh, I've been to Craft but it's so different. I didn't know you could do this type of food.' I was like, well yeah, I'm doing it because I can and it's fun. So this place is kind of looking back but it's also looking forward.
Would you open the new restaurant and do TTD? TC: Probably, yeah. If I open something new, it's months and months of time. It's not just something I can hand off. Also, the other advantage of this is there are two sides of your brain, especially for a chef. There's the business side and the creative side. I've found over the past seven years growing Craft that I'm mostly using the business side, not the creative side. We're creating new restaurants but we're not creating new concepts, just new Crafts. But this is totally new. TC: And I guess I missed it without realizing it. I sit here [in my office], I turn the music up and and I work on dishes in my head before going downstairs. In the beginning we only did one menu and that was it. We did a menu one Tuesday and the next Tuesday it was something totally different. But we realized we weren't working on any of the dishes. We did it once and that was it. And sometimes you'd get a clunker in there and you're trying to rework it half-way through the night. Now we do two in a row.
With the new New York restaurant, we're talking next year? TC: Yep. Still in the neighborhood? TC: Maybe, I'm still thinking about it, still looking at places. That must be an interesting part of the process, looking at spaces and imagining what they will become. TC: When you walk into a restaurant space—especially now because there are so many that are closed and have been for awhile—it looks so bad. There's all this stuff left over and it's a mess. They take whatever they can, and it's kind of depressing actually.
Back at Craft, have the private room bookings picked up at all since last year? TC: Yes, starting October 1, everything's picked up. It seems like everything in the city is busier. We had a good October and we're having an even better November. And I've spoken to my colleagues around town and they're all doing better.
And what happened with Damon: Frugal Friday? TC: Damon: Frugal Friday was the answer to everyone saying to me, 'I can't believe you opened this expensive restaurant concept.' We didn't even know what we were doing. We're like, okay fine, you want something cheap? Here. And it gave Damon the chance to do something completely on his own. I had nothing to do with that menu at all. I didn't even look at it. It was great and successful and busy. We probably shouldn't have tried to expand it. But in the end, it was so inexpensive that we were losing money.
Other than keeping dishes for more than one week, what's changed at TTD over the last year? After the critics came in, did you make any changes? TC: Ruth came in and she loved it. Frank Bruni came in on a really bad night. It was earlier when we were doing the menu once and there were a number of things that didn't work out. He also came in early in the night. But, you know, the bullshit comment about me calling Padma was ridiculous. Remind us. TC: The kitchen's wide open and when he saw me on the cellphone he said I might be bootycalling Padma. It's like you have to be kidding me. Is that really necessary? My son called me. Problem with open kitchens?. TC: I don't think it's a problem. I picked up the phone. Big deal. I could be calling a supplier. But no, nothing's changed.
I never wanted this to be seen as my big return to the kitchen. But I do miss the end of night ritual. Before I would be in the restaurants, but I would leave by nine or ten. I'm here until the end and we have the after work drink. The best part about working in the restaurant industry. TC: Absolutely. I have no intention of stopping. It's too much fun. I look forward to it when the second Tuesday's coming.
· Previous Editions of One Year In [~ENY~]
· All Coverage of Tom: Tuesday Dinner [~ENY~]