Craft: Tom Colicchio’s Restaurant Experiment in Understatement Still Proves Less Is Indeed More

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On a chilly Wednesday night a decade ago on a charmless stretch of 19th Street, a temple of minimalism opened against the back-drop of Manhattan’s maximal fine-dining scene.

Its owner and chef, Tom Colicchio, had already found fame at Gramercy Tavern, the exceedingly well-respected restaurant he had opened with Danny Meyer. At that debut, in 1994, Gramercy had inaugurated a new era of New American cuisine, in which locally grown ingredients met dazzling preparations, with all the glory of Manifest Destiny. In a glowing review, New York Times critic Ruth Reichl wrote of a complicated baked eggplant “Napoleon,” a tower of alternating floors of breaded pan-fried eggplant with eggplant caviar, encircled with a calligraphic swirl of bright-green rosemary oil with lemon and peppers off to the side. Roasted cod came with an elaborate entourage of potatoes boulangère, Brussels sprouts and cider butter.

But Craft would be a departure. “When I began to think about Craft,” says Colicchio, “I looked at my cooking 10 years earlier and I thought about what food might look like 20 years in the future.”

Taking stock, Colicchio surveyed the dollops, the flourishes and the arabesques and decided to jettison them. “I realized you don’t need the bells and whistles. When you start removing elements, dishes become stronger.” At Craft, ingredients wouldn’t be served in towers or trios. They wouldn’t be combined in elaborate harmony with a chorus of flavors. “Craft was born from a question: Can you strip everything down and get to the essence of the ingredient?”

Colicchio found his answer.

Knowing that such utter simplicity would depend upon sterling ingredients, Colicchio cultivated relationships with farmers at the Greenmarket and beyond—and demanded his chefs do the same. He sought out and befriended family farmers like Clarissa Allen and Mitch Postner of Allen Farm, on Martha’s Vineyard, and became intimately acquainted with the high salinity of the grass they graze, which he says gives the lamb a more intense flavor so a complicated sauce is unnecessary.

But while sterling ingredients are vital, they alone are not sufficient. The kind of flourish-free perfect plates Colicchio was after are quite difficult to achieve. (An analogue for this is found in the Zen concept of shoshin, or beginner’s mind.) “When you’re cooking simply,” says Colicchio, “everything has to be done just right. There’s nowhere to hide.” Colicchio invested a higher-than-usual percentage of payroll to employ sauciers to reduce (and reduce and reduce) stocks to shimmering intensity and a team of sous-chefs devoted to the messy process of assembling rabbit ballotines and to wrapping and rewrapping foie gras torchons. He devised dishes whose preparation spanned days, like the braised short ribs—still on the menu today—which are the culmination of a three-day process of marinating, browning, resting and braising. Far from that Gramercy Tavern cod Reichl had relished, with its ensemble of supporting characters, the same cut at Craft was served with nothing but thyme, lemon and fleur de sel. Such cod a cappella had to be roasted with perfect pitch. And each meat—quail, venison, lamb, pork—had its own painstakingly prepared jus.

Colicchio’s approach raised the question of how so complex a preparation could be a path to simplicity but, as he explains, “We were working to perfect the ingredient—that was the end game.” Simplicity was both a mantra and a koan.

Colicchio turned every aspect of Craft to face his philosophy. Even in the design of the space, he says, “Simplicity was in the DNA. If it is stone, you knew it was stone. If it was brass, it was brass.” Lightbulbs, their filaments visible, shone on bare burnished cherry tables. A canted wall of Brazilian wood and leather panels stood across from a sleek two-story wine vault of glass, steel and bronze, their welds left unbuffed.

Presentation was so pared down it beggared the word. Arrival might be more appropriate. The porterhouse steak for two arrived in a cast-iron skillet. Sautéed spinach arrived in a gleaming copper-and-steel sauté pan. In all, says Colicchio, “I wanted the origins of the ingredient to be clear.” And in that spirit he devised a modular menu. Instead of composed main courses and elaborate entrées, guests would select a proteins and a preparation; vegetables and starches were listed separately.

The modular menu formula had been used for years in steakhouses but this was its first application in fine dining. “I wanted to see how far I could push it,” Colicchio says with not a bit of puckish mischief. The chef didn’t compose plates; the diners composed meals. But many of Craft’s early guests found ordering dinner akin to assembling Ikea shelves: easy in theory, an afternoon of confusion in practice. As William Grimes wrote in an early review for the Times, “Readers do not really want to decide what happens in the next chapter of a novel.” Nevertheless, he gave the restaurant three stars. “I don’t know if cooking can be virtuous,” he wrote, “but in this sinful city, I’m sure that Craft is on the side of the angels.” So far, the angels are winning.

More than 175 cooks have passed through Craft, but the original line—like the combo on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue—is still legendary. Chef de cuisine Marco Canora, who had cooked with Colicchio at Gramercy, was joined by fellow Gramercy alumni Jonathan Benno and Akhtar Nawab, as well as James Tracey and Damon Wise, both of whom had been at L’Espinasse as sous-chefs. David Chang started by answering phones but was no good at it, and ended up on the line, too. Karen DeMasco, a Gramercy alumna, worked pastry. “You’ll never assemble another line like that,” says Chang. “Never.”

A decade later, these cooks still carry lessons learned in the crucible of Craft’s kitchen.

Marco Canora’s Hearth feels, smells and tastes much like early Craft. Leather walls have been replaced by exposed brick, and the soundtrack is a few years younger but the menu bears Craft’s trademark. Order roasted sea bass and the fish will be served whole, in almost lifelike tableaux with little alongside. One can almost hear Colicchio’s words in Canora’s ear: “If you’re cooking a piece of fish and there’s no garnish, the consumer is laser focused on that fish.”

Canora’s fish basks in the spotlight on a solo stage. As you break the tender charcoal skin, a whorl of citrus-herbed steam escapes and the flesh all but falls from bone. “You can really feel the Craft influence in the large-format dishes,” agrees Canora. “No one was really doing that when we opened Craft, but Tom and I always wanted to cook the food we ate at home and that’s how we ate.”

The soundtrack is younger still at Momofuku Ssam Bar— Sonic Youth and Pavement vie for primacy—but Colicchio’s hand is here, too, in dishes that belie their painstaking work. Ham, butter, bread arrive as simple as a pork haiku, one that, like Craft’s braised lamb, stands on sourcing sorcery—but never boasts of the effort spent to ferret out the farm with the superlative pig. (It is Broadbent Farm, in Kuttowa, Kentucky.)

Across the East River, a carne asada taco from Akhtar Nawab’s Café de la Esquina, or uptown, at Jonathan Benno’s Lincoln, assorted mushrooms bear Colicchio’s steady, sure and simple touch. And everywhere, gnocchi. Those featherweight, deadly serious russet potato purses that Grimes once called “butter-laden eye-rolling pleasure bombs,” have exploded onto the menus of Hearth and Lincoln and soon, perhaps, the Monkey Bar. Those, too, sprang from Craft.

A more diffuse but no less illuminating glow is cast by Craft’s indirect effects, manifest in modern restaurant design. Katie Grieco, Craft’s general manager, remembers asking Sandy Chilewich, the designer whom she knew from her catering days, what placemats might grace Craft’s tables. Chilewich recommended her own woven ones, which are now the shibboleth of New York’s better tables.

And send not to know from whence the Edison bulb trend comes. It comes from Craft. In fact, would AvroKo, that hegemon of restaurant design, be in business had not Craft popularized the see-the-seams rusticity with which the firm imbues all its projects? And without AvroKo, would brocavores even exist? Finally, consider the debt Laurent Torendel owes Colicchio. BLT, joked one former Craft chef, stands for “Be Like Tom.”

But Craft’s more meaningful influence is felt in the way it swept away fusty fine dining. Had Craft not dared to yank the fine linen from the tabletop—and lo, the food remains!—one wonders if the white tablecloth experience would have declined so precipitously. Craft was born in an era of culinary verticality, when pork chops were likely to stand on end, like some meaty Richard Serra sculpture. Plates had grown ever larger, but meals climbed ever upward, Jenga towers in a porcelain sea. One wonders, if Colicchio hadn’t served his cuisine supine, might we still be toppling savory skyscrapers?

Back then, Colicchio was one of an elite, influential order of chefs who religiously sourced from local farms, a habit he’d picked up from Michel Bras 20 years earlier. But you couldn’t tell that from the menu. “I’ve always kept the words to a minimum,” Colicchio explains. “Plus, I thought, if you’re spending a lot of money, you should expect it anyway.”

But today, when enlightened eaters expect to see each ingredient’s origin, Colicchio has succumbed, listing nearly 20 farms on his menu: “I thought that if I didn’t do it, people would assume I was hiding something.” On the contrary, some of his ingredients now hail from soils so easy to see, you can spot them from a cab going down the FDR Drive: at Riverpark, a restaurant he opened in 2010, produce teemed on a third-acre plot in a stalled luxury development. “People always talk about farm to table,” he laughs. “Now we have a farm at the table.”

The third element of the Craft Effect is the way the restaurant shaped the fate of Colicchio himself—and his ever-expanding universe. The chef divested himself of Gramercy Tavern in 2006 to focus on Craft’s expanding footprint—Craftsteak in New York and Dallas that year, followed by Craft LA (2007), and Craft Atlanta (2008–2011) plus a little television show, some cookbooks and legion sandwich shops—but all these eateries had simplicity on the plate, and without Gramercy Tavern, he was left without an outlet for his elegant, more overtly complex cuisine.

So in 2008, Colicchio debuted Tom’s Tuesday Dinners, a series of bi-monthly meals hosted in Craft’s private dining venue that featured 10-course tasting menus with the very rococo approaches Craft seemed to reproach—like grilled cuttlefish with Malaysian pork jelly and spicy tomato syrup. “Early on in TTD,” Colicchio recalls, “someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I come to Craft all the time. I had no idea you could cook like this.’ It was a slap in the face.”

Rather than be pigeonholed, Colicchio set out to reclaim the baroque gold, and in 2010 when Craftsteak closed, remade it as Colicchio & Sons, a restaurant he calls “a return of what I was doing at Gramercy.” The result was elegantly plated compositions like roasted Hudson Valley rabbit laureled with baby leeks and smoked umami-rich hon shimeji mushrooms. Call it a sacrilege to Craft, but shortly after the restaurant opened, the chef was surprised to receive his first James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. “Forget the short list,” he says with a small laugh, “I wasn’t even on the long list.”

But despite his return to tomfoolery at Sons, Craft is keeping to its core—or perhaps we should say, returning. “Early-stage Craft was the very simple stuff. When Marco [Canora] left, Damon [Wise] came in and he started pushing the food in different directions, garnishing stuff more. But when James [Tracey] took over in 2007, we pushed it back in the other direction. Now we’re back to the basics.”

Craft under Tracey is flourishing. In September, the outgoing Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton awarded the restaurant its second three-star review, calling the place “as magical and delicious as it was when it opened.” Back in 2001, Tracey was 27 years old and would arrive at Craft at 7:00 a.m. to break down 400 pounds of those signature short ribs.

Today he’s up even earlier, taking care of his two young daughters before heading to the Greenmarket to talk and taste with farmers in the crisp autumn sun. He squeezes black cabbage and eyes Brussels sprouts like a gem appraiser. He gently inspects tubers from Paffenroth Gardens in Warwick, New York, where the avuncular Alex Paffenroth and his rich black dirt, left by an ancient glacier, yield what Tracey swears are “the best sunchokes you’ll ever find.” A few hours later, they’ll appear, simply roasted with a sheen of butter, alone in a pan of their own. Some things never change.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell


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