Gramercy Tavern was Born at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen. Tom Colicchio Remembers.
[Welcome to a new feature I’m introducing here on Toqueland: Amuse-Book. Basically these are a quick way for me to share a nugget from interviews from the book research trail that seem especially timely or relevant and that I don’t want to sit on until publication day. – AF]
NEW YORK, NY – I had the chance to spend a few hours interviewing Tom Colicchio yesterday. It was a far-ranging conversation that turned up a timely tidbit for this day, on which Food & Wine Magazine announces its Best New Chefs for 2014, and fetes them at a party in New York City tonight: Gramercy Tavern began life at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen.
As Tom tells the story:
“In 1991, I got a phone call saying, You’re going to be a Best New Chef.”
Was it a big deal?
“Oh, yeah. It was one of the big [four]: Getting reviewed in the Times, getting reviewed in New York Magazine, Food & Wine Best New Chef, and the Beard Awards. These were all good things. You checked the boxes.”
[Note: For Toqueland’s thoughts about the early importance of Best New Chefs, posted at the time of the 2010 inductions, click here.]
“It was the same year we got three stars [at Mondrian restaurant, from the New York Times]. They announced it in Aspen then; it wasn’t the same as it is now … so you had to keep your mouth shut until you got to Aspen.
“I remember the dish I did [in Aspen]; in fact, I’m cooking Tuesday, so I’m doing the same dish Tuesday that I did in Aspen: a squab dish with soubise … I had ramps then– there are no ramps yet, so I’m doing baby leeks tomorrow – pickled chanterelles, honey-glazed onions. So it’s essentially the same dish I did then.
“It was great. This was awesome stuff. I remember going there. I brought Kerry [Heffernan, his sous chef at Mondrian] with me. And another chef named Jeff Perry, who was a sous chef at Mondrian, and it was, like, ‘road trip.’”
Those were heady days for Tom. In addition to being named a Best New Chef, his three stars from the New York Times came at a time when only about a dozen restaurants could claim that distinction.
But the truth was that Mondrian was under-performing, and Colicchio was beginning to think about shutting it down.
“In 1991, Michael Romano [of Union Square Cafe] won Best New Chef so I had met Danny [Meyer] there. Plus he’d been coming to the restaurant, so I knew him there, but spent more time with him in Aspen. In 1992, I went back and I was having lunch with Danny [in Aspen]. I said, ‘Danny, in about a month you’re going to hear I’m closing Mondrian.’
“He said, ‘Why are you telling me?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we should do something together.’
“At first he said no. And then, the story as he tells it, is that he called up Robert Chadderdon the wine importer, who worked with me at Mondrian, and he said to Danny, ‘If Sandy Koufax called and said he wanted to pitch for your team, you’d say yes.’ Danny’s a big baseball fan. So Danny and I traveled to Italy together and we figured if we could travel together we could probably work together. We spent ten days, came back and agreed to do a restaurant together and started looking for a location.”
Meyer’s hesitancy might seem puzzling today, but bear in mind, at the time, he had but one restaurant: Union Square Cafe.
“I had to talk him into it,” said Colicchio. “He said he would never do a second restaurant. Gramercy Tavern came out of that.”
(Note: Colicchio sold his interest in Gramercy Tavern to Meyer in 2006.)
Somehow, Tom wasn’t nominated as Rising Star Chef at the James Beard Awards back then, but he was able to check that box off when he won Best Chef New York City for Gramercy Tavern in 1994. He would go on to win James Beard awards for his book Think Like a Chef in 2001, for Craft as Best New Restaurant in 2002, as well as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) in 2010. Somehow, Craft hasn’t yet made the semifinals for Outstanding Restaurant (in the nation), but one suspects it’s only a matter of time before that box gets checked, too.