Q&A With Craft Dallas Chef-Owner Tom Colicchio
The Top Chef star dishes about wine dinners, rumors, and parking at his Victory Park restaurant. (It’s free now, BTW.)
Tom Colicchio—star chef, renowned restaurateur, cookbook author, and Top Chef judge, among many other achievements—came to Dallas on June 25 to cook in his Victory Park restaurant, Craft Dallas, at a five-course wine dinner with Ramey Wine Cellars. With as many pots as he’s got on the stove, we’re impressed the earnest, hardworking chef could find the time in his schedule to do such a thing. But, if anything, Colicchio means business. And so that’s what we talked about, the morning after his sold-out dinner. From what we hear, that won’t be the last one.
First talk to us about how the wine dinner went last night.
I think the dinner went really well last night. We sold out. I think for the most part we had a great time. The wines were fabulous. I’m pretty happy with it.
So, when you do something like that, do you just concept the menu or are you actually back there in the kitchen?
I put the menu together, and I was in the kitchen all night. In fact I think some of the guests were concerned that I didn’t spend enough time out in front. I was back there cooking.
They’re never happy, are they?
Exactly. I plated everything and was back there the whole time.
How do you feel like Dallas diners are different?
I don’t think they’re different at all. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons we decided to open in Dallas is that we have a lot of people from Dallas and from Texas who visit us in New York. I don’t think there’s a real difference between how people eat.
Speaking of choosing your markets, how do you decide where you’re going to put one of your restaurants?
We don’t do a whole lot of market research. It really comes down to the developer and what kind of business deal we can make and whether or not it’s a food town. I knew Dallas was a food town. Stephan Pyles is a friend—and Dean Fearing. They’ve been here for a long time so I knew there was a market here.
Who are some of the other chefs in town you admire, you have friendships with, whose restaurants you visit when you have a chance?
I don’t get out much when I’m down here. When I’m down here, it’s time to work. In fact, I think I’ve been to each of their restaurants [Pyles’ and Fearing’s] once, so I’m not that versed on the food scene down here. I can’t pretend that I am.
You probably only eat at the hotel.
Yeah, I eat around the kitchen. I’ve had two cups of coffee so far this morning. That’s about it.
Either you read SideDish or someone on your staff does, because when we post something about you, you’re usually quick to respond, to set the record straight, which we like about you.
I’m trying to remember the article that was written ...
It was probably something to do with changing the concept or the controversy surrounding whether or not you were still an owner here.
I don’t read it. It was sent to me. What I found interesting was that I met [Nancy Nichols] in Aspen. She asked me directly what was going on, and I told her. And I was very honest. And she printed some gossip that wasn’t accurate at all. And the issue with that is I have a staff here. The staff all of sudden started having questions. We started getting phone calls, asking if we were closing, whether or not they had jobs. You have to be careful. There’s a certain responsibility I think journalists need to have when reporting a story. They should have their facts right and correct. I wasn’t hiding anything. I think she made some reference to my being well versed in PR, and I was clearly hiding something. That was almost exactly a year ago, and here I am, sitting in the restaurant.
The nature of what we do obviously is somewhat public, but I think there is a responsibility, especially when you start thinking about how many people work here.
There are livelihoods involved here, and that’s why I responded to it. I don’t have time to respond to everything, but that one I felt like I needed to.
So, how are things here, at the restaurant?
Things are okay. Obviously the economy’s not doing well, and I think some of the issues with the development are fairly well known. But, you know, we’re hanging in there. We’re going to continue to do things like we did last night. Hopefully locals will know that we’re here and we’re staying here and come on down.
The success of last night’s dinner shows that there is still money to be spent, especially here. I was really excited to hear that it was sold out. I heard there were 60 people on the waiting list. People were excited.
It sold out really quickly. We’re probably going to do a quarterly wine dinner, and I think, based on the success of this one, we’ll probably do two in a row—so instead of just doing Thursday maybe we’ll do a Thursday and a Friday or a Wednesday and a Thursday. There’s clearly a demand for it.
And will you be here?
Are you doing these in other cities? Or are you just paying particular attention to Dallas?
We’re doing various things in different markets. We opened in Atlanta, which was our latest opening, and that’s been really strong. We look to do different events in different markets. In LA, we just did something called Craftbar, where we took the front lounge part of the restaurant and turned it into a lower-priced restaurant and lounge area. That made sense. But clearly wine dinners work well here. As long as we can continue to get winemakers down here, we’ll do them.
If you had to do it over again, do you think you would have opened Craft at Victory? You said that Dallas is a dining town. Might you have gone to a different neighborhood?
Again, we were invited down, and Hillwood came after us. The development made perfect sense. I think we have a great relationship with Hillwood and the W, and I think eventually it’ll turn around. I really can’t speculate on where. I wouldn’t know where. I don’t know Dallas, so I don’t know where we’d go.
I’ve read that there are definitely no plans to do Craftbar or ’Wichcraft here in Victory, but is that something you would consider if you got to know some of the other places around Dallas better?
With ’Wichcraft, it’s not that easy. We tend not to do just a one-off. We tend to do a bunch of them, and I’m not sure how many we could do here. And we’re also kicking around some ideas of franchising, and so there’s a possibility of franchising and having an operator in the local market. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. We’re just not there yet.
As far as Craftbar, it’s a lower priced restaurant. I don’t think we have anything over $22 on the menu at Craftbar. In fact, at Craftbar in Los Angeles, there’s nothing over $12 on the menu. It’s more of a small plates menu. So I think it’s right for the economy. I think we could definitely find support for that.
I think we share your frustrations about what’s happening down here at Victory. I was reading an interview with you in the Dallas Observer, and everyone was complaining about the parking! I think it’s hilarious. Because there’s not a lot of traffic down here, you can usually find a free space.
I believe now we don’t charge for parking. Finally someone got the message loud and clear: if someone comes down here and spends a good amount of money on dinner, validate the parking. The other thing is—I don’t think most people realize this—we have a valet right in front of the restaurant, so you don’t have to come through the lobby. Sometimes it’s noisy when there’s stuff out there. You can actually pull curbside right to the restaurant.