Comedians often say the longer a joke is discussed, the less funny it becomes. Chef Tom Colicchio feels the same way about food.
Seasoned restaurateur, author, and lead judge and executive producer on Bravo’s Top Chef, Colicchio has been in the business for more than two decades. His latest venture is Garden City’s rustic, 180-seat Small Batch, which opened on Dec. 11.
“We tend to purposely open slowly,” Colicchio says. “We don’t overbook the place. Our feeling is that I’d rather do fewer people and have everybody happy than jam the place up and half the people are not getting food or are getting the wrong drinks.”
Colicchio has launched dozens of restaurants over the years. He’s run a restaurant group called Crafted Hospitality since 2001, but the project that launched Colicchio’s career is The Gramercy Tavern, a luxe Manhattan hot spot.
In 1994, New York Magazine published a novelistic cover story about Colicchio and his copilot, Danny Meyer, as they navigated the planning stages for Gramercy Tavern before its opening. The article was an unprecedented, painstaking account of the behind-the-scenes questions restaurateurs must consider.
“It is easy to engage him in conversation on fly fishing and nearly impossible to get him to talk about food,” the author wrote of Colicchio.
Twenty-four years later, Colicchio agrees with that assessment.
“I prefer talking about fishing more than cooking,” he says with a laugh. “That is true.”
There are two possible reasons for his close-mouthed approach — neither of which is unfriendliness. In retrospect, he says, he may have been reluctant to talk about a restaurant that hadn’t opened yet. He and Meyer were hopeful, but they weren’t sure what they were doing.
Some say it’s bad luck to talk about a process that hasn’t yet unfolded. Colicchio had concerns about the number of seats Meyer wanted, and eventually suggested shrinking their covers and focusing on driving up check averages — which proved effective — but that was an insight gained through experience.
The other reason Colicchio doesn’t like talking about food is, well, because he doesn’t like talking about food.
“How do you explain what I do?” he asks with genuine confoundedness and zero pretension.
Most restaurants, he says, can be easily categorized — Italian, French, Asian, etc. — but the logical label for his style is “Contemporary American,” which doesn’t quite fit.
“People think American, they think burgers and meatloaf,” he says. “So, it’s hard to explain what I do, and it’s like, after a while I don’t want to talk about it. I want to do it.”
Just what is he doing? With Small Batch, he says it’s a new take on contemporary eating. The space is casual and as open as open-concept gets. It’s not fine dining. And yet, there’s some fine local fare listed on the dinner menu: Grilled Spanish octopus with chorizo, Fresno chilies and cranberry beans; grilled sea bream with braised fennel, green olives, grilled red onion, and salsa verde; Long Island duck with honeynut squash, Swiss chard, fig syrup and black garlic.
Colicchio is as invested in hiring quality staff as he is in the menu.
“We’re going to teach you how wait tables, but I can’t teach you to be a good person,” he says. “You’re never going to get fired in this restaurant for making a mistake …. You’ll get fired for making a sexist comment, or a racist comment.”
He is unrelenting about that last point. In his Twitter bio, he refers to himself as a “food activist,” and for his photo he dons a T-shirt that reads: “Immigrants feed America.”
It’s all very 2019. But the celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, the politically active Twitter dad, is just one side of him. He says he’s mellowed over the years. He says he isn’t ready to retire from food, but when the time comes, it certainly seems like he’ll have plenty of other things to do.
You might find him spending time with his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush, and their three sons, or watching YouTube fingerpicking lessons by his favorite guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame, or — of course — fishing, or dining out on the North Fork, or gardening, or cooking a quiet, elaborate meal at home.
Just don’t ask him to tell you about it.
Small Batch is located at 630 Old Country Road in Garden City. It can be reached at 516-548-8162 or smallbatchrestaurant.com