Tom Colicchio on His New Bravo Show, Being a Chef on TV & Advice for First-Time Restaurateurs

Tom Colicchio on What Makes a Best New Restaurant

Season One of Bravo’s Best New Restaurant premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT. 

OpenTable’s Jen Pelka is a recurring guest throughout the first season of the show – you’ll find her rigged up with hidden cameras as a secret diner, checking in on restaurants when they think no one is watching. Jen talked with host Tom Colicchio about how this new show is different from TopChef, what aspiring restaurateurs should think about when opening a new business, and advice for chefs who want to get into TV.

Jen Pelka: I’d love to hear about why you decided to do this show and what you think makes it different from TopChef. Why did we need this as an addition to the conversation?

Tom: It’s different from TopChef in that it’s restaurant against restaurant, so it’s not only about food. It’s about service. It’s about hospitality. It’s about how well the restaurant executes its concept. So it’s much more than just a food competition.

When you were approaching the 16 restaurants you were judging on the show, how did the experience of being in the actual restaurant as opposed to being in a studio affect the way in which you judged these restaurants?

There’s really no comparison between the judging of TopChef and Best New Restaurant. They’re completely different. There’s no judge table, and there’s no debate like on TopChef. One of the things I think a viewer gets out of it is, when you go into a restaurant and bring 30 people all at once and turn the cameras on, you get a real idea of what it’s like to run a restaurant during a busy service. So it’s not forced at all. There’s no particular “competition.” It’s literally based on how well they run service in their restaurant.

The real challenge in judging this show is that the restaurants are all very different. You have some white tablecloth restaurants, some fast casual restaurants, some mom-and-pop places, so that’s why it was essential to really understand what they were going for. Part of the judging was based on how well they delivered that concept.

So how do you compare a fine dining restaurant to a fast casual restaurant?

I think it’s looking at how well they execute their concept. If someone’s doing a fast casual restaurant or a barbecue restaurant and they’re executing at a really, really high level, you have to take that into consideration. If someone is doing a fancy white tablecloth restaurant, you know it’s going to be more expensive… the food may be better, but there’s also that value you’re looking for.

How did you select the 16 restaurants, and why did you pick the four cities that are in the show (Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and Miami)?

The four cities are obviously well-known restaurant cities, some well-known and some up and coming, so we thought it was a good mix. As far as choosing them, we were looking for restaurants that were unique and doing something different. I think once people see the first season, they’ll understand that this show is really supportive of restaurants. And that if the restaurants are here, they’re already really good, very high quality restaurants.

I’m curious about what you’re seeing in the fast casual space. There’s so much innovation, and you mentioned that a handful of the restaurants on the show are on the more casual side. Are you seeing that people are taking fast casual restaurants as seriously as the fine dining sector?

People have been eating at all kinds of restaurants for a long time. Certainly, people who run and operate fast casual restaurants take them very seriously. I think a lot of the newer fast-casual models are trying to disrupt the norm, moving away from just fast-casual burgers to do something more interesting. I think you’re taking people in the restaurant business, applying what they know from fine dining and doing what some are calling “fine casual,” and you’re just changing the model around.

Back to the show, I’m curious to hear about the secret diners, and why you thought they’d be fun or important.

Obviously a cooking competition show is not like a typical, normal review, where a critic comes in anonymously… there are a bunch of cameras and crew. They know you’re in the restaurant. So we wanted to make sure that the experience didn’t change from when the cameras were on. It’s just a way to keep everybody honest.

Did you find that a lot of the restaurateurs took your advice and implemented changes for when the secret diners were in?

We were pointing out things they already knew. If they were having a rough service, they didn’t need me to point that out. If I’m having a particularly rough night, I don’t need someone to tell me. And there are a lot of different ways to do things and a lot of styles of restaurateurs, and everyone doesn’t need to do things my way. I certainly didn’t want to go in and say, “This is how I would do it, and therefore this is how you have to do it if you want to win this competition.” It’s not about that at all. It’s about what they’re doing. The suggestions that are being made are pretty basic things they’ve already figured out. It’s really about whether they’ll make that mistake again.

I’ll put this back on OpenTable… If I go on and read a review, and someone says the fish was salty, I could jump through all sorts of hoops and say, “Oh my God, the fish was salty.” But if I read the same thing four or five different times, all in the same night, then I know I have a problem. It’s not about if someone made a mistake, but if they’re having a problem. I’ll take it a step further, if someone said “the food is salty,” that means absolutely nothing to me because I have 12 people in the kitchen cooking. But if I’m reading reviews and I’m seeing the salmon was overseasoned, the halibut was overseasoned, the scallops were overseasoned, well guess what: they’re all fish dishes. The person who is cooking the fish has a heavy hand. From there I can go and say: we’ve got a problem. I can check and see who was working that night and go, I know Johnny was cooking the fish that night, and now I can work with him on that. So again, it’s not as easy as saying someone made a mistake, you have to start looking for patterns. And once you establish a pattern, then you can identify where there’s a problem that needs fixing.

Makes sense. Smart. I’m curious, for restaurateurs that are just starting out and opening a restaurant for the first time, what are the most common mistakes you see, especially in their early opening days?

It’s funny. I had this conversation last night with Adam Platt. He said that he can just tell walking into a dining room whether or not the restaurant feels confident. If he can feel that the room is really confident, that means they’re well-trained, that means they’ve had enough time to be trained, that it feels professionally done. If he goes in and it feels like opening night jitters, he gets the sense that things are a little out of place. And I agree with that, that you have to have a certain amount of confidence that the staff has been trained so that you can let them do their job, and not micromanage them.

The other problem I see with restaurants just opening up, is they have too much of a game plan going in. And I’ll give you an example: at Craft when we opened up, we had all these categories on the menu, like meats and fish, and everything was a la carte. We also had categories of condiments and sauces, and it was confusing the hell out of people. But we didn’t sit there and go, “Well, this is just how we do it, let’s just let people figure it out.” We said “This is causing too much confusion,” and we got rid of those two categories. So, sometimes you have to look at what you’re doing. You might have a plan… but if it’s not working, you may have to make a change to that plan. You have to remain flexible.

I think that really goes back to what you were saying about listening to people, reading reviews.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen, if you get a bad review, it hurts. But you may want to actually look at that review and be honest with yourself, and ask, “Is this really happening?” and if the answer is yes, you can change that. You have to get past the idea that it’s a review, and think of it as feedback. It just happens to get published. That’s why it hurts. But it is good feedback. When it comes to user-generated reviews like OpenTable or some of the other sites, it’s more about searching for patterns, looking from more of a macro-lens over time to see how you’re doing. But they’re all good feedback tools to make necessary changes.

When you are thinking about opening a new restaurant, how much do you think about the business model?

It’s really important. If you have an unsustainable business model, you’re going to go out of business, so what’s the point? Things like leases, rent, size of staff, build out, they’re all important. Nowadays, especially in New York, it’s almost impossible to go into a space with no venting. It’s just too expensive. In some cases, you’re looking at six-million dollar build-outs. It’s really, really hard to get that money back with a typical 10- or 15-year lease.

Yeah, six-million dollars is a lot to chip away at. A few more questions before I let you go. In your own career as a restaurateur, what attracts you to doing television?

When I first did it, I was very reluctant. In fact, when I first signed onto TopChef, I said no three times, and then I got a better sense of what the show was. What was important to me was that the show wasn’t about me, it was about these chefs in the competition. I was just facilitating. It’s the same thing with this show. It’s not about me. It’s about these restaurants.

And part of it was about the challenge, about doing something different. Even though it’s about food, it’s still very different. Producing a TV show presents its own set of challenges. Also, it helped that it wasn’t a long shoot. It wasn’t three months. It was five weeks. So it wasn’t taking up all my time. It was five weeks where I was working every other day, so it was manageable. Other people were doing it and doing it well. I think if I had one restaurant and I were just starting out my career, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but being already established at the time, and having a team of people back home made calling out a lot easier.

What advice would you give to restaurateurs who are interested in getting involved with a cooking competition show?

Be yourself. Don’t feel you have to play a character because you’re on TV. Do your food. Just stay true to yourself. The camera’s going to pick up a lot. Don’t do or say anything, or act a certain way, because someone in the media told you that you have to be a certain way. Just be yourself.

Last question: Right now on Open For Business, we’re running a 31-day series that is a boot camp to get your restaurant in shape for the New Year, and we have tips from great restaurateurs all around the country. I’m curious if you have any rituals with your restaurant group that at the beginning of the year helps you reboot.

This is something you kind of have to remind yourself of everyday: we’re so busy running a restaurant that it’s rare to sit and take the time to talk. To sit and have a dialogue, to have planning meetings to look forward. Restaurants are always reacting to things because it’s such a fluid business and things are always changing all the time. But you need to take time to actually sit down and plan for the future. Look forward and get ahead of some of the problems. Just get your team together and listen.

Tune into the first episode of Bravo’s Best New Restaurant tonight on Bravo at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT.

Photo Credit: Dale Berman/Bravo