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Eat to the Beat: Tom Colicchio

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his flagship restaurant, Craft, Tom Colicchio, head judge on Top Chef, 2010 James Beard Award Winner for Outstanding Chef, and owner of the Craft family of restaurants, serves up his thoughts on snacks, grub and rock & roll.

What do chefs and rock stars have in common?
Especially now, a lot of young chefs try to mimic the music they grew up with: the nocturnal lifestyle, the tattoos, the attitude. But I was huge music fan before I became a chef – my first concert was Led Zeppelin at MSG in 1977 – and I think you’ll find that with a lot of chefs.

Let’s talk starters: What’s your ultimate side one, track one, and what’s your ultimate appetizer?
Side one, track one would be…God, it’s hard to say. Let me come back to that one. For me the ultimate appetizer is always whatever the freshest fish-based option is.

Let’s talk seduction: what’s your go-to soundtrack for getting it on, and what’s your go-to meal for getting a lady in the mood?
Well, it’s obvious, but Barry White and caviar.

First times: what’s the first record you bought? First meal you cooked?
The first album was Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith in 1975. Before that I bought a lot of singles. So ether that or Jesus Christ Superstar. Don’t laugh, there’s some great stuff on there! The first meal I cooked at home was a stuffed eggplant, with onions, peppers and shrimp. It was a Cajun recipe I found in a food magazine. It was good, but I guess I didn’t really read it, because it only really worked as an appetizer so my mom had to rescue the rest of the meal. I was 13.

On the road: what’s ultimate road food and what are the best driving songs?
My favorite road trip food is definitely barbecue. For driving music, Son Volt’s Trace comes to mind. That’s one of my favorite albums ever. And then Drive-By Truckers, Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, Wilco. You think of those bands and there’s a certain landscape to the music.

Food and music pairings — can you pair a dish with:

The Rolling Stones: If I were cooking, I think Mick would like fish with a light champagne sauce and a caviar garnish. He wants luxury, but he wants it light. Keith would want something edgier and darker, like squid stuffed with squid ink risotto, cuttlefish and spicy pepper. You know what’s really amazing about that band is that they’re all thin and they all have hair. How the fuck did that happen? It’s amazing!

Elvis Presley: He’s a southern guy, but really American, so roast beef, mashed potatoes and peas.

Jay Z: You know, Jay loves food, but he doesn’t eat pork, so I’d do surf and turf: braised short ribs and a really good langoustine.

Led Zeppelin: They had that weird, almost medieval, Lord of the Rings thing, so I’d go with a roasted leg of lamb with coriander, star anise, cinnamon, fennel seed, lemon and honey, and barley and roasted root vegetable on the side.

Lady Gaga: If you look at her roots as a kid growing up in New York who was a little different, you could always go with a dirty-water hot dog, but I think she’d be eating sushi, the more exotic the better.

If you could invite all your favorite artists, living or dead, for a dinner party, who would you invite?
I’d have to start with Tom Waits. Then Jerry Garcia; I think he would have the best after dinner entertainment, if you know what I’m getting at. Gram Parsons would be fun to have around. So would Levon Helm and Tim Harden. We’d need a couple women at the table, so Grace Slick and Josephine Baker. I’d just want a group of people who would be fun to hang around with. You know what? Let’s invite Bob Dylan and John Lennon too. How could you not?

What would you cook?
For the food, I’d put out a big spread of antipasti: marinated eggplant, various cheeses, prosciutto, salami, roasted red peppers, olives. And then I’d make a big bowl of pasta and a big pot of gravy, like my mother makes, with meatballs and sausages. The conversation would flow. The wine would flow.

What makes certain music suited for cooking?
When I’m cooking at home, I like to listen to whatever new albums I’ve got. Last weekend it was Florence and the Machine and Dr. Dog. It’s an open kitchen, and the speakers are right there, so I can crank it up, go about my cooking and no one will bother me.

What about for eating?
At Craft, we used to play jazz, but we’ve moved away from that. Now we play all sorts of stuff. The only rules are: you need to mix up the tempos, you never play love albums, and you never play something that’s very popular. You don’t play “Stairway to Heaven”, you play “Achille’s Last Stand.”

What is your rock & roll fantasy?
Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop in 1967. And the original Woodstock would be cool as hell too.

Who is the one artist out there now that you want to see live? 
You know, as a guitar player myself, probably Mark Knopfler. I’ve never seen him live, and I’d be really curious to see what he’s doing now.

And what’s the one restaurant you haven’t eaten at yet that you’re most looking forward to?
Paul Kahn’s Big Star in Chicago. It’s a taqueria in an old garage, there’s a turntable and he plays mostly country music. I’m kind of over fancy restaurants. I just can’t sit through another three-hour meal. I just can’t do it! I’d rather go to Big Star, drink some beer and bourbon or tequila, eat some good Mexican food, and listen to music.

Have you thought of your ultimate side one, track one yet?
Let me think. Oh…it’s Springsteen! “Thunder Road”, the first cut off Born To Run. Let’s go with that.

Top Chef airs on Bravo TV, Wednesday nights at 10/9 central.

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