The chef has friendly advice for all the New Yorkers opening restaurants in L.A.
With all the buzz about New York chefs like April Bloomfield, David Chang and Daniel Humm finally getting close to opening L.A. restaurants, it can be easy to overlook the fact that Tom Colicchio beat them all by a decade.
"Sometimes, it's not wise to be the first, but it's worked out for us," Colicchio tells Food & Wine at the after party for Craft Los Angeles' 10-year anniversary dinner on Wednesday night.
The "Top Chef" head judge's Century City outpost of Craft, which opened in 2007, is a pioneering restaurant that also happens to pre-date Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's Animal, Roy Choi's Kogi and Travis Lett's Gjelina. All of those other game-changing entities opened in 2008. So Colicchio has seen firsthand how the L.A. food scene has grown in the last 10 years.
"I just think that so many young chefs have come here and opened great restaurants kind of on their own terms," Colicchio says. "They opened smaller places that were on point and different, and they found a great audience. That's what's going on in downtown L.A. right now. There are a lot of young chefs moving here because rents are a lot more affordable than New York. So there's a lot of creative energy."
Moments after Colicchio says this, chef Alex Chang of The Exchange downtown, walks over to say goodbye and thank Colicchio for a lovely night.
Chang was part of an all-star list of L.A. chefs who joined Colicchio in the kitchen on Wednesday. Chang made hors d'oeuvres, and fellow guest chefs Shook and Dotolo, Jessica Koslow (Sqirl) and Ludo Lefebvre (Trois Mec and Petit Trois) all prepared dishes for the celebratory five-course family-style dinner. And other star chefs like Steve Samson (Sotto and Rossoblu) and Sang Yoon (Lukshon and Father's Office) hung out at the afterparty.
Does Colicchio have any advice for all the New York chefs who are coming to L.A.?
Yoon, sitting next to Colicchio, smiles and offers his own answer: "Go back."
Colicchio cracks up and then provides a serious answer: "I think there's a restaurant community here, and you've got to be part of it. You can't think you're going to come here and dictate terms. You're coming into a culture that's different from what we have in New York, and you've got to embrace that. I think that's what we did."
For example, Colicchio has spent a lot of time at the farmers market and gotten to know farmers personally. And he's eaten all around the city.
"Sqirl's my favorite restaurant here," he says. "I just love Jessica's food. I love what she does. It's unexpected. She made hippie food popular. And it's just delicious."
Colicchio has also enjoyed eating at Parks BBQ in Koreatown. He went there with Yoon, who's also taken Colicchio to Monterey Park for Chinese food.
Colicchio thinks L.A. is appealing for New York chefs in many ways.
"Everybody's looking to expand, and obviously there are good deals you can make here," he says. "Most chefs really care about product. They come here, they walk the farmers market here, it blows away what we have in New York. That's why I was attracted to L.A.. Everybody's trying to figure out how to create a brand, and I think L.A.'s an important market and you should be here."
Colicchio says he would open another L.A. restaurant if he comes across the right opportunity. He's imagining a more casual spot than Craft.
"I can't see myself opening another expensive restaurant," says Colicchio, a chef who understands the rhythms of L.A. food in 2017.