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Tom Colicchio on Top Chef’s Season 15 Finale and Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

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You have to hand it to Bravo: After 15 seasons, Top Chef is still one of the most exciting and competitive reality competition shows on TV. It still churns out winners who go on to do well in the industry, and a lot of the show’s success is thanks to the chemistry of the judges with host Padma Lakshmi, as well as head judge Tom Colicchio at the helm adding critique, praise, and gravitas. On Thursday night, Top Chef: Colorado aired its finale with a four-course duel between Chicago natives Adrienne Cheatham and Joe Flamm, with the latter chef taking the title and $125,000. In a phone interview on Friday morning, Vulture spoke with Colicchio about how close the finale really was, the stern talking-to he gave the contestants midway through, and his zero-tolerance policy on harassment in his restaurants.

What was the deciding factor that gave the win to Joe?
We thought the first course went to Adrienne, the next two courses went to Joe, and dessert was neutral. So, that really did it. His beef dish was better and his pasta was better than the octopus. The octopus was good. It was really dry and we all commented on that, and there’s no getting around that. It may have had to do with the charring after it was braised — a lot of things can happen if it were braised and not cooled down in the braising liquid. If it’s roasted, it can dry out. I don’t know what she did, but it was definitely dry. That was really it.

Was it as close as it seemed?
It was close. It wasn’t like his beef dish was way, way better. It was slightly better, and his pasta course was actually stunning. Her first course was only slightly better than his, although his was a little more, I don’t want to say conventional, but I’ve seen that beef. In fact, I did a dish that was very similar to that where we flipped the tuna, it was raw. I actually garnished it with fried sweetbreads. So that was a little more conventional. This one wasn’t as close as other finales.

How much do you consider a chef’s vision versus technique and craft? What’s concrete and quantifiable versus the thing that is, in some ways, ineffable about food.
That’s why we were so complimentary of Adrienne’s first dish, because it was so different. Buttermilk dashi, spoonbread, sea urchin and that tuile — it was like, Wow, a lot of thought went into this dish. It was executed really, really well, so that clearly scored high, high points. That’s why Joe’s first dish was like, Eh, seen this. Executed really, really well, perfectly seasoned, really delicious, but the edge goes to her because there’s a certain amount of creativity that was really out of the box. A lot of times when the chef is doing something, I’ll know if it’s an imitation of the chef they work with. I don’t think that was something Eric Ripert did. I think she actually found her own way and did her own thing. So, that’s also something I’m cognizant of.

How you feel this season stacks up to prior ones?
This season was a little different in that this was the first season that we didn’t have someone doing molecular gastronomy — or more avant-garde cooking, I’d rather call it. Molecular gastronomy is silly because all gastronomy is molecular, when you really get down to it. The chefs were doing more, I wouldn’t say rustic, but a much more conventional style of food. It’s just the way the season stacked up. Obviously, a big difference is the chefs all got along really, really well. There was no villain. There was nobody who was just set on being an asshole for whatever reason. [Chuckles.] They really respected each other and it was really nice to see, because typically that’s what you find in restaurants and in kitchens. There’s a camaraderie amongst chefs that are usually there.

I think also we had a very, very diverse cast this season. More so than most. We had Vietnamese food and Mexican food, and Amish/soul food, two Joes both doing Italian. There’s a lot going on.

Isn’t there something about that cutthroat edge that amps up the competition? Maybe that’s just capitalist thinking.
Maybe. [Laughs.] I think they were all competitive. They all really, really wanted to win. They all want to cook the best food they can cook. I mean, you’ve got to understand the pressure they’re under. This is what I think the average viewer doesn’t understand. They’re on every single day. We do a quick fire, we do an elimination. Next day, another quick fire, another elimination. It just rolls on. There are very little breaks in between. They’re being judged every single day. The experience that they all go through is unlike anything that you typically would go through in a restaurant.

Halfway through the season, you’ll hear people say, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There’s also pressure because they’re on TV and they don’t want to embarrass themselves. It really screws with your head in a big way. You start second-guessing everything. It’s a real mind game. Now, if people are nice, maybe this bombardment is somewhat lessened because you have people that are more supportive. But I’ve got to believe that they’re competing to go as far as you go, because if you look at the chefs throughout all the seasons, the chefs that get further, their careers are usually better.

I can only use the analogy of sports. I remember six years ago when the Giants were 10-6 and the Patriots were 16-0 going into the Super Bowl. They don’t play three quarters and go, “Oh well, the Patriots had a better year.” The Patriots were probably a better team, but the Giants beat them in the Super Bowl. You’ve got to play it out, and the chefs that get the furthest, they’re the ones who are raising money to open up their own restaurants, they’re the ones getting a little more notoriety in the press, and they’re really pushing themselves to get as far as they can. They’re all cognizant of not just winning, but staying in the game as long as possible.

You gave them stern wake-up calls at a couple points. Do you think the pressure of the situation made the cooking bad?
I thought the cooking was very inconsistent. You’d have someone who did amazing work one challenge and the next challenge it was like, Is this the same chef? That’s what was bugging me. It gets frustrating because you don’t know why someone is having an off day. Some of them get tired. There may be some issues at home that I don’t know about, because we don’t know all that stuff that you see behind the scenes. We’re not privy to it, so I had no idea, for instance, that Bruce was adopting a baby. No idea. So, for me, it was like, You’ve got to put this aside and perform at a much higher level.

Eater reported this morning that Danny Meyers’ Union Square hospitality group has mishandled misconduct allegations for years, even though the company has an HR system in place. I know that sexual misconduct is something you have written about. Are there instances in which you’ve had to step in to make sure staffers are protected?
Obviously, I was way out in front of this and talked about it. I don’t think the staff is going to hear stories of me cornering someone in a walk-in and touching them, but am I 100 percent sure that I don’t have someone somewhere in a restaurant saying something they shouldn’t say or being overly flirtatious? No, but we talk about it. For us, there are fireable offenses. You touch someone, you’re fired. Say something overtly racist or sexist, you’re fired. But where’s that gray line where someone is being flirtatious or asking someone out on a date? It only becomes a problem when someone says no and it starts to offend them. There’s always that line.

The question is, when does that flirtation turn into harassment? We hear time and time again, “I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to get someone fired.” I say, “You’re not going to get them fired unless they said something really egregious.” But this is the perfect time where we can get together and say, “This is where the line is. This is when it gets crossed.” There are certain things that are clearly easy to navigate and there are other things that are a little more difficult.

Quite frankly, what we’re hearing more often than not is they’re getting harassed from the customers. People think they’re tipping you, so they can take liberties and say things they shouldn’t say. I’ve done it in the past and I’ll continue to do it — if someone is over the line, I will remove that person from the restaurant. It can’t be one of those things where you say, “Well, you don’t have to wait on that person today.” If the person is in the restaurant, it’s a problem.

But no, I haven’t read the Eater thing. I’m sure whatever it is, Danny will deal with it.

I wanted to ask about Mario Batali, because you tweeted that “no one should be surprised” about the allegations against him. Is that why he’s never been on the show?
No, no. He’s never been on the show because often media contracts have prevented us from being on [other] shows. Like, I can’t do another food show on another network. That’s why he’s never been on the show. When I said I wasn’t surprised, it was because of the Bill Buford book Heat. His antics were pretty well-documented in 2006 in the book. That’s what I was referring to. That was really it. Over the years, we’ve invited Mario. We’ve invited every chef out there to be on the show. They either do it or don’t do it.

Would you invite someone on the show if you knew they had a history of sexual harassment, or if there were rumors around them?
Well, first off, I’m not the one who does the inviting. You know, the universe thinks I do everything on the show. I definitely don’t do that. There’s a production team that does that. If someone came to me and said, “We’re thinking about having so and so on the show and there’s these allegations,” I don’t think they would do it. Doneen [Arquines], our EP who’s been with the show since day one, she’s really up on what’s going on in the food world. More so than I am, to tell you the truth. If there’s a question, I think she would act appropriately. This all wasn’t coming out a year ago.

Joe is the third winner to come out of Last Chance Kitchen. Do you think they tend to fare better because they get more sleep?
[Laughs.] I have a feeling that once you’re off the show, maybe you’re less tense. Maybe you’re like, “All right, I’ve been through that, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I can get back in if I get back in.” I don’t know, it’s a good question. I think some of the chefs take more risks because they know they can get back in, even though it is hard. Whatever evidence there is, it’s anecdotal. I don’t know that you can draw a causal relationship between being eliminated and winning.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Tom Colicchio on Top Chef’s Season-15 Finale