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Tom Colicchio Talks Top Chef: It's Not Hell's Kitchen, Alright?

Tom Colicchio isn't just a chef with a few restaurants anymore, now he's a certified celebrity. Maybe the paps aren't following his every foot step a la Posh and Becks, but he's more recognizable than ever. Colicchio's been in LA for the last few weeks getting his new Century City Craft restaurant up and running, so we stopped in for a chat. Naturally we were 15 minutes late, and he almost sent us home but finally said, "It has to be fast." We were terrified. After a few stiff questions and answers, his watch came off, he sat back and relaxed right into the conversation. An hour later we were talking about good sushi spots near his Rancho Park rental. One thing is for sure: The man likes to talk. This here is a two parter: Since this week's Top Chef episode was a lame reunion/clip show, we'll run Part I, which is all about TC, what the cheftestants never seem to learn, what the show has taught him, and why he's not a maniac screamer and won't play one on TV. We couldn't get him to tell us the winner, however. Trust us, we tried. Tomorrow: Why LA is better than NY, dealing with bloggers, and surfing with Jiraffe chef Raphael Lunetta.

We're fans of CJ. What do you make of him?
We're not allowed to interact with contestants, but I enjoyed CJ a lot. He had a good wit. I thought some of his food was really good, inventive and different. And he's very honest. I liked that.

We talked to Hung, too. That guy's a trip.
I saw that. It was very Hung. Very funny. Totally Hung.

Do you see any of the old contestants?
I see Ilan periodically around New York, I see Harold. I've been into his restaurant, and it's very good. I like to call Harold a cook's cook. His restaurant is very reflective of who he is, he's not doing trendy stuff. And he's not going to.

Is it easy to take off the Top Chef Judge hat when you go out to dinner?
You know, it's funny. Now when I go out to a restaurant and people say, "Oh my god, he's here to critique the restaurant." Look, I'm not a critic. When I go to a restaurant, I have a set of expectations. If it exceeds, great. If it falls below, I probably won't go back. But I don't critique much.

Have any of the chefs been to Craft yet?
Brian from season one was in last night. He lives in LA. No one else.

Will you take their critique if and when they come in?
Ah, whatever. I've been doing this for 30 years, if some kid wants to come in and say bad things about my restaurant, whatever.

You're the 'wise sage' on the show. What's the one thing you keep repeating every season that the chefs never seem to learn?
They don't listen to the challenge. I don't understand why they insist on making dessert when we tell them they don't have to. They always screw it up. They miss seasoning; too much salt or pepper. They play it safe. It's confusing though, we say stop playing it safe, and at the same time we say keep it simple.

Do you think they're stretching to impress you?
Stretching? If something's terrible, it's not impressing anyone.

How much were involved with the selection process. Do the chefs cook for you?
I got involved with Season 3 a little bit, looking at resumes, put the word out there to other chefs. I get calls from chefs who say they have someone on staff who really wants to do the show. But that's about it. It was all the producers.

Are you surprised at how well the show is doing?
Shocked. We just got nominated for an Emmy! I had no idea what I was getting into. I was comfortable with production because I've been on Today show enough.They handed me a script on the first day and I said no, I'm not an actor, I can't read lines. Tell me what you want me to do, and I'll get us there. I knew that I just need to be myself. I'm not a screaming maniac, so I'm not going to be one on TV. I'm not going to belittle people for the hell of it because it makes good TV. I just play it the way I do in the kitchen, and if it works, it works. It seems to work.

How do fans react when they see you?
I had a guy in yesterday and he says, "You're the guy from Top Chef!" He said he heard Craft opened, but didn't realize it was mine. He said, "I didn't know you open restaurants." Sometimes you read the blogs and people say, who is this guy? Thank god someone else goes in and says, "Um, just Google and you'll know."

Will you be in LA awhile?
I'll be here up until we tape the final show. The reveal is live, we taped everything up until that. We haven't told them who won yet.

You offer a lot of advice on TC, but is there one thing that you learned?
I tell people that I can cook really well, but I’m not a food historian. I'm not a dietician. But now I know lobster isn't as low in cholesterol as I thought. I do know the difference between barbecuing and grilling. And I learned that people will do wacky things when you put a camera on them.

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