Cookbook Love Letter: Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef

Zac Overman

The sight of Tom Colicchio by himself on the dance floor struck me as odd even then. He wasn't dancing strangely, at least not that I remember, and there was nothing unusual about him dancing alone. Everyone else at that party in 2003 or 2004 was shimmying about solo, too. And it wasn't because of his Top Chef fame—that show wouldn't air for another two or three years. Anyone there would have said that Colicchio was a great chef, that his work at Gramercy Tavern put him at the top of the Zagat charts, but no more or less so than some of the other chefs who had stopped by that night.

I knew all of that, and yet it still seemed strange that no one was paying him any mind. Because, to me, Colicchio had already reached full-blown celebrity status and become a mentor of mine, even if he didn't know it. I was midway through a months-long stage at one of New York's most highly rated restaurants—the party was their annual holiday bash—working nights and weekends on top of a full-time job. My hope was that it would eventually help me land a paying restaurant gig.

I'd ruled out going to cooking school after talking to each of the line cooks at the restaurant who had. "I really enjoyed it," they'd say. "But I'm not sure it was necessary." Those who hadn't gone came to a similar conclusion: "It would have been nice to go, but I'm here I guess it wasn't necessary." That was enough to convince me that spending $30,000 that I didn't have—and likely wouldn't recoup on a rookie cook's minimum-wage salary—wasn't going to be my path into professional kitchens.

I resolved to do it the old-fashioned way, working for free until someone decided I was worth paying. To speed up the process, I spent every free minute I had nose-deep in my growing library of cookbooks. If my Ivy League education had given me anything, it was the confidence that I could lead my own course of study without the hand-holding of a culinary school.

I read my way through reference books like Larousse Gastronomique and Pépin's La Technique; single-subject masterworks like James Peterson's Sauces; guides to the basics, like the Culinary Institute of America's The Professional Chef (I wasn't going to pay their tuition, but I was happy to buy their course materials); and regional studies in Italian and French cuisine by writers like Waverley Root, Ada Boni, and Elizabeth David. The reading I assigned myself, and the late-night cooking sessions that accompanied it, were endless. But of all the books, the one that truly unlocked my thinking about cooking and helped me grow into a more self-sufficient cook was Think Like a Chef, Colicchio's first book, which came out in 2000.

I look at it today, and I'm surprised that such a modest book could have been so influential. It's not some weighty tome like Larousse, or one of those inflated coffee-table chef books that are as useful to the home cook as a guide to the inner workings of a NASCAR pit crew would be to someone just learning to drive stick. Then I lift the cover and begin to page through it once more.

I'm struck by how yellow the pages have become around the edges. On the title page is an inscription, dated 02/26/01: Daniel, Cook Often, Eat Well. It's followed by a scribbly signature, two ovals looped over each other, somehow spelling Colicchio's name. At first I can't recall how I got it autographed, but then I remember that my mom asked him to sign a copy for me at a book event.

After scanning the introduction, an essay about Colicchio's early days as a cook that I read and reread years ago for clues on how to follow a similar path, I come to the meat of the book: his roadmap to approaching cooking like a professional. Real cooking, Colicchio tells us, isn't about learning to follow recipes to the letter, just like real art isn't created by following a paint-by-numbers coloring book. Get bogged down in the minutiae of a recipe, and you lose sight of what really matters: the food that results.

Instead, he says to think in terms of techniques—not the little techniques, like how to flute a mushroom or cut carrot obliques (though those are important, too), but the big ones. Roasting. Braising. Blanching. Stock-making. Sauces. Understand those, and you'll develop recipe X-ray vision. Take a hypothetical recipe instruction like this, for example:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat, add chicken skin side down, and cook until browned, about 6 minutes. Flip chicken, transfer to oven, and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 170°F when inserted in the center, about 20 minutes.

To those beholden to recipes, it looks like a series of discrete steps that must each be followed verbatim. (Confirm exact amount of oil for pan! Set timer for six minutes! Turn chicken, no matter what, at the end of those six minutes! Be confused when the skin comes out flabby and the meat dry!) But, according to Colicchio, those who have a grasp of fundamental techniques can instantly tell that this is just a simple roasting procedure that starts in the pan and finishes in the oven, albeit at too high an internal temperature. How much oil? Enough to lubricate the pan. How hot should it be? Hot enough that you hear an active, but not violent, sizzle. How many minutes should it take? Until it's brown (forget the minutes and use your eyes and ears! Colicchio instructs). When is it done? If you like your chicken juicy, trust your own knowledge about temperature, and don't go over 160°F.

In this way, you can take what you want from a recipe and leave the rest, making your own decisions about exactly how you want it to turn out.

Each technique in the book is followed by simple example recipes. Roasting leads you from whole roasted chicken and leg of lamb to a sea bass fillet and then pan-roasted salsify, simultaneously showing the diversity of the technique and the common thread that connects them all. The lessons are short and sweet, but there's a wealth of wisdom hidden inside. Looking at those example recipes now, I remember cooking all of them years and years ago, some more than once, trying to ingest the lessons through hands-on practice. It might be the only book I've ever come close to cooking from cover to cover.

And even though I haven't cracked its spine in at least a decade, each of the recipes is so familiar to me today that I realize I've been cooking them, in one form or another, ever since. That was precisely the lesson Colicchio had intended to teach his readers so many years ago. Looking at him, alone at that holiday party, filled me with reverence and respect. To him, though, I was just another body on the dance floor, grooving alone to the music.