Table Talk with Chef Stephen Collucci

Current Gig
Pastry Chef, Colicchio & Sons

About the Chef
Chef Stephen Collucci graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and gained pastry experience in New Jersey before moving on to work at Rene Pujol, a French restaurant in Manhattan.  Chef Stephen joined the Craft Restaurants team in 2006 and has been with them ever since. Eight years ago, he started off at Craftsteak New York where he was in charge of bread production. A year later, he moved out west to head up the pastry team at Craft Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before Chef Stephen returned to the east coast to become the pastry chef at Craft and Craftbar in New York. In January 2010, he joined the opening team at Colicchio & Sons, where he continues to share his beautifully creative and delicious desserts with diners.

Colicchio & Sons: 85 Tenth Avenue (between West 15th and 16th Street)

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Chef Stephen Collucci at Colicchio & Sons 

Where did you grow up?
I’m a Jersey boy! I was born in Newark and my family has lived in Westfield for the past twenty years. Now that I live in the East Rutherford area, I love the fact that I can go home and escape to quiet NJ, but I get all of the excitement and opportunity of the city when I’m here for work.

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I come from a big Italian family, so Sunday dinners were really important to us. Growing up, we lived right next door to my grandparents. All of my aunt, uncles, and cousins would go to my grandparent’s house for dinner — it was so much fun.  When my parents went to church on Sundays, they would send me next door to see my grandparents and help them make Sunday dinner, up until I was about five or six. Even though my heart is in the pastry world, one of the first things I learned how to make when I was three was meatballs  – it’s actually one of my earliest memories.  I would roll little baby meatballs and my grandma would hold me up so I could throw them into the pot. Back then, it seemed like a gigantic pot. I’ve seen that pot since then and it’s not nearly as big as I thought it was!  (Laughing) She also used to sit me down and have me peel garlic, which probably kept me occupied for hours. (Laughing)

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
We literally just got rhubarb in this past week. Rhubarb is one of my favorite ingredients to work with — I look forward to it all year. Out of everything, it’s definitely one of my favorite things to play with because it’s so unique. Right now, we’re utilizing it in a couple of different ways. I have a few “go to” flavors that I love and I always try to use them in a completely different way than the year before. Last year, I was into a lot of rose, lychee and pistachio with rhubarb. This year, I’ve got a little bit of that on the menu, but I try to incorporate different components, like vanilla bean crème caramel with poached rhubarb and dehydrated chocolate mousse with lemon and ginger. One of the great things about Colicchio & Sons is that I have a lot of room to play and be creative. Up front in the Tap Room, it’s a little more casual, and in the main room, it’s more fine dining. We’re doing a rhubarb pie in the Tap Room which is has more of a homey feel — it’s ooey, gooey and warm. In the main dining room, we’re using it in more refined ways, like a beautiful poached rhubarb and a rhubarb sorbet. I love incorporating the same ingredient in various ways — cold, hot, crunchy, etc.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
Being in the pastry world, a lot of people don’t pay much attention to their knives.  I feel like it tends to get neglected, as knives are not the highest priority for a pastry chef. Now that I am a little more experienced, I know how important it is to have a good set of sharp knives.  If you invest in a good set and maintain them, they can last for a lifetime.  I am a big believer in spending a little more for a one time investment that is solid and reputable rather than replacing something expensive every few months.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
That’s a great question! I have never been asked that before. (Laughing) The first thing that comes to mind is pop.  I like to put a little pop of color on every dish.  I also like to have very recognizable components on my dishes along with something exciting and dramatic.  I think that a lot of our dishes are very eclectic – we’re an American restaurant, but today American food can encompass a lot of different flavors, like Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.  I think pop music represents that eclectic style right now. To some extent, I’d also say soul and R&B because I think my target audience is each guest’s inner child. If a man in a business suit in his fifties comes in and my dessert can make him think of his grandmother’s cobbler, that’s so exciting to me.

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
Even though I haven’t been there yet, Italy is definitely on my radar.  I can’t wait to go!  I love going to the West Coast when I can. The produce is so good out there! I love experiencing the markets and eating fresh ingredients. Not that NY doesn’t have that in its own way, but it’s definitely a different vibe out in California. I love going to San Diego – the La Jolla area – and San Francisco. I have a very good friend who just moved out to SF and I told her to start making a list of all of the restaurants we need to try so that when I visit, we can go out and eat everywhere. (Laughing)

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I honestly don’t know. Definitely something creative, though. I can’t see myself in a typical 9 to 5 job where I put on a suit every day. It would have to be something more unconventional. Before I went to culinary school, my parents asked me what else I could see myself doing.  And I honestly couldn’t — and still can’t — see myself doing anything else than being a chef.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
Claudia Fleming – she is an idol of mine. She has inspired me so much. I received her cookbook when I graduated high school and I studied that book like it was the bible! I didn’t even know who she was back then. Now I work for Tom Colicchio who wrote the foreword for her book. So the whole experience has been very circular. Claudia is incredibly inspiring and I really admire her, both as a chef and as a person. I would also have to choose Karen Demasco — she is someone that I really look up to. I had the privilege of having some crossover time with her before she left Craft. She has managed to live the dream and balance a home life. That’s really important to me – to see someone who did it and made it seem effortless. It gives me the confidence that I will be able to do the same when I start to have kids and build a family. I want to be able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I enjoy the Momofuku company as a whole. Saam Bar is fantastic. I also love going to little restaurants where you can kind of fly under the radar. I also love places where you can share everything – family style – and the lighting is really dim and cozy. For me, dining out is all about enjoying the company of loved ones and friends.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
You’re killing me with this! (Laughing) Well, I love ice cream so much, and carbs are, like, everything. And I can’t live without fruits and veggies. This is the hardest question ever! (Laughing) I think I could give up dairy if I had to. (Pause)  Wait – that’s not my final answer.  I think I could give up protein, actually. Yeah, I could give up meat and fish. But only if I absolutely had to! (Laughing)

Table Talk with Chef Stephen Collucci