The diners at Craft — loosened with glass after glass of pinot noir, sated with roasted duck and sausage-wrapped lamb loin — broke into uproarious applause. They were as happy as pigs in pokes when Tom Colicchio, the chef and owner of the Craft family of restaurants, strolled out on the floor, mic in hand.
Colicchio, whose role as head judge on the television series “Top Chef” has made him a national celebrity, shushes the crowd. He discusses the menu and makes gracious comments about the winemaker in attendance at this sold-out dinner. Then, guests rush forward, arms outstretched, including one woman in a floor-length black gown with a maelstrom of ruffles churning about her shoulders.
“Who made your dress?” Colicchio asks.
“Chanel,” the woman answers, flattered.
As Colicchio poses for pictures, a small posse begins forming by his side. In comes Kevin Maxey, who runs Craft Atlanta, and Adam Evans, from the more casual Craftbar downstairs. In comes Nick Oltarsh, an Atlanta chef (now with Concentrics Hospitality) who spent four years in Colicchio’s New York kitchen. Fast on his heels are Richard Blais and Kevin Gillespie – the two Atlantans who rode the “Top Chef” train to national fame as popular contestants. Their fans in the crowd murmur. Were the faux-hawk and the beard really here? Yes!
Then, for these guys, it was time for the evening to really start. Colicchio had delighted guests at his wine dinner during the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction last week. Now, chef’s night out was underway.
It is a tradition as old as the profession. After chefs work big blowout dinners, they like nothing better than to eat and drink until, well, satiety or oblivion. Whichever comes first.
“I did this in L.A. with a bunch of chefs,” Colicchio recalls. “I went behind the bar somewhere and made cocktails. I guess they were good. Someone asked if I could make the same thing again, but there was no way.”
As Colicchio remembers that evening, it ended at 5 in the morning in Thai Town.
Would this town provide the same opportunities for gastro-debauchery?
It was a doubtful prospect on a Monday night in Atlanta. But Oltarsh, an inveterate ethnic restaurant explorer, has a plan.
Off to Hong Kong Harbour
Before long, the crew has decamped to a Lazy Susan-equipped table at neon-lit Hong Kong Harbour on Cheshire Bridge Road. Oltarsh is such a regular here that waiters share their staff meal with him because they know he likes the hardcore Chinese stuff best.
“You have to eat that gooey part that’s stuck under the shell,” he tells Maxey as a platter of ginger-scallion Dungeness crab makes the rounds. Maxey scrapes the greenish glob from the shell and pops it in. Another round of beers hit the table. The neon lights buzz. The only other table of customers gets up and leaves.
Colicchio and Blais knock bottles and talk business. “So how about those kids on ‘Jersey Shore?’” Colicchio asks.
“Man, they’re killing it,” Blais answers. “That one kid? I hear he gets eight grand to D.J. Seriously. Killing it.”
“You watch it, Kevin?” Colicchio asks Gillespie.
“No,” Gillespie says curtly. “I still don’t have a TV.” Gillespie may be the most famous reality TV star without a TV in America.
“How’s your mom,” Colicchio asks, changing the subject.
“She’s well,” says Gillespie.
Colicchio and Oltarsh talk about their dogs. Colicchio says with a mixture of incredulity and pride that his Flat Coated Retriever was photographed for People magazine.
“I have to say the best byproduct of this “Top Chef” thing was the Super Bowl,” says Colicchio, cocking his head and laughing. “I got to say, ‘Back to you, Bob,’ to Bob Costas. That was cool as [expletive].”
Gillespie tells a story about getting a phone call at the restaurant from the actress Natalie Portman, whom he met during one episode of “Top Chef.” She was on location in Europe on a film and just wanted to talk. Surreal.
Dumplings, fried noodles, a pork belly hot pot and a plate of broccoli in a tangy glaze that Oltarsh — the erudite ethno-gastronomer of the group likens to Japanese tonkatsu sauce — makes the rounds.
“Should we hit the next spot?” Oltarsh asks. “I’m thinking Korean.”
“I’m not into Korean food,” says Gillespie. “It’s so [expletive] fishy.”
The ever-creative Blais considers the comment, and a light bulb practically appears over his spiked hair. “You know what’s good? Shrimp-flavored french fries! Like when you use the fryer that the shrimp were fried in. You know?”
A conversation about fish-frying oil — specifically, can it be used more than once? — ensues. Everyone had an opinion.
A waitress clears a plate that has been scraped clean of everything but its decorative vegetable garnish. “Nice tomato swan!” Maxey says cheerily to the waitress. She considers the comment, dubiously.
Off to Hae Woon Dae
Before long the chefs are barreling up I-85 to a Buford Highway run. Their destination: Hae Woon Dae — a Korean barbecue restaurant set in a sinister-looking strip mall behind the Shooter Alley strip club. A man who appears to be asleep in his chair lurches up when the chefs’ brigade arrives. Beers are ordered. A kitchen helper brings canisters of glowing hardwood charcoal to set in the table, and mounds of raw short ribs materialize.
Oltarsh helps himself to some of the raw beef with chopsticks. “What?” he asks, when the others cast sideways glances. “It’s, like, cured in sugar.”
“The last time I ate Korean barbecue this late I had a dream that three guys were chasing me through the woods,” Blais says.
The chefs ask me to order a Korean dish I like, and so I order a bland, grainy porridge called “tofu dregs” on the menu. “Mmmmm…” I say when it arrives, taking a bite and passing it on. The chefs grimace in turn. No one except Evans digs the dregs.
Maybe they’ll like the bits of cartilage from the short rib bones, crisped on the grill. Usually adventurous food people like these, or at least pretend to like these.
“To call this an armpit would be an insult to an armpit,” says Colicchio, washing a piece down with beer.
“Korean food is not comforting at all,” says Gillespie.
Soon, the “Top Chef” trio are telling tales from the set. Too many dishes had to be served on small tasting plates that didn’t allow for good presentation. Contestants Eli Kirshtein and Robin Leventhal really went after each other. Hector Santiago slept in the buff. The bloggers were relentless.
“You can’t read all the blogs,” moans Gillespie.
“Too many haters out there,” Colicchio concurs.
“But you read hilarious things, too,” says Blais. “One blog said I was No. 5 on the list of celebrities who look like old lesbians, behind Rod Stewart and Bruce Jenner. How cool is that?”
How cool, indeed. Where next? Who knows. It was 3 in the morning and, digesting my tofu dregs, I bid my adieus.
Click here to see some more photos of the evening.