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Chef’s Night Out with Tom Colicchio

Kevin Gillespie, Tom Colicchio and Richard Blais at Hong Kong Harbour (Curtis Compton, AJC)

Kevin Gillespie, Tom Colicchio and Richard Blais at Hong Kong Harbour (Curtis Compton, AJC)

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.

24 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jennifer Zyman, John Kessler, Atlanta Wine Guy, BlackTieBBQ, John Kessler and others. John Kessler said: Late-night carousing and tofu dregs in ATL with @tom_colicchio, @richardblais, @topchefkevin and friends. http://bit.ly/9uf7T6 [...]

uberVU - social comments

March 30th, 2010
8:49 am

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by jdkess: Late-night carousing and tofu dregs in ATL with @tom_colicchio, @richardblais, @topchefkevin and friends. http://bit.ly/9uf7T6…

Chip Shoulder

March 30th, 2010
9:24 am

JK –

Great account, but don’t leave us hanging!!! Did TC bring up your “open letter” re your lunch at Craft from a couple of months ago?

Mel

March 30th, 2010
10:17 am

Atlanta loves you Kevin Gillespie! But you don’t remind me of an old lesbian. You remind me of the Kris Kringle character in ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ narrated by Fred Astaire. : )

ATLien

March 30th, 2010
10:17 am

I would have been floating. Chefs are my rock stars. Sounds like a fun night and a little surreal. Thanks for sharing!

Brad

March 30th, 2010
10:46 am

Big F*&^% deal, cooks.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Scaljon. Michael Scaljon said: @BraggBobby http://bit.ly/cuiKPs [...]

John Kessler

March 30th, 2010
11:12 am

Chip: Tom did not bring it up, and I thought better than to introduce the topic. Adam, the Craftbar chef, did suggest I come back and try the restaurant again, and I told him to call me if he ever wanted to talk.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Smith, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Chef’s Night Out with Tom Colicchio http://bit.ly/cifQkK [...]

Kar

March 30th, 2010
12:16 pm

I surpised that we’re talking world class chefs and they chose Hong Kong Harbour. It’s just down the street from the Woodfire Grill but there’s better more authentic Chinese in the city.

I hope their kitchen’s cleaner than their grimy carpet.

Edward

March 30th, 2010
1:22 pm

Kar, I agree… Hong Kong Harbor?? Really??? O_O At the very least I would have taken that crew to Little Szechuan, Cafe 101 or Canton Cooks. Even BBQ Corner II at Asian Square would be a better choice.

pika

March 30th, 2010
2:48 pm

It really lowers my opinion of Kevin Gillespie that he doesn’t like Korean. Harumph.

Mike H

March 30th, 2010
3:14 pm

Was this last night? We were planning on going to HK Harbor around 11pm but figured it would be dead on a Monday night so we went to New Paradise instead!

Jennifer Brett

March 30th, 2010
3:36 pm

In other reality-stars-without-televisions news, designer Mychael Knight of “Project Runway” fame also does not have a TV, he told me not long ago.

KoPP

March 30th, 2010
4:14 pm

Kar, Hong Kong Harbour isn’t all that bad – the best thing about it, however, is that it’s open late (and chefs do love to eat and drink most of the night away…) And there are better places for Korean BBQ than Hae Woon Dae, but again, it’s hard to be picky at 3AM.

RK

March 30th, 2010
4:59 pm

Shrimp-flavored fries? I hope Blais had had a few by that point…yuck…

[...] a food writer/blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted his latest article called Chef’s Night Out with Tom Colicchio, about a chef’s night out with Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio and local Top Chef alumni Richard [...]

top chef fanatic

March 31st, 2010
4:22 am

great article mr kessler, I am with the other blogger and very interested in TC opinion of your article on craft. And come on yall didnt stop in shooters alley for a lapdance? It seems a hell of alot better than shrimp fries and bone cartlidge. Never the less it was a great article and although atlanta has nothing on late nite dining on cities like new york , boston or chicago. It does have many other late nite activities to enjoy. I guess thats what makes the city the $ so it works for the tourists and celebrities who enjoy it.Its been along time since we had a good topchef blog thanks Mr. Kessler thanks.
have a blessed day

Amazed

March 31st, 2010
1:40 pm

Honestly, I lost a lot of respect for them after this article.

[...] 31, 2010 Filed under: Uncategorized — 326melroseavenue @ 2:53 pm I found this interesting tidbit from John Kessler’s Food and More [...]

jw

April 1st, 2010
12:35 pm

Interesting that Tom-bear appears to enjoy Abita Light (?) with his Chinese and rB sticks with H2O.

[...] a food writer/blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted his latest article called Chef’s Night Out with Tom Colicchio, about a chef’s night out with Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio and local Top Chef alumni Richard [...]

Mark in Johns Creek

April 3rd, 2010
9:44 am

Well written article and fun in a voyeuristic sort of way! It is kind of neat to give the public a “fly on the wall” perspective of these interesting guys letting their hair down!

Fred

April 3rd, 2010
12:40 pm

I thought this comment, about bloggers,

“Too many haters out there,” Colicchio concurs,

to be odd until I read this particular blog. The proof is in the pudding. Was I the ONLY one who read the part about the Hong Kong kitchen where it said they served you folks the REAL Chinese food not the crap they serve the public? I’d go there if I could get the real stuff, not the Americanized version. I don’t even try Chineese places anymore unless I go with a Chinese friend for that very reason, I like the real stuff, not the MSG laden crap.

I used to go to a Mexican place that did that for me, served me real Mexican food, not that tex-mex tacobell crap that every place else serves………. but he moved to Dunwoody and makes more money now selling the tex-mex crap to the yuppies. I never see anyone of Hispanic heritage eating there any more. Oh well……….. I can still dream of real Pozole and Sopa de Mariscos………