Tom Colicchio: the 10 records that changed my life
Tom Colicchio has heard the line “chefs are the new rock stars.” But while the multi-award-winning celebrity food master – who operates such hotspot eateries as Craft, Craftsteak, Colicchio & Sons, Heritage Steak and the Topping Rose House, and who has served as head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef – does see similarities in how the public views top-flight chefs and platinum music makers, he insists that what they really have in common is a work ethic born from their early, unheralded days.
“Chefs are like rock stars in that we spent years spent coming up before you even knew who we were,” Colicchio says. “The hours on your feet chopping vegetables and butchering meats, working the line day and night – it’s all part of paying your dues. Musicians will tell you about driving in vans, having no money, sleeping in crappy hotels, eating fast food – all to play some bar for five or six people who care while the rest couldn’t give a shit. And there's so many talented musicians you'll never know – same with chefs.”
Colicchio came by his love of music early – growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he heard his parents play records by Elvis, the Four Seasons, The Beatles and Janis Joplin.” I was a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says, “so there was always music playing in the car and at home.” From the age of 10, he learned to play the guitar in fits and starts, but it wasn’t till he was 35 that he decided to spend some quality time with the instrument.
“It’s something that I picked up and dropped over the years, but only later in my life did I get more consistent with the guitar,” he says. “Everybody want to be a rock star in their mind, but I never thought about becoming a musician. I do love guitars, though. I've got a few nice ones."
Colicchio calls a Martin 000-18 his first “serious guitar purchase.” In the past few years, he’s become a regular at Matt Umanov Guitars in Manhattan, one of the last non-chain music shops in the tri-state area. “I’m not the kind of collector who knows everything about Gibson or Fender or Martin,” he says. “I’ll go in and pick up a guitar and play it, and if I like it, I’ll buy it. But I’ll think about it, too: I’ll go back a few times, pick up the guitar again, see if I still like it. I don’t impulse buy. I need to make sure the guitar is a good match with me.”
His most recent acquisition is a 1932 Gibson L-3, which he calls "a weird little instrument. It's got a carved top and back, and a metal bridge. It’s really small, too, only 12 frets. There was something about it that I just liked. I knew I would enjoy it.”
In his professional kitchens, Colicchio doesn't play music ("There's too many people with different tastes; you'll have arguments"), but when he's cooking at home, it's anything goes. "Blues, reggae, jazz. – it's all good," he says. "It all depends on what I’m in the mood for. Cooking isn’t suited for any one particular type of music. Whatever you want works. Just relax and have fun."
On the following pages, Colicchio runs down the 10 records that changed his life (ranked alpabetically by artist). For more information on Tom Colicchio, visit his official website.
The Band - The Last Waltz (1978)
“One of the best live records ever. The Band was calling it quits, this was their last concert, and they turned it into this giant event with all their musical friends. This album really captures a lot of incredible moments.
“I was already a fan of The Band before The Last Waltz. Funny, though, I got the record before I saw the movie. And I never saw the movie in a theater, either. The Band speak to me on so many levels – the lyrics, the musicianship. They had their own sound. You hear a couple of notes and you know who it is. I mean, Garth Hudson on the keyboards? Nobody sounds like that guy.
“I love the story about Garth charing members of The Band for music lessons when they first got going. Apparently, he parents would’ve disowned him if they knew he was in a rock band, so he told him that he was a music teacher and that he was teaching the guys how to play. He actually had to charge the band money as proof! [Laughs] That’s pretty incredible.”
Jim Croce - I Got A Name (1973)
“Jim was played a lot on the radio, even though he was around for a short time. You couldn't not hear Bad, Bad Leroy Brown – I would listen to WABC-AM on my transistor radio, and they played that song all the time. It was a big hit.
"I got this album after Jim died, and it immediately became on of my favorites. Actually, I got it on 8-track – that’s how far back we’re going. Workin’ At The Car Wash Blues, I’ve Got A Name, Lover’s Cross – all brilliant songs. Jim was a terrific singer and songwriter, and a great acoustic guitar player, too.
“I’m still a big fan of this record. I probably listen to Jim Croce once a month. I just got a greatest hits compilation so I can have a lot of the best songs all together.
Derek And The Dominos - Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
“I was already a Clapton fan, more from Blind Faith than Cream, really. Then along came Layla – what a brilliant record. I remember hearing it for the first time at my cousin’s house when I was sleeping over. He was a few years older than me. He put it on and I could immediately tell it was special.
“The songs, the musicianship – Clapton and Duane Allman have such a unique sound together. It's different from anything Clapton ever did on his own or with anybody else. A very powerful album that truly holds up. I still go back to it."
Dire Straits - Making Movies (1980)
“I adore this album. I remember going to a record store back in the day and having somebody say, ‘Have you heard this record? Do you know these guys?’ I told him, ‘Yeah, sure, I know Sultans of Swing… ’ That was Dire Straits' first big song on the radio. They had the second album too, Communique, with Lady Writer and Once Upon A Time In The West on it – those were great.
“But the guy was like, ‘OK, trust me. You’ve gotta get this album.’ And I’m so glad he said that. I bought it, put it on and was completely knocked out. It's the kind of record you listen to and go, ‘Somebody actually made this? How? How is that possible?’ The level of creativity was astonishing.
“Mark Knopfler is one of the most versatile guitar players around. The stuff he did with Chet Atkins is great, and I really like what he did with Emmylou Harris. But Making Movies is one of his finest albums. From start to finish, it holds you.”
Grateful Dead - Europe '72
“This was one of those gateway records that take you and move you in different directions. I had heard the Dead before, so I was a bit of a fan. If you grew up when I did, you were gonna hear about the Dead. So I knew Truckin’ and Box Of Rain and a few other things.
“Europe ’72 sucked me right in. It’s a great, great live record. I put it right up there with Frampton Comes Alive! and The Last Waltz – those are other two enormous live records during the ‘70s. More than anything the Dead did in the studio, this album really defined them and captured their true essence. Obviously, they became an enormous live band, and you can tell why by listening to what they did on Europe ’72.”
Jorma Kaukonen - Quah (1974)
“A beautiful record from start to finish. I listened to it over and over again. Prior to this, there were a few Hot Tune albums – they did a couple of live albums and some studio things – but I really got pulled in by Quah, Jorma’s first solo acoustic thing.
“I've always liked acoustic music anyway, so I’m kind of predisposed to like something like this. I would listen to Hot Tuna, and I thought they were cool, but there was more of an immediate connection by Jorma on his own. It’s very different, very pretty. It hits me on a lot of levels.”
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin II (1969)
“Of course there’s Zeppelin. The first concert I ever saw was Led Zeppelin at the Garden in 1977. I got all the Zeppelin records as a teenager. It's funny, though: I bought the first album, but I was a little indifferent to it. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Zeppelin II was the one that changed everything for me. Once I heard that it was like, 'OK, I get it!'
“I think it's because they were kind of putting the pieces together on the first record somewhat. It was hard-driving, amped-up traditional blues. By the second record, they became a more stylized band, and that's what I liked about them. Led Zeppelin II is probably a favorite for a lot of people – it’s just that kind of record.”
R.E.M. - Reckoning (1984)
“This was probably the first alternative music that I really paid attention. I remember listening to college radio and hearing them play something from Reckoning. It led me right to the record store.
“I spent a lot of time with this record, and I became a real fan of the band because of it. One thing that I especially liked about R.E.M. – and I started to notice it on this record – is still probably one of the most overlooked things about the band: Mike Mills singing backup. He’s a great singer! Some of the harmonies he sings and the different lines – they're really important to the band's overall sound. That might have gone over a lot of people’s heads, but some of us noticed it.”
The Replacements - Don't Tell A Soul (1989)
“This is another record that led me more into college and alternative music. I had listened to Tim, which was good, but the songs on Don’t Tell A Soul hooked me more.
“For a week or so after I got it, that’s all I listened to. Cut after cut, I couldn’t get enough of it. Also, it’s one of those records that I go back to. A lot of times after you play a record a bunch, even if it's something you like, you tend to tuck it away and it just stays there. Not so with Don't Tell A Soul: I search it out every now and then. It’s still great.”
Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run (1975)
“I’m from New Jersey, so I’ve got to include Bruce. Growing up, I heard about Bruce Springsteen, and I knew he was around, but Born To Run was the record that made me and so many people go, ‘Holy shit, this is great!’ It's the album that made you really pay attention.
“And, of course, once I got into Born To Run, that's when I went back and listened to the first two albums, Greetings and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. The second record could be my favorite of Springteen’s – or it could be The Ghost Of Tom Joad – but Born To Run is the one that started it for me. I totally got Bruce when I heard it. ”