Tom Colicchio, <EM>Top Chef</EM> Tom Colicchio, Top Chef

As Season 3 of Bravo's addictive cooking competition, Top Chef (Wednesdays at 10 pm/ET), enters into its third week, we dished with head judge and famed restaurateur Tom Colicchio.

TV Guide: Tell us about this season.
Colicchio: Most of the contestants are either sous chefs or executive chefs, some have their own restaurants or their own catering companies, and so it's definitely a deeper talent pool this year.

TV Guide: What qualities does a Top Chef need?
Colicchio: Obviously they have to have a lot of food knowledge, they have to really understand their craft, they need passion and drive and to love what they do. Otherwise they won't stay in the game.

TV Guide: Do you have some advice for this season's contenders?
Colicchio: Simple is better than complicated, especially when you're doing things under time constraints. I think too often their minds are racing so quickly that they end up doing more than they can handle. The chefs that are really going to distinguish themselves are the ones that are going to do something uniquely their own. You want to see someone's own style and personality on the plate.

TV Guide: It was good to see Anthony Bourdain back as a judge in the season-opener.
Colicchio: I think you'll see more of him, too.

TV Guide: Is he a fan of the show?
Colicchio: Yeah, he is. That's why he comes back. [Laughs] They don't pay the guest judges, c'mon. All of the guest judges, for the most part, are people that I've worked with and respect. A lot of the guys you'll see this season are friends of mine.

TV Guide: What do you think of Hell's Kitchen and its rather combative host, Gordon Ramsay?
Colicchio: I work nights so I don't see a lot of TV, and I have my favorites that I spend my time on — and it's not that. [Laughs] I think I watched five minutes once and turned it off because I can't deal with people yelling and screaming at chefs. For me, I try to treat the contestants the way I would treat the cooks in my kitchen — you have to be firm, you have to criticize them, but you do it in a way that builds them up, not rip them apart.

TV Guide: When did you start cooking?
Colicchio: I was about 12 or 13 when I started cooking at home. My mom and dad both cooked and I just always loved it. Food was always a focal point of growing up — we sat down as a family every night.

TV Guide: Do you have a favorite dish?
Colicchio: Not a particular dish. If I had one ingredient to take to a desert island, it would be mushrooms.

TV Guide: What's the one item every kitchen should have?
Colicchio: If you're going to spend money on anything, make sure you get really great pots and pans and really great knives. The rest of the stuff doesn't matter.

TV Guide: Do you have a favorite junk food?
Colicchio: I love licorice, I eat tons of pizza, popcorn is great, but I don't care for fast food — the quality of everything they're using is suspect.

TV Guide: Do waiters fear you now?
Colicchio: I'm the least critical person going to a restaurant [because] I know what the chef is going through. I go there, I enjoy it, I don't ever complain.

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