Photos by Brent Herrig Photography. Stealing them is mean. And illegal…
I suspect I first met pastry chef Stephen Collucci because of the pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. I’ve never confirmed this suspicion. But shortly after Johnny judged a pie contest for an awesome charity I had entered rather last minute (my savory Holiday in a Hand Pie was the only gluten-free and the only savory offering, which is evidently how you win) and started following me on twitter, I noticed a few other pastry chefs on my twittersphere.
So, I have one thing to really thank Sir Iuzzini for, because Stephen is one of the sweetest, most passionate chefs I’ve ever met. And, after just a tweet or two, he agreed to sit down with me for an interview. And that interview was what I pitched to Serious Eats. And that pitch got me the column that has led to me sitting with over 70 of New York City’s most prominent chefs and shakers. And that led to a new kind of interview collection that I’m working on with Brent for print. Stephen, of course, will be in it. Because, still, 70+ chefs later, he’s the real deal.
So I owe two pastry chefs a lot of gluten-free cookies.
This is the long version of my interview with Stephen, un-edited from it’s original form or what was printed. In the coming months I’ll be posting the full versions of many of my interviews, so that they have a home here. It’s only right that Stephen kicks it off. There’s also some fun notes at the bottom about what has transpired since.
Thanks, Johnny. Thanks, Stephen.
Here we go…
For Pastry Chef Stephen Collucci, Family Shapes Food
So, where did food start for you?
I’m Italian and any good memory I have of my family involves food. When I was two or three I would go to my grandparents house and make Sunday dinner with them, peeling garlic at the table, rolling meatballs… my grandmother still talks about it. We always had Sunday dinners – we literally grew up next door to them which is kinds stereotypical but awesome. So I think that’s where it started. I equate food and family – that’s how it is.
Food is such a huge part of what we do. Even in high school and early college days my dad loved when me and my brother and my sisters would get in at whatever time and raid the fridge. My dad would come out of bed at two or three in the morning; we’d be making sandwiches and scrambled eggs. It’s just been a big part of my life.
How early on did you know that food was what you wanted to do as a career?
I’d say I was probably 11 or 12 and I would wait for my mother to go run an errand so I could take hold of the kitchen and try to clean it up before she got back and I was in trouble. I’ve always been artistic: I always loved sketching and craft and at some point it just because clear that this could be artistic as well, and that it was the perfect blending of everything that I loved.
When my brother was at a college night at the high school he brought me back a brochure from the Culinary Institute of America and it had a tiered cake on the front. The top had a kettle on it and the bottom had a little teacup and there was tea bouncing down the tiers into the cup and I was like, “I want to be able to do that”. And that was it.
Did that big “I did it!” moment ever happen?
It was not nearly as extravagant as that cake, but the first time we made éclairs I was so impressed with myself because I love éclairs and they seemed like something difficult to make. I brought them home for the weekend and everyone was mind-blown.
I just recently made them with my sister. She is 23 but she has this idea that one day she wants to be able to make éclairs for her husband, so we just had this cooking demo. It was fun – she’s hilarious – so it made for a really fun experience.
And my brother is seeing somebody who told me that he makes fabulous meatballs. My brother has never made a meatball. He has my sister make them.
How special that you’re so close with your family.
I was at Craftsteak for about a year when the chef who I worked for moved to L.A. and said “you know, if you want to you can move out with me and I’ll get you a sous chef position”. So I moved out to LA, which was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. My mother went out to look at apartments with me and that was traumatizing. She never shows it externally but she’s really sensitive, especially when it comes to her kids – she’s an Italian mother, you know? I put my application in and it got approved within two hours. We got back in the car and she just needed a moment. She started tearing up, and I’m this big wuss. I was like, “you can’t cry because you’re going to make me cry”. It was a really sad moment.
My girlfriend Julie and I went on vacation recently over the summer and we got this car service to take us to the airport. And it happened to be the same car service, and it was the same driver, and he remembered consoling my mother in the car on the way back to our house. He said “I remember you, I remember your mom, she was crying in the car!”
What does your girlfriend do? With your schedule do you ever get to see her?
She’s a teacher, so we pretty much have opposite lives. She’s up at six in the morning and I’m getting in at one or two. We make it work. And I’m very lucky that she puts up with it so well, because I don’t know that a lot of people would. I’m proposing Christmas Eve.
[At this point, I may have squealed a tiny bit.]
My dad proposed on Christmas Eve, and I always knew it was something I wanted to do. My staff knows about it because I talk about it a lot. They were all rock stars and changed their schedules and plane tickets so I could open and then have the night off. I’m really happy that I have people like that that work for me.
So what was your focus when creating the menu for Colicchio and Sons?
I try to incorporate a little of what I grew up with. I try to find to play off of those things but in general I’d say our style is fun and very much nostalgia based. A lot of the recipes are from my mother and my grandmother and I updated them or made them fine dining.
I had funnel cake on the menu before in the main dining room – not in the tap room – and it was successful. I just wanted to have fun with it because that was kinda what we were going for. Even at orientation Tom said, “I want every to feel like they’re at a party when they’re here”.
People have asked “what’s the best way to eat this dessert?” And I love when I can say, “grab this, wipe it through the plate and then put it in your mouth”. I feel you should be able to have fun with it.
You’ve got a doughnut book coming out in Summer 2013. How did doughnuts become the thing?
Personally I think doughnuts are awesome, and fresh doughnuts fried to order…
At Craft I put a composed doughnut on. A Boston Cream Doughnut filled with a vanilla pastry cream, chocolate glazed, with a warm blueberry compote and cheesecake ice cream on it, with a shot of malted chocolate. We had such a big response to it – I was blown away by how many people commented on it. And then Serious Eats did an article on Fancy-Pants Doughnuts. They picked their five top of the city and we were on the list! And I was so excited because it was really first time I had been recognized. It was all foreign territory to me. I was really excited. So I thought, ‘maybe we have something here, maybe I did something really special’. I’ve always had a doughnut or multiple doughnuts on the menu since then.
Is there any one dessert in the city you would want to summon at will?
Christina Tosi’s Cereal Milk Ice Cream. I had it two weeks ago for the first time and I guess I must have stopped speaking because my friend was like, “What’s wrong?” And I just said, “It’s stupid. It’s stupid how good it is. It’s just dumb”. I haven’t felt that way about dessert in a very long time. I can always tell when it’s really good because I don’t share it. My friend asked me for a taste and I said “Absolutely not! Go get your own”!
Would your last meal on earth be a sweet?
It would totally be a doughnut. Oh my goodness! It would definitely be something fried, for sure. And probably tossed in sugar.
Since this interview….
Stephen proposed to Julie with a copy of this interview! On Christmas Eve of 2011, he gave her an early edit and proposed when she read down to the part of him proposing! I had the biggest rush of girly pleasure when he asked me if he could do that. They’ve since been married (he made the cake, of course), and while I’ve only met her a few times I can see why they adore each other so!
Stephen’s book is gorgeous and coming out this summer! Snag an early copy of Glazed, Filled, Sugared and Dipped on Amazon. He sent me a preview copy and I adore it. It’s full of warm, fun, silly anecdotes and plenty of information that assures you that he is a chef to be trusted. And I’m dying at the recipes inside… you want this book. Promise.
- Snapshots from Dessert Professional’s 20th Annual Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America (newyork.seriouseats.com)