Colicchio a top draw at A.C. food fest

Posted: August 06, 2009

ATLANTIC CITY - The ingredients are late, so Tom Colicchio is vamping, standing at a staged kitchen in the music hall at the House of Blues, talking vinaigrettes.

In the audience, people are thinking about his shiny bald head, his liquid-blue eyes, his infectious laugh, and his truffle vinaigrettes.

They are wondering if they can get their picture taken with Colicchio, the star from Bravo's Top Chef. They are smitten, for sure, but they're likely wondering too whether these small containers of Fage yogurt (courtesy of the sponsor) will be the only food available for tasting at this cooking demonstration, part of the new and improved Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival held last weekend. (Alas, it was. No quail for you!)

"I met Gordon Ramsay a few times," Colicchio is telling the audience, speaking of his fellow chef TV star, the crazed bad boy of Hell's Kitchen. "He's a good guy."

Yeah, sure he is.

It is the morning after the festival's opening event, the Jim Beam Gourmet Pizza Bash, at which Colicchio, founder of Craft restaurant in New York City, was mobbed by a crowd of 700 as he weighed competing pizza crusts.

It is also the first of four events at which Colicchio (cu-LICK-e-o) will appear. Each event will feature less and less schmooze time with adoring fans and more and more interference from a no-nonsense casino security entourage. (Note to security patrol: This guy's a chef, not POTUS.)

"What has happened to the past Top Chefs? What has become of us?" he says, repeating a question from the crowd and erupting in that cute laughter. "They go to the Top Chef graveyard in the sky."

But not this chef, the TV show's top judge. Fans work themselves into a frenzy everywhere he goes.

Aside from that earlier vinaigrette demonstration sans samples, folks are eating and drinking themselves silly during this four-day festival, as much as the ubiquitous lines will allow.

Cooked up and sponsored by Harrah's and TD Bank to benefit the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast-cancer foundation, the festival (much larger than last year's) was anchored by celebrity chefs.

In addition to Colicchio, Ted Allen, Ingrid Hoffmann, Guy Fieri, Duff Goldman, and ├╝ber-celeb-chef Emeril Lagasse passed through town, demonstrating, hosting, teaching, posing, basking, and rubbing elbows. They even cooked.

At times, the festival seemed to reach its promise, bringing crowds to town (many of them with comped rooms, if not tickets to the event itself) in an orgy of gourmet dishes dreamed up by casino chefs from Harrah's, Showboat, Bally's, and Caesars.

Try Kona Kampachi and tuna served in a savory cone with foie gras gelato and wasabi greens; or red curry lobster served on whole-wheat roti with Tahitian vanilla foam. Both are creations of Richard Leadbetter, head chef of the Steakhouse at Harrah's, and were served poolside at Harrah's.

At other times, though, the festival seemed to devolve into something between a wedding at which all the guests are strangers and a glorified casino buffet line.

At a Jeremiah Weed BBQ tailgate party held under a tent in the Dennis Courtyard at Bally's early in the weekend, people were especially disappointed, as there was no actual grilling going on. Texas beef ribs with jalapeno orange drizzle with something called South Jersey frank fries and West Coast orange mustard and other dishes were served from banquet pans.

"Not what we expected," reflected Glynis Fisher of Wayne, N.J., as she sipped Crystal Head vodka. She paid for the drink rather than wait in the endless line for freebies.

"We're big foodies," Fisher said. "We were hoping to see and meet and learn something. It was disappointing. It was like a bar mitzvah." Albeit a bar mitzvah with a lot of pig products.

Colicchio, official host of the tailgater, kept to a back room for a private party for most, but not all, of the night. Francine Lee of Baltimore was among the lucky few who commandeered some face time with him under the BBQ tent.

"Did you see me hug him?" said Lee, visibly stoked by a little speech in which Colicchio waxed about the virtues of "low and slow, nice and smoky."

"I love him," she said, looking at the just-captured image of herself. "He is the finest bald-headed chef there is. If I stopped gambling to see him, you know he's worth it."

Meanwhile, by the glass-enclosed pool at Harrah's, the non-celebrity chefs and sous chefs of the casino restaurants were the evening's unsung heroes.

As Colicchio held court in a section cordoned off by velvet rope (seriously), expounding on his plans to tackle hunger in America, chefs such as Ron Ulczak and his sous chef Gerard Lythgoe of Arturo's in Bally's pumped out 1,500 veal meatballs with rustic vegetable ratatouille, gorgonzola cream, and crispy sage leaves for the masses.

There were little plates of warm rabbit porchetta (the creation of chef Keith Mitchell of Caesars); short ribs, osso buco, Maine lobster ceviche, filet tartare; and enough sugary meringue and chocolate desserts to create a sure-fire sugar buzz.

All the while, Lythgoe plated little meatball dish after little meatball dish, with ratatouille, cream, and crispy sage leaves just so with every serving. A line of eager eaters snaked its way around the pool to his station. Again and again, Lythgoe reached across the table to placate the crowd.

"Bring him over, we'll eat him up," Lythgoe said of the celebrated Colicchio, suggesting the chef might not stand up to this kind of pressure anymore.

"I haven't stopped," Lythgoe said. "Look at my arms, one's longer."

Bravo! Somebody should be signing this guy up for a new reality show: Sous Chef, Casino Edition.


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

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