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The New Hamptons Hot Table: Q+A with Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio

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When chef Tom Colicchio’s long-awaited Topping Rose House restaurant opened its doors last September, it became the most buzzed-about spot on the East End. Now, the 19th-century Bridgehampton mansion is experiencing a second wave, with 22 rooms and cottages set to debut this month. Fellow Top Chef judge Gail Simmons sat down with the restaurateur turned innkeeper to discuss the opening, the menu, and his newfound interest in the hotel world.

Simmons: Why did you decide to get into the hotel business?
Colicchio: When Topping Rose House’s owners, Bill Campbell and Simon Critchell, approached me about two years ago to do a restaurant, I thought it would be too difficult with such a small property to have someone running the restaurant and someone else taking care of the rooms. We felt that we understood what needed to happen from a hospitality standpoint. We just needed to hire someone who had the experience to take care of the day-to-day. The idea was that this business would ultimately provide a springboard to do other hotels.

Simmons: Do you have dreams of being a hotelier on a bigger scale?
Colicchio: Yes! I actually like it. When you think of all those great French restaurants that are in the countryside, this is similar in a lot of ways. I've done hotel restaurants before, so this is just an extension of hospitality and the brand. The family members who originally built this house were the Topping Roses—that’s why we called it Topping Rose House. I’d also love to have a Craft hotel.

Simmons: And the building was abandoned for a long time, right?
Colicchio: It was an antiques center and even a restaurant way back called the Bull’s Head Tavern. We actually found an old menu on a wall. It was pretty beat up so this has been a 10-year process of buying the property and getting all the permits in place.

Simmons: What's been one of the biggest challenges of going from restaurateur to hotelier?
Colicchio: Controlling the demand, especially in the Hamptons. We can't have a noisy scene after 10:00 p.m., since hotel guests really need to take precedence. And our bar is only two deep—I’m not going to make it six deep with people scrambling over each other to get a drink because that doesn’t add to the hotel guest’s experience.

Simmons: It seems that is the way of a lot of boutique bars these days anyway: you need to have a seat to be there so the experience can be a little more controlled. How do you prevent it from getting overcrowded?
Colicchio: I think that's it—you have a seat. It’s a small space: we have 48 seats in the dining room, and we’ll expand dining on the porch and a little terrace in the summer. Once all the seats are taken, that's it. You're not going to be hanging out all over the property and partying all night.

Simmons: Do you think the Hamptons is ready for such an adult business model?
Colicchio: I think they are. We want to take care of them.

Simmons: This seems to be the smallest of all your restaurants, seat-wise. What does that allow you to do from a menu perspective?
Colicchio: Right out of the gate, I felt the food here was really good because of the small size. We have about 6 to 8 cooks in the kitchen per night and Ty Kotz as the chef de cuisine. I knew him through [ABC Kitchen's] Dan Kluger and [North End Grill’s] Floyd Cardoz.

Simmons: And how is Ty adjusting to life out here as a chef?
Colicchio: Ty is great. One thing he’s done really well is sourcing. He really found some great suppliers like Stuart's Seafood and someone out here doing aquaculture, who’s bringing us farm-raised 100% striped bass raised right out in the bay. We're also getting sea salt from Amagansett Salt Company and our eggs from Browder’s Birds—the best eggs I've ever had in this country—on the North Fork. The only thing we're not getting locally is meat, because there are no USDA slaughterhouses out here.

Simmons: So tell me about the menu itself. Why did you choose to design it the way you did?
Colicchio: I believe, especially now that people eat out a couple nights a week, that they're moving to more plant-based diets and eating less protein. You always look at the garnishes first, so that's how we write our menus. For example, "eggplant caviar napoleon roasted in peppers with rack of lamb." Our idea is to get a much higher quality of protein, make it small, and focus on the vegetable as the main part of the dish.

Simmons: That also allows you to showcase so much of what you're doing, and what Long Island is about, right? With the produce that you have here, and your garden.
Colicchio: All of our produce is from within a 20- to 30-mile radius. We also had our one-acre garden planted last summer so we had some lettuces, carrots, beets, and radishes. This year, we're planting a lot more, like peas and beans. Our farmer, Jeff Negron, is a great local. He takes care of Bridgehampton's community garden and a few others.

Simmons: You’ve said your menu here is more Italian-focused than any restaurant you've ever done. Why did you go that way?
Colicchio: It's been a natural sort of movement. It's the way I cook at home, which is the way we're eating more now. I learned to cook French/American food when I was coming up, but I shied away from doing anything Italian, which also happened with a lot of chefs I came up with: Tom Valenti, Alford Portale… We didn't have an example of someone who was operating at a high level. Things have changed since. Maybe it was because of the ingredients growing that time of the year when we opened. When you think early September, you think of eggplant, zucchini, pepper—all of those ingredients you associate with Italian cooking.

Simmons: By opening Topping Rose House, what are you hoping to bring to the South Fork or the East End that doesn't already exist?
Colicchio: I want it to be an oasis—where you can come and enjoy yourself, get great food, and get away from the crowds. Once you're here, it’s a warm embrace. We take care of you.

Photo credit: Bill Bettencourt

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