Tom Colicchio Shares His Thoughts on the Top Chef Lionfish Quickfire, Exclusive Interview

Top Chef Season 21 Lionfish Quickfire in Curacao
Top Chef Season 21 Lionfish Quickfire in Curacao / Bravo

For 21 Seasons, Tom Colicchio has been a driving force in Top Chef’s success. Sitting at the center of the Judges Table, Colicchio is never afraid to speak his mind about both the good, and sometimes not as successful, dishes that have been served to him. After the Top Chef Season 21 lionfish Quickfire in Curacao, Colicchio spoke exclusively to FoodSided and shared his thoughts on both the chefs’ approach to the challenge and the importance of highlighting that particular invasive fish.

Many adjectives have been used to describe Top Chef. From being the “gold standard” of food television to capitulating chefs into the culinary stratosphere, the reality is that this culinary competition is unlike other programming. Not only does each season highlight a particular location, but it seeks to educate the audience on vital food conversations.

As seen in Top Chef Wisconsin, the local flare of Miller High Life and Wisconsin Cheese sat side by side with the influence of the Dane County Farmer’s Market and the importance of indigenous food. Even though culinary creativity and superb technique receive the judges’ praise, highlighting topics that deserve a bigger conversation is vital to the show’s success.

In the penultimate Top Chef Season 21 episode, in the last Quickfire of the season, the final four chefs had to create a lionfish and gouda dish. Putting aside the fish and cheese pairing for a moment, highlighting lionfish was more than just an eye catching visual. Showcasing how chefs can, and should, use invasive fish is a vital food conversation.

In between tapings on board the Holland America Line Eurodam, Tom Colicchio graciously offered his insight on the lionfish Quickfire. When asked about the importance of highlighting the invasive fish and the importance of chefs using these types of proteins, Colicchio recalled how he previously used the fish in one of his restaurants.

Colicchio said, “when I had a restaurant in Miami, we had lionfish on the menu. For every fish taco dish sold, we donated to the Everglades foundation.” While he made a specific effort in that moment, Colicchio wanted people to appreciate that it was more than just a satisfying meal.

As an avid fisherman, Colicchio explained, “for those who care about the reefs, who care about the ocean, this invasive species can actually wipe out an entire reef. It disrupts the ecology of the reef. When you really think about it, if you want to get rid of the species, you need to eat it.”

“Seeing lionfish on the menu is raising awareness. You know that the chef is doing something good for the planet. It is something easy to do without really having to do much.”

What did Tom Colicchio really think about Top Chef’s lionfish and gouda pairing?

While Tom Colicchio is never afraid to speak the truth about a dish, he said that all four chefs did a good job. As he explained, given the limited 30-minute time frame, raw dishes made sense.  

As seen in the episode, there was a slight tone to Colicchio’s line when he revealed that gouda would be paired with the lionfish. The nod to the Dutch heritage, as well as tying in the season’s connection to Wisconsin, made sense. Still, fish and cheese can be divisive.

When asked what he would have made, Colicchio revealed, “I have no idea what I would do. When I first thought of it, I thought about a crispy cheese. Quite frankly, I would have turned the frico into a taco shell for a fish taco.”

While that taco might have been one approach, Colicchio was quite frank in his approach to his feedback and thought process. He said, “who knows what you would do when you are in the moment. That is why I don’t like playing that game.”

Colicchio said, “when I talk to the chefs and give them feedback, it is not about what I would have done. No one cares about what I would have done. That is irrelevant. We are judging what they did not what I would have done.”

With that sentiment in mind, Top Chef fans might want to go back and revisit Top Chef seasons and re-watch the Judges Table. The commentary might be even more telling.

In the end, the final Top Chef Season 21 Quickfire was more than just another fast paced, think on their feet, fish dish. If it encourages viewers to try lionfish, be receptive to sometimes unlikely food combinations, and be more willing to see the interconnectedness of food, then the show, and Tom Colicchio as one of the judges, has made a difference. Food television is entertaining, but it can invite conversation long after the credits roll.

Top Chef Season 21 airs on Bravo Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Additionally, this season and previous ones can be streamed on Peacock.