We Chat With: Chef Stephen Collucci of Colicchio and Sons

"I love making things that should not be at a three-star restaurant."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

We appreciate a pastry chef who, while technically skilled, understands desserts that are gut-level satisfying. Executive pastry chef Stephen Collucci of Colicchio & Sons provides dessert lovers with family comfort foods gone fancy, like the doughnuts he decks out in butterscotch and eggnog ice cream. (A culinary move partially inspired by a Serious Eats article. Why? Read on!)

Collucci was recently selected by writers, chefs and critics to compete for Food and Wine's "The People's Best New Pastry Chef" title. He didn't end up being a finalist, but even to be nominated in the award's inaugural pastry category was especially sweet: "At first I was completely intimidated, then flattered and honored."

How far back does your love of food go? 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... I equate food and family—that's how it is.

Has that connection stayed as you've pursued food as a career? 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 L.A., 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?

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. 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.

[Appropriate squeal from the interviewer.]

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.

[By the time this interview went to print, Collucci had given Julie a transcript of this interview to begin his proposal; and she said yes.]

So what was your focus when creating the menu for Colicchio & Sons? Especially in the tap room, Tom wanted to have a little Italian feel to it because he's Italian and that's very important to him. 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 for fine dining.

I love making things that should not be at a three-star restaurant. At orientation Tom said "I want every guest 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."

How early on did you know that food was what you wanted to do as a career?I was 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. I've always been artistic: I always loved sketching and crafts and at some point it became clear that this could be artistic as well, and that it was the perfect blend of everything that I loved.

You've got a doughnut book coming out in the summer of 2013. How did doughnuts become the thing? 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. 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 top five in the city and we were on the list! 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 [Momofuku Milk Bar] Cereal Milk Ice Cream. I had it 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 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 definitely be something fried, for sure. And probably tossed in sugar.