Mike Colameco is coming off a 14-hour day of filming Colameco’s Food Show. “We did two stories,” he says, “both crazy spaces, plucky owners doing everything themselves, absolutely in the trenches.” And Mike Colameco knows the trenches; he has a lifetime of food expertise behind him.
In person, Mike Colameco is the same guy we see on camera on Colameco’s Food Show, hear on the radio on WOR’s Food Talk, or meet in the pages of his new book, Mike Colameco's Food Lover's Guide to New York City. His throaty laugh is familiar, and he’s as generous with time and insights when he’s talking to a single Patch writer as he is when speaking to a audience of thousands. For many of us in South Orange and Maplewood, he’s also a former neighbor.
In the mid-'90s, or as he dates it—“I remember the important stuff”—when his older son, Sean, was in kindergarten, first and second grades at Marshall School, Colameco, his wife and two sons lived on Ridgewood Road.
“I was starting a new venture as an import agent for Chinese foods," he recalls.
His long career in the food industry began with a high school restaurant job in West Philly. Colameco was smitten; he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, then worked at The Four Seasons in New York City. His next position was sous chef under Christian Delouvrier and consulting chef Alain Senderens at Maurice Restaurant. The next three years saw him at Windows on the World, Tavern on the Green and the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, before he opened his own restaurant, Globe, in Cape May, N.J., which he closed after five years.
“That was seasonal,” explains Colameco, “and we were still New York-based.” In a one-bedroom apartment with two young sons, Colameco and his wife soon found themselves looking westward for a more spacious home. “We basically stuck a compass in a map of Manhattan, looked for a good train line, and wanted a racially diverse town,” he remembers. “I must have looked in Montclair for nine months,” Colameco recalls, without finding the home he sought.
Then, one day, he drove along Maplewood Avenue. “It was about 3 o’clock,” he remembers. “The middle school was just getting out and there was a flood of kids coming down the street. What was cool is that it looked like New York, with the mix of kids.” Colameco laughs. “I said to myself, ‘Yeah, okay, what the hell? What is the place?’ I drove down Ridgewood Road that day, saw a house with a for-sale sign, called my wife, and that was it.”
Soon afterwards, the Colameco family opened Incredible Edible Bakery, now the site of Luke’s Kitchen, on Maplewood Avenue. “Long story short,” says Colameco. “The next thing you know I was cooking again. I was cook, pot washer, prep guy. In a small place, you do what needs to be done.”
“My kids were what I was about, and still am,” said Colameco, who volunteered lunchtimes at Marshall School. “I got really good at two-square.” Since he was home during the daytime, he supervised his sons’ playdates, which led to his next career shift. “There was a guy two doors down whose girls played with my kids,” explains Colameco. “He was shooter for NJN. He said, ‘Let’s do a TV show. You’ll be good on camera.’”
Colameco paused to reflect. “You know, we fret over everything with kids, but plan as you will, the big [stuff] happens serendipitously.” The shoot was a success, and Colameco’s Food Show has been running since 2000 and is consistently one of the highest-rated cooking shows on both WNET New York and WNJN New Jersey. “I don’t mind being on camera,” says Colameco. “I’m lucky.”
When it was time to simplify life and return to Cape May, Colameco left with a pang. “That was my favorite house ever, ever, ever,” he says. The show was a hit, radio followed, and both inspired Colameco to write a book about New York City restaurants.
The challenge wasn’t what to write—“I wanted to write this book for years,” he recalled, based on the hundreds of restaurants his show has visited—but finding a voice. “That was really hard,” says Colameco. “I spent the last three months sequestered in my office with my kids saying, ‘You’re like some kind of recluse.’” The gregarious Colameco laughs. “Once I found the voice, it was fun. It was good.”
Will a chef memoir follow? “No,” laughs Colameco. “There’s nothing to tell.”
He admires the writing of Tony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. “When I read it,” he remembers, “I thought, finally here’s a voice telling the story the way we lived it.” Bourdain describes chefs as “people with appetites that go beyond food,” which only begins to capture the zest for eating, for drinking and for spending time with those who are dedicated to a craft that comes through in watching or listening to Colameco. It’s hard to believe that there’s nothing to tell.
“I have much love for South Orange and Maplewood,” says Colameco. “It’s a great place to live. It’s a great place to be.” With a home in Cape May and a West Village studio that sometimes feels too small, Colameco has again glanced westward. “They’re great towns,” he concludes. “If you see me walking South Orange Avenue in six months, you’ll know I’m back.”
There’s a place at the table for you, Chef. Pull up a chair.
Writer's Note: It's almost impossible to find a "still" photo of Mike Colameco. In most pictures, he's leaning forward over a flaming pan, brandishing a knife, reaching out to sample a piece of fish or dab bread into a sauce. Take a look at the video here; you'll see for yourself.