Tom Colicchio is a highly successful New Yorkbased chef and cookbook author, but to fans of Bravo's cooking reality show Top Chef, he's the head judge. His piercing blue eyes, bald head and bottom-line honesty have helped make the competition show, which aired its fifth season's finale Feb. 24, a dream opportunity for aspiring top chefs across the country. Colicchio talked to TIME about fellow judge Toby Young, the love affair between two contestants and saving a life the night before Barack Obama's Inauguration. (VIDEO: Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle gives TIME a tour of his Manhattan restaurant.)
You've talked about how you get your teenage son to eat healthy food. What does he think about your on-air personality?
He does watch the show. But I'm Dad. My on-air personality is not very different than my normal personality.
My son, before he went to school, he'd eat pretty much everything. Then as soon as he went to school, he got some peer pressure, and other kids would say, "Oh, you're gonna eat that. That's horrible. That's disgusting."
What did your son eat before he started going to school?
Green vegetables. He has a problem with green things. I don't know why. If we have pizza and there's basil on it, he'll pick the basil out. But he likes peas for some reason. (See 9 kid foods to avoid.)
Who have been the best characters in Top Chef's history?
First off, I need to say that we don't vote characters. All the personalities that come out in the reality part of the show we're not privy to that. We had no idea Hosea and Leah were making out. We don't know, nor do we care.
But putting that aside Stephen and his battle first season. He was a good cook, he had that tie on all the time, he was a real character. I think Hung had a big personality and I think he'll always been known for how fast he was in the kitchen, teetering on the edge of being dangerous. This season, obviously Fabio is a big personality and a great guy. But I think also the villains stand out, like the Stefans and like the Tiffanis. (See the 100 best TV shows of all time.)
You said your on-air personality is not that different from your regular personality. Is [host] Padma [Lakshmi] different off the air?
No comment on that. (Laughs.)
Is [Season 5 judge] Toby Young going to be back again?
I have no idea. A lot of people were like, "Oh, I can tell Tom hates Toby." I actually got along with him really well. To get some fresh blood is nice. He's actually quite charming and funny and witty, and I enjoyed having him around, so I don't know why people think that I hate him.
How often do you have big disagreements among the judges about who should win or lose the challenge?
From time to time, we'll have disagreements.
If it's a tie, I do. We don't deliberate off camera at all. Often, when a guest judge is in, we have to tell them, "Keep your comments for the camera." We don't want to have to re-create that conversation because we're not actors and it would sound sort of trite. I want to have a nice lively debate. What bugs me is if you get a judge on who thinks that their role is just to be witty and funny and clever and look at me. The show isn't about the judges. The show is about the contestants.
How much involvement do you have in what the challenges are?
The producers come up with the challenges.
Have there been challenges where you thought, This is so weird?
I remember in the first season going, "This is retarded. I can't believe they're making chefs do this." But then it actually does show off certain skills. And at the end of the day, this is entertainment and this stuff is very entertaining. Is a lot of it ridiculous? Of course it is. But that's what makes it interesting. (See the Top 10 food trends of 2008.)
I heard you saved cookbook author Joan Nathan's life with the Heimlich maneuver at an Inauguration party this year. Is that true?
It's true. It all happened so quickly. I was literally three feet from her. I was having a conversation with somebody else. She came in, and I looked to my right and I saw her holding her throat and two people next to her patting her back. And I walked over, put my arms around her and said, "Can you talk?" She said no. I hit her once. I asked her again. She said no. I did it again, chicken came out, and that was it. It happened so fast.
Was the Heimlich maneuver part of your formal chef training?
I had some training I was a lifeguard when I was 17 years old.
I know you can't divulge the winner, but can you tell us anything about what we'll see in the season finale?
People come up to me all the time and ask who won. It's like, if you watch the show, do you really want to know? I don't tell anybody. I think my wife may know. My son doesn't know. I love it when people say, "You can tell me. I won't tell anybody." Oh, right, the contract that I signed that says I can go to jail for telling you're excluded, right? No!