July 24, 2024

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The View On Cooking

The Food World Is Changing. Tom Colicchio Is at Its Crossroads

Last August, the Independent Restaurant Coalition released an ad featuring the voice of God, Morgan Freeman. In the minute-long spot, the actor asked Americans to push Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act, which aimed to create a $120 million relief fund for food and drink establishments through the end of the year. The bill never made it to the Senate floor. At the time, though, Seattle chef and restaurant owner Eric Rivera mocked the ad on Twitter. “SAVE RESTAURANTS BY GIVING A CLUELESS ORGANIZATION MONEY,” Rivera wrote in all caps. “IT’S LIKE THE LINCOLN PROJECT BUT FOR BOOMER CHEFS. HIRE ME ON CAMEO.”

Tom Colicchio, the IRC’s co-founder, took offense. “The IRC doesn’t get the money,” he responded on Twitter. Rivera continued his pushback, calling Colicchio “a rich white male chef clinging onto [his] failed empire.” He ended the argument with a simple “Fuck you.”

Rivera came to cooking in 2008, when the Great Recession wreaked havoc on his American dream. He’d previously run a mortgage insurance and financial services business, and when the markets and the housing bubble burst, his life went with it. Now, like others, he wants the old guard of chefs to disappear, along with their push for government funding to keep their fiefdoms alive. To him, Colicchio, David Chang, Daniel Boulud, and the like are one small rung below the Chilis and McDonalds—they all feed the beast of investors and the mythos of the chef as a godlike figure. Rivera has had enough of chefs like Colicchio; to him, Top Chef is “a carbon copy experience of the restaurant world.”

“You have two or three people within a restaurant that are making all the money,” says Rivera. “Someone who’s down in dish makes nothing—and they’re doing all the work.”

Colicchio sees it differently. He worked as a busboy clearing tables and advanced up the chain, and when he reached the top, he started trying to give back. He believes he’s given everything to restaurants and food in America. At a time when his employees’ livelihoods are at stake, he doesn’t want to sit in a corner and watch. “I don’t need someone to tell me when I can and can’t speak,” he said of Rivera’s comments. “I think I’ve got a pretty good gauge on when I should or shouldn’t.”

Colicchio agreed to meet with me at his home on Long Island last November. The night before we met, a fog had settled over Mattituck, a town that’s only 9.3 square-miles and a few hour drive or train ride from New York City. The presidential election had come and gone, but votes were still being counted. The only signs of a contested election were large “Trump 2020” flags and posters seemingly left up on lawns as a defiant act. Colicchio had hunkered down there last spring amid the pandemic when seemingly half of Manhattan left the borough for the Hamptons.

He lives in an 1860s farmhouse he renovated six years ago. Like most of the homes in the area, it’s large, and hidden behind shrubs. We agreed to COVID safety measures beforehand: wearing masks, meeting outside, and sitting at a safe distance—I also tested negative beforehand. We made our introductions on his porch. Colicchio dressed in blue sweatpants that looked like slacks and had a small hole on one thigh. He donned a Patagonia vest over a sweatshirt and wore a mask that let his sparkling blue eyes be the focus of his face.

It drizzled as we spoke. Colicchio was having a septic issue so Roto Rooter would be stopping by to take a look. At one point, the pool guys showed up. He didn’t know why—the pool was closed for the season—but he didn’t bother to ask either. He just waved to them in their truck and watched as his flat-coated retriever Tiki ran out to welcome them, hoping someone would play with her because we couldn’t keep her busy enough as we talked.

Colicchio had recently returned from filming Season 18 of Top Chef in Portland. Before the show made him a household name, he’d become a forebear of the New American cuisine and the farm-to-table movement that would eventually seep its way into every pore of the American dining experience in the 21st century. In 1990, he earned his first three-star review from The New York Times as chef of the Mondrian, then opened Gramercy Tavern four years later with Danny Meyer, and his own restaurant, Craft, in 2001. Now Colicchio is in the midst of a world that’s been turned upside down. The idea of the celebrity chef is fading. There may still be plenty of them, but in a saturated and diversified media market, each one is less famous.

Some members of the last generation of this ilk—Mario Batali, Johnny Iuzzini, John Besh—have stained the profession with a series of indefensible acts of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The food television idea of restaurant life, and the glossy sheen of a world that was blissfully, not dysfunctionally, free-wheeling and chaotic, are no more. Anthony Bourdain is gone. There is no longer a patron saint of the culinary world. Real people are losing jobs. The recent financial crisis fueled by the pandemic has deeply hurt restaurants. Even the media covering the food world is in a daily upheaval, following an entire regime and culture-shift at Bon Appétit with race at the center of it.

Rivera is right that it’s time for it. The big chefs of the past built their reputations and empires on an antiquated system that prized the cult of the restaurateur—specifically, the well-connected chef. It didn’t recognize people of color and those behind the scenes who made the machine run. The new generation of cooks and chefs is beholden to some of these old rules. But they’re increasingly fighting to stay alive, and seeking to implement new models to do so. As restaurant workers advocate for better conditions and fair wages, the pandemic has accelerated a much-needed structural shift. By last December, more than 100,000 establishments had closed. 

Colicchio, in turn, has fame and a platform. It’s his workers who need help amid a global pandemic that has ravaged the restaurant industry. So he’s using his power to attempt anything to save it. He’s pushed for time on nearly every airwave to get the word out about the fate of restaurants, one of the biggest industries in America behind only categories like healthcare, tech and government. 

Colicchio’s friends believe he can change the food chain from the top-down—they want him to run for office. But believes he can get more done from a position of power outside the system, infiltrating it with the specific goals included in the RESTAURANT Act: increased funding for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, as well as for rent, payroll, and bills. 

Colicchio has also tried to bring a progressive worldview to his own work; in 2019, he held dinners at Craft, stepping aside so chefs like Eric Adjepong—who was eliminated on Top Chef before he could serve the judges the entirety of his meal meant to outline the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—could curate a menu and cook. (“I was doing that series because I was actually looking to hear from young diverse voices,” says Colicchio. ) When asked to partake in panels and conferences, Colicchio declines if the panel is predominantly white and will suggest that the organizers seek someone else. “I’ll censor myself,” Colicchio says, of considering whether his voice takes up too much space in the room. “But I’ll start [by] saying, ‘okay, who’s saying this, what are the voices? And should you take part in a panel if whoever’s organizing that panel doesn’t have enough sense to actually think about it? Maybe you should [do the thinking for them].’”

“It’s not censorship if you’re doing it yourself,” he adds. “So if anything you learned from where we’re at now is to ask that question.”

If the industry has for so long ignored anyone but the egotistical white, male chef, what do you do if you are those things? Colicchio wants to be a vital ally, someone with the connections and an interest in change who could usher in transition. Today, he is no longer the chef at Gramercy, having sold his stake to Meyers. Nor is he the chef-chef of Craft, though the restaurant still follows his values and guide, and he still owns it. He remains stuck between the old world and the new guard. But in a matter of years, he’s gone from being a humble chef’s chef to becoming one of his industry’s loudest advocates. And while the food world continues to evolve, Colicchio remains one of its crucial guardians, at the center of a battle over how we eat—and live.

Craft and Gramercy Tavern changed the way people dined. They made formal dining less stuffy and more approachable. Each restaurant had a murderers’ row of future culinary stars—Marco Canora, Jonathan Benno, David Chang, Claudia Fleming, Akhtar Nawab, Shane McBride, Damon Wise, and more—and each shined in different ways. But with Top Chef’s premiere in 2006, Colicchio achieved a new level of fame, becoming a beloved celebrity. 

Top Chef wasn’t a hit right away. It took a few seasons for it to find its groove, focusing on the cooking more than the contestants’ interpersonal relationships. The addition of Padma Lakshmi as host in season two helped focus the show and gave it another strong personality alongside Colicchio and Gail Simmons. By seasons four and five, the series had attracted the best chefs in the country. As a judge, Colicchio was gruff and opinionated, but his critiques always honed in on technique and cooking; they were never personal. Over the years, he rarely changed that approach. (Though he did, wisely, shave off his soul-patch.) 

One thing that did change, though: Colicchio’s ability to hold the screen. He didn’t soften in his stance, but his personality rang truer. His full persona emerged: the dad who stayed up late playing guitar and happily smoked weed. He rarely, if ever, yelled. But to the show’s staff and cast, there was a particular face of dissatisfaction that could crush them like that of a father’s. “You don’t want to disappoint Tom,” says Stephanie Cmar, who competed in three seasons of Top Chef and made it to the finale of Season 17.

Lakshmi says Colicchio has “mellowed out” and settled into himself over the years. He has a grown son from a previous relationship and two young kids now. “I think 14 years is a really good amount of time to see how a person evolves, how their rough edges get polished and softened over years of hopefully experience and wisdom,” says Lakshmi. “He understands that these chefs hang on every word he says at judges’ table. And so he’s conscious of that power, and he’s probably more measured in how he delivers his criticisms.”

Colicchio grew up with his parents and two brothers in a two-bedroom apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His mother, Beverly, worked in a school cafeteria. His father, Thomas, was a correctional officer and head of the local union. At home, dad kept the news on and regularly engaged in political debates at the dinner table. The first election Colicchio could vote in was 1980: Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan. Colicchio told his dad that Reagan didn’t “look too bad,” to which his father said, “No, no fucking way.”

Colicchio struggled with school. He excelled when the subject made sense to his overactive brain. But he got kicked out of St. Mary of the Assumption High School twice—once as a freshman, then again at the end of his junior year. As a young teenager, he picked up a copy of Cuisine while waiting for his mom to finish a hair appointment. He read about Cajun food and decided to cook a dish from the magazine, not realizing it was only an appetizer. His mother wound up making dinner to save him from the embarrassment of his hungry family. At 13, Colicchio got a job at a snack shack at the country club where his family belonged; he started with scooping ice cream and working the register but soon took over grill duties. He flipped burgers in shorts and flip-flops—the best job he says he ever had. It’s also the job where he learned his first lesson about food: “I taught myself why salt was important,” he says.

When he added it to a steak, everything changed. Then his dad got him a job at a seafood restaurant bussing tables; though they never talked about it, his father sensed Colicchio’s destiny was in food. After graduating from high school, Colicchio knew he needed at least two years of work experience to get into culinary school, so he put his head down. He moved out at 18. He read Jacque Pepin’s La Technique. He’d buy heads of celery for 39 cents to practice his knife skills. He took a job at a red sauce Italian restaurant where he relished the extra work the cooks saddled him with. He learned to butcher, and then he left.

He took one job after the next, working in a hotel and a restaurant that had a new menu every day. He would go home and practice sauces. Incessant cooking settled his brain before he finally took his shot at New York.

“Will people without a platform like Top Chef attract capital? That’s still a barrier to entry right now. And I don’t know if that’s going to change.”

Once in the city, Colicchio took over Mondrian via a circuitous route with stops at The Quilted Giraffe and Gotham Bar and Grill. He quit after his fried oyster stew recipe was featured in New York magazine but mistakenly credited to his boss. After the kitchen ran into disarray, Colicchio was asked to return and eventually put in charge. New York Times food critic Ruth Reichel gave him a three-star review.

At Mondrian, Colicchio began his day with visits to the green market. The product became the key to unlocking his skills and perhaps also the moment he began to see the layers of the food supply chain in America, where, according to Feeding America, 34 million people live in poverty and struggle to feed themselves.

Those trips to the green market are also where he started his push towards Craft and honoring the quality of the food instead of honoring the chef in charge. With that philosophy, Colicchio met with Danny Meyer, who at the time owned Union Square Cafe, and the pair opened Gramercy Tavern.

At Gramercy, Colicchio got the chance to cook his food without interference from above. In the process, he nurtured a kitchen staff that could handle his whims. And after a lukewarm review, Colicchio changed the menu and how the restaurant operated. He wanted less table turnover, more tasting menus, and even better and more focused food. To achieve that, he created nightly one-off tasting menus that he worked off the cuff.

Every employee got a monthly budget to eat at the restaurant on their off days so they could experience it as a customer. Gramarcy’s former Beverage director Paul Grieco remembers eating there one day when Colicchio walked over and asked if he could cook for them. “The shit that he made for us was not highfalutin. It was just so pure,” says Grieco, who can still recall each detail of the meal to this day: salmon baked in salt and served with mushrooms. “And the way they did the portobello mushrooms,” he says, exhaling with pleasure as he describes a complex process of oils being released and reabsorbed. 

Colicchio and his second in command Canora decided to take their philosophy on food to the extreme. Over dinner at chef Rocco DiSpirito’s Union Pacific, they began discussing how they ate growing up in Italian American households. They talked about the food on the table—family-style—and realized they could create a restaurant that felt like those home cooked meals with different dishes being passed around, while using their elevated skills to make that food restaurant-worthy. The aptly named Craft opened in the spring of 2001.

Though he was renowned in New York, Colicchio was then less famous worldwide than his culinary peers. He had written two cookbooks and won six James Beard awards, including Best Chef in America in 2002 and Best New Restaurant in 2002. But one year at the Food and Wine Festivals in Aspen, Colorado, he recalls, the line of people looking to meet him looked slim compared to Food Network’s Bobby Flay. Colicchio had had some miserable experiences on TV. He didn’t compete on Iron Chef. He didn’t host a multitude of cooking shows. He wasn’t going around shouting “BAM!” He simply cooked and worked. Then came a call from Shauna Minoprio in 2005.

The production company Magical Elves had had immediate success with Project Runway and wanted to recreate that with food. To do so, they needed a serious chef to helm the judge’s panel, someone who didn’t have a big Food Network contract, with a reputation in the culinary world’s capital of New York City. Colicchio declined multiple times before accepting the gig, but ultimately he knew the show would help his career. Katie Lee Biegel took on hosting duties for the first season. Food and Wine agreed to partner and sussed out Gail Simmons to represent them as a judge.

“When our publisher and editor-in-chief heard that Tom had agreed to be the head judge, that was the turning point for Food and Wine to say, ‘Okay, this is something they’re taking seriously,’” Simmons says. “Tom is a chef-chef. He is not a TV chef. He’s a hardened, New York chef. He’s fiercely passionate about this industry and protecting it. And he has a stake in the game because he has restaurants and a reputation to uphold.”

Colicchio’s attempt at leveraging his fame came first through his wife Lori Silverbush, who he married in 2001. It was also via Silverbush that Colicchio became more aware of the gaps in the American food system.

Silverbush volunteered for Groove With Me, a charity in Harlem that offers dance lessons to girls, and began mentoring a young woman whose family lived in a shelter. Silverbush would send food home with her and used the opportunity to learn everything she could about the food system in America. In 2012, she made the documentary A Place at the Table, about food insecurity and how poorly the U.S. has done at feeding its own. “She started researching it and very quickly found that this is all political policy,” Colicchio says. “And so as she started studying and understanding the issue, I started doing the dive with her.” 

What Colicchio found was that the American food system is broken. The richest country in the world routinely fails its people. Millions of Americans, including children, suffer from food insecurity. According to the USDA, 10.5 percent of American households are not food secure, 34.9 percent of households that live on or below the poverty line suffer from food security, and, according to Census data from 2019, 34 million Americans live in poverty. The thing that Colicchio noticed is that since the Nixon administration, the federal government has taken every chance it can to cut into hunger programs. Just last year, former President Donald Trump’s final budget plan sought to cut $180 billion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next ten years. 

What Colicchio became painfully aware of was that even these numbers don’t tell the truth. Americans suffer because of food deserts, and because the cost of healthy and wholesome food is too high while packaged foods with less nutritional value cost less—but because they’re more affordable, that means that people who need to live off those products aren’t included in the numbers of people who live in food insecurity. On top of that, the food network has been consolidated to a point where farmers are stretched as mega farms buy up more land and push for more subsidies to pay for more expansion. The cycle has created a system that can fall apart at any moment—like when a pandemic hits.

Colicchio began a push toward change by using his fame to meet the people in charge of those changes in Congress. Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern has become one of Colicchio’s biggest admirers and an ally on Capitol Hill in the fight against hunger. 

“A lot of my colleagues think people who are struggling in poverty are invisible, [that] they don’t matter because they don’t vote, they don’t have a Super PAC,” says McGovern. “One of the things that I appreciate about Tom’s approach to these issues is that it’s not just about making the moral arguments, but he helps raise money, calls attention to how people vote. And so there’s a kind of hard-edge pushback that he engages in for people who are not on the right side.”

Colicchio started Food Policy Action with Ken Cook in 2012 and began working the halls, informing Congress. Once they started grading Congress and releasing annual reports on how each member voted on policies that affected farmers, food, and the diets of all Americans, people started paying attention. Colicchio left the organization in 2018, but he’s continued to advocate. According to McGovern, during the 2020 presidential election, Colicchio and Silverbush had tried to organize a debate about food in America. But they didn’t want rich donors in the seats; they wanted politicians to see hunger as something other than a line item in the budget that they refuse to address. It didn’t happen, of course, but they tried to get politicians to face the people they’re supposed to work for and to answer their questions. 

“I think he used his megaphone wisely,” Lakshmi says. “He found things that he was really passionate about—that he had a connection to—and he used that megaphone and it’s right that he did.”

The restaurant industry continues to navigate its ongoing #MeToo moment, given that, as Colicchio has said in the past, it’s not just a restaurant problem but a cultural one. Now, though, the industry is also dealing with its diversity problem amid a pandemic. (“I think it’s all really good,” says Collichio, of the reckoning.) On the financial side of things, he sees promise as well: landlords will need tenants again after kicking out occupants because of the tax write-offs that come with lost rent, as well as the potential kicks backs that come from new construction. That could potentially mean lower rents and better leases, one of the biggest hurdles for opening and operating a restaurant, and could be the break the industry needs to begin its next wave of reform.

“The only good thing that can come out of this is if commercial real estate really collapses, like it may,” Colicchio says.

Still, when the dust of the pandemic settles, he believes the old system will stand, and that the same boundaries Rivera outlined—the ones he and others want to completely revamp—will remain.

“The question remains,” Colicchio wonders aloud, “will people without a platform like Top Chef attract capital? That’s still a barrier to entry right now. And I don’t know if that’s going to change.”

Top Chef filmed its forthcoming season—which premieres April 1—in October amid protests in Portland, where there were nightly demonstrations and clashes with federal officers over police brutality. Before it became a focus of the Black Lives Matter movement, the city personified the modern American food movement, welcoming food trucks and independent restaurants. Portland became the symbol of the farm-to-table movement and the brunt of gentrification jokes. The pandemic hit, and then the protests, transforming the city once again, forcing a number of its critically acclaimed restaurants to close

Top Chef has always reflected the latest trends in restaurants across America, from Richard Blais and his whimsical takes, to Michael Voltagio’s focus on deconstruction or, more recently, the historical and personal cooking of Season 17 winner Melissa King. It made sense to film in Portland. But Colicchio and the showrunners spent much of their time indoors in a bubble. Colicchio brought his dog and would sit in his Airbnb, waiting to shoot his scenes and to return to his space. He’s trying to be at the forefront of change, but he’s still watching and maneuvering behind the scenes, pulling strings mostly through his phone and his laptop. He still feels beholden to the old rules. Instead of marching in the streets, he had to film a TV show and crown the next top chef in America. If he went out and got sick, filming would have shut down. Jobs were at stake. Food and cooking needed critiquing, which, even as he’s added other roles, is the job he knows best. 

From his position, Colicchio has some hope. Despite his tough exterior at the judges’ table, he’s more optimistic than others; whereas some want to tear the system down, he’s stayed with hope that he can revise from within. He sees that those changes can and will come. They have to. 

“I think our industry, depending on what happens with our fucked up government, we’ll get through this,” Colicchio says, that “depending” doing heavy work. “I think there’s still more good in the world than bad.”

Follow Kevin Koczwara on Twitter.