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An Interview with Tom Colicchio

 

Interviewed by Krista Harris

Tom Colicchio grew up in New Jersey, cooking with his Italian-American mother and grandmother. In 1994 he co-opened the Gramercy Tavern in New York City. In 2001, he opened up Craft. Later, he expanded with Craftbar and ’wichcraft. In 2010 Colicchio was named the nation’s top chef by the James Beard Foundation, one of the most prestigious prizes in the culinary world. He is the author of Think Like a Chef, Craft of Cooking and ’wichcraft.

As the lead judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Tom has won numerous awards and has served as a mentor to many of the chefs on the series. He will be speaking in Santa Barbara on February 22, 2012, so we took the opportunity to talk to him about his restaurants, politics and—yes, of course—whether there will be another season of “Top Chef.”

“Top Chef” is a big part of why people know you, but it’s just a part of what you do. Tell us about your restaurants. Do you get to cook at your restaurants?

Well, chefs don’t cook in their restaurants. In the same way that if you go to the symphony, the person who gets the billing is really the conductor, but do you expect the conductor to jump into the pit and start playing a violin? No, the conductor is there to make sure that everyone is playing their part, doing things at a certain time. And that’s pretty much how it is for a chef in the kitchen. It’s the chef’s ideas and the chef’s recipes. Depending on how collaborative that chef is he’ll either bring people into that process or not. So the people who are cooking are the cooks—that’s what they do. In any of my restaurants there are usually six cooks working the stoves, there’s usually two people in garde-manger and two people in pastry.

If I’m in my kitchen I’m usually working with the sous-chef who’s calling out the orders, making sure everything is coming up at the right time, making sure that everything is seasoned right. So you’re tasting little bits and pieces of things as they’re being cooked, you’re walking around the kitchen and sometimes you jump in directly when someone gets behind, but you’re not cooking. But I do spend a lot of time in the kitchen—I’m usually not very visible in the front of the house.

I know you like to source food from farmers markets and small family farms. Are there any challenges in doing that at your restaurants?

It’s not that challenging at all, especially now. It’s becoming easier and easier, though using local farms is not a new thing for me. I’ve been doing it for 20-plus years. It’s just part of what we do. We buy local as much as possible, but in New York come December, January and February, you’re not buying local. There’s not much local to buy. In LA we’re buying local all year round, because you can. In Las Vegas we’re buying from mostly California farms. Wherever we open a restaurant, whether we open in Atlanta or Dallas, one of the first things we do is contact as many local suppliers as possible and go out to visit them and talk to them. But how far do you take it? If you’re a locavore in New York, are you using olive oil or oranges?

For me in a restaurant it’s more about supporting small growers—local when possible. It’s the large industrial ag business that we’re trying to avoid, and for so many reasons I try to avoid them. What it’s really all about is supporting the small producer, whether it’s wine, produce or a small producer going out and fishing on a day boat. It’s about taking care of the small family farms and small producers.

And how about ranchers raising livestock?

Yes, to me that’s even the harder part. The problem they have is actually slaughterhouses—there’s so few. What this country needs is more small or mobile slaughterhouses.

And more people entering small farming?

Yes, and this is where I start to get political. I’m very active on the issue of hunger. My wife [Lori Silverbush] and her partner [Kristi Jacobson] are working on a film focusing on domestic hunger. And we feel that there is a role that government plays and one of the biggest issues is what we choose to subsidize in this country: wheat, soy and corn, which go into processed foods. If they would take some of that money and give it to small producers you’d see the price of real food—fruits and vegetables—go down. And that’s a big problem when it comes to hunger.

It’s very easy to point your finger at someone who’s buying chips and soda for their family to eat. Well, that might be all they can afford. If they could afford to buy whole foods, and foods that are obviously healthier and more nutritious, they would. They just can’t afford them or they can’t find them. So to tie that in, I think many small farms go out of business because they can’t compete any more, especially with the cost of land. A land trust that buys development rights can be a great way to go. So farmers can still stay on their land and farm.

Can you tell us more about the film on hunger?

In the last 25 years or so I’ve been involved in raising money for organizations that fight hunger. During that time, we’ve seen the problem just get worse. We’re raising more money and yet the problem keeps growing. So my wife and her partner thought: Would it be possible to change the face of hunger? Too often Americans think of hunger as flies buzzing around the distended stomach of a child in Africa. And yes, that is a major problem in the world, but right here in this country we have people—we have children, we have seniors, we have working families—that are struggling every single day to find food to put on their tables. So we thought that the first thing we could do is really change the face of hunger and show how deep the problem is here.

More than 50 million Americans, one in six, are having a hard time putting food on their table. It’s insane when you think about it—and it’s about 13 million children! You have to ask yourself at a certain point: Is this is the kind thing that we should allow to happen here. We don’t pretend to have the answer. We felt that it was really important for the public to understand the issue, and then to hopefully get behind it and force politicians and force government to address it. And we’re also showing that this is a nonpartisan issue. We all need to address it. Every president since Nixon has promised to do something about it, but nothing’s been done. So, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the film. We’re trying to change the narrative. And get people focused on the problem and hopefully come up with some solutions.

You testified at the hearing for the Child Nutrition Act last year. What brought you to become involved and to speak out on this issue?

The School Lunch Program is one of the safety nets. Ironically, it was started back in the 1940s because recruits showing up to fight during World War II were malnourished. My mom ran a school cafeteria. When we tried to get her to retire, she said, “I’m not ready to retire yet because there are a lot of kids who come into my lunchroom, and I know that this is all they eat all day long and I want to make sure they have something healthy.” Some people believe that school lunch should be completely free. There is a book by Janet Poppendiek called Free for All: Fixing School Food in America—a great read if it’s something you’re interested in.

So, there are these days when an average person can go and testify and you can get on the slate and get in there. So I thought, hey, let’s speak up and see if we can make a difference. Unfortunately, we didn’t. I mean, they finally raised the money that they’re giving to school lunches, but it’s woefully inadequate. The president was asking for $10 billion over 10 years and Representative [George] Miller [D-California] sponsored a bill in the House that was for $8 billion over 10 years and the Senate bill was down to $4.5 billion. The real travesty of that was that half of the $4.5 billion came from food stamps. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But this is politics. So at the end I think it came out to about six cents additional for school lunch and it did create more breakfast programs, after-school and summer meals. So that was helpful.

And finally, since we’re already most of the way through season nine of “Top Chef.” Will there be a season 10?

I’m sure there will be. There’s talk of a season 10 already.

 


To find out more about the hunger film, visit A Place at the Table. You can also find Tom Colicchio as head judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef” (bravotv.com) and you can hear from Tom in person when he comes to the Santa Barbara area for a talk on February 22, 2012, at Campbell Hall. Learn more at artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.

 

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Categories Winter 2011