Chef Colicchio: Out of the Kitchen and into Food Policy

Q&A with Samuel Fromartz • Photography by Mark Noble

Tom Colicchio, best known for his role as head judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” is sitting at a table at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., talking about his new and very different gig as food correspondent on MSNBC. This comes after a career that has evolved from a chef and owner of an award-winning restaurant empire to a food activist and producer of the well-received documentary film about hunger, “A Place at the Table,” with his wife, the director, Lori Silverbush. At the same time, he’s been a busy advocate in Washington through Food Policy Action. He sat down to talk about all his endeavors just after airing a documentary on MSNBC, “Just Eat It”—about food waste, which amounts to 40 percent of all food produced—and hosting a thoughtful roundtable on the topic.

I loved the piece on food waste, and the day after it aired I was making guacamole for lunch. The grape tomatoes looked wrinkled. I was about to toss them but then realized, “No, this is guacamole. I can just chop them up!”
Yes, and this is what food waste documentary should do: It should make you feel guilty about wasting food and lead you to ask, “What can I do?” You ended up saying, “I can’t just throw it out; there’s value to it.” At the live roundtable after the documentary, I mentioned I’m two generations removed from the Depression, when you’d never dream of throwing something out. It just didn’t happen.

Yeah, my dad who grew up in the Depression would eat everything.
Right, you’d eat it or it would be repurposed for the next day. People knew how to do that, and two generations on we don’t know how to do that anymore. We don’t value food because from the 1960s onward, it became about processed food, cheap food and fast food. There’s no value on it, so you just toss it. It’s one of those food topics that people can really relate to. I don’t think there are too many people who would say, “Who cares?”

How did the MSNBC show come about and what do you want to achieve with it?
It started after we made the documentary on hunger, “A Place at the Table.” I made appearances on MSNBC and started coming down to Washington, D.C. to focus on hunger issues. “Top Chef” had given me a platform to start talking about these issues. I had also done a talk show on a boat, on YouTube, called “Hooked Up,” where I took people out and interviewed them while we were fishing. I liked the format, so I approached MSNBC about a food policy show. They were lukewarm about the idea, but in the meantime they offered to bring me on as a food correspondent.

Right now the show’s going to be on MSNBC/Shift—a digital platform—as a way to appeal to a younger audience. Millennials really care about these issues. They don’t really care about who’s opening a new restaurant. But they do want to know where their food comes from, the labor it takes to produce it and the environmental effects. Digital’s probably a better platform to reach that audience.

So I want to take some of these issues around food and tell the stories about them, not so much the policies and politics around them. If you lead with the story, there could be some policy fixes, but I think people are more interested in stories. And there’s a million stories out there. Food stories are everywhere.

But are there particular issues you want to hit?
There are many, but here’s an example: the school lunch debate. It’s great to frame that debate but also look at people who are doing great and innovative things in getting healthy foods to kids. I want to show that there are alternative solutions coming from the grassroots. It’s one thing to have a TV show, but it’s another thing to take a story and create community around it, to create solutions around it. We did it with “A Place at the Table,” too. How do you get like-minded people to solve these problems?

So obviously the emphasis is on story, personality, solutions. It sounds a lot different from the policy work you’re doing in D.C.
It has to be. If you stick to straight policy and politics, you’ll bore the hell out of people and it’s too polarizing.

Except people on Capitol Hill.
I don’t mind doing that; it’s what we’re doing in Food Policy Action. But I don’t know if that’s the best way to lead. You set up the issue first in a way people understand it, explore its ramifications and then perhaps you can provide some policy solutions. But I think you need to highlight that story first.

People have to understand that there’s a cost to cheap food. And that cost isn’t really being borne in the marketplace. In certain parts of Iowa, there’s no drinking water right now because it’s polluted from agricultural runoff. The cost is not being borne by the consumer or the producer of the food, but somewhere down the road someone’s going to pay for that.

You’re often described as a chef and food activist. Does that present a tension for you with this show?
No, I think that’s fine. Listen, somehow I ended up having a soapbox so I can either use it for good things, or not. People ask me, “Why are you doing this? Why are you meeting people on the Hill? Are you getting anywhere?” I don’t know. After a day of meetings on the Hill, you’re exhausted, tired, you’re saying the same thing over and over again, you’re going from meeting to meeting, and some people are engaged and others are, like, whatever. But then, I was up on 125th Street in Harlem for a Marcus Samuelsson event. I’m walking down the street and there is a butcher shop that says “antibiotic-free meat,” so it is happening. People are listening.

Didn’t one opinion piece tell you to get back into the kitchen?
Oh yeah, that was in the Wall Street Journal. My response was, “You’re saying the only thing chefs should do is teach people how to cook and that’s enough?” I don’t think so. I’m not involved in these issues because I’m a chef; I do it because I care and the last time I checked, that’s how a democracy functions. You need to get involved. Certainly I don’t get much out of it; I’m not paid to do it.

Is this how you measure success now, moving the needle on these issues rather than, say, opening another restaurant?
No, I just opened one a couple of weeks ago and I still get a kick out of it! No, to me, it all kind of meshes together. In terms of success, I don’t really think about it and I never have. When I went on TV with “Top Chef,” I didn’t count ratings, but I didn’t want my industry to laugh and say, “This is absolute junk and I can’t believe you did this.” Success to me was season two, season three, when all my friends said, “Can I come on as a judge?” Then I knew we were doing something right. With politics, you’ve got to keep coming back and you’ll find people who will open their doors, take more meetings and pay attention a little more.

So you’ve got to show up.
They tell you that in the kitchen too. You’ve got to show up! If you want to be good, you’ve got to keep showing up. You’ve got to work hard. It’s repetition; it’s the only way to get better.

Obviously MSNBC is on one side of the political spectrum, Fox is on the other. Do you feel these food issues will resonate with the food movement, with progressives, but miss the red states?
Obviously that’s the risk of being on MSNBC. But I hope that a lot of people who watch “Top Chef” and who don’t care about politics are going to come along for the ride and then begin to look at things differently. If you talk to people, there’s more commonality than a divide on some of these issues, such as food waste. I don’t think anyone wants to see more food waste. Or hunger—no one wants to see hungry people. Now we may have a difference of opinion on how to fix that, but there’s no one that’s pro-hunger. So I think it’s a matter of getting people around the table and maybe that’s what food can do. You can get both sides of the argument and actually have a civil conversation as opposed to just using talking heads to bolster your argument. We’ve talked about that: Perhaps I can get a Paul Ryan and Jim McGovern around the table and discuss hunger and how to fix it.

We’ve talked a lot about hunger. Are there other issues where you hoped to get through to the public on and didn’t?
Look, it’s ongoing. The fight never ends, so again, walking by a store on 125th Street and seeing “antibiotic-free meat,” those are those little gains. Little by little, change is happening.