King of The Clapback
Checking in with Tom Colicchio on the point of Twitter, ending hunger, and finding a place in this strange new world.
February 21, 2018
As told to Cassandra Landry | Photo via Bravo, photo illustration by ChefsFeed
On the morning I’m set to meet with Tom Colicchio, little Maldon-sized flakes of snow whirl and spit from a moody New York sky. Icy puddles leave a cold ring on the outer soles of my shoes, seeping into the toes, and everyone’s puffy jacket sleeves smoosh together into one synthetic mass on the subway.
Above ground, a car alarm bleats over and over, cutting a staccato rhythm through the echoing clangs of nearby construction. But slip inside The Beekman Hotel, and the sounds from the street disappear into ornate carpets and wood-paneled walls. Blissfully still, heated air settles around my fingertips, and I’m ushered past oil paintings and under chandeliers to a hallway off of the lobby. Our feet make soft, courteous thuds on the way.
And there, casually sunken into a velvet couch in the book-lined Bar Room of Temple Court in a fleece vest, is Colicchio. One of the most recognizable faces in cooking scrunches as he contemplates news alerts on his phone; a girl seated behind him snaps a selfie with the back of his head.
Depending on who you ask, Colicchio is either the tough-love judge from Bravo’s Top Chef and Best New Restaurant; or one of the quiet gatekeepers of New York City’s timeless culinary standards through his work at Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and projects like Temple Court; or the prototype of a contemporary celebrity chef: a dogged activist, and advocate for our better natures.
The trick is, without making too much of a fuss about it: he’s all three.
He seems calm for someone who is, effectively, everywhere at once. Having just stepped back from Food Policy Action, the government watchdog group he helped to found (well, that’s how the media reported it, he notes, but it happened months ago and it wasn’t as calamitous as it sounds), he's marshaling his efforts more directly on election efforts in Congress. He’s also been a leading voice for change in the restaurant industry, as the aftershocks of harassment and abuse claims continue to rattle its foundations.
It's said that chefs are often among the first to act in a crisis, that they are hard-wired for stressful situations, that they're made for triage. But maybe it has more to do with tenacity—a general willingness to break down and rebuild a problem until it resembles a solution, and a readiness to suffer ceaseless, albeit temporary, defeat in favor of the bigger picture. Colicchio makes a compelling case-study in a turbulent era.
People assume I spend half my year on TV.
TV was never part of the equation, but I enjoy doing it. I would never have guessed I'd be involved in politics.
My intention when we set out was to make food more political. People don't understand that policy and politics are really intertwined with food: you can't separate the two. Getting people to focus on what is going on in politics when it comes to food—whether it's how food it is grown, the effect it has on the environment, the effect it has on the economy, on health care, was the point.
But until we change Congress, the message is not going to resonate. We need to create a grassroots political movement in order to get through to people who just don't seem to give a shit.
My belief is that you can slow progress down, but you're never going to stop it. It's a bunch of speed bumps. The road has gotten really steep, so yes, we're sliding back a little bit, but you just need more people to just keep pushing. I think that’s happening.
My younger self probably wouldn't have done this. I was too focused on cooking and restaurants and didn't know if there was room for anything else. Obviously, I'm still into restaurants, and still in the restaurants, but, you know, you realize you can do more. What would you do? Just sit on a bunch of boards and show up and party? Or get more directly involved?
We have the resources to feed people. We have the resources to put people to work. We have the resources to make sure people are fed healthier food, or help outcomes that can affect healthcare down the road. The charitable response to hunger can help manage hunger, but it's not going to end it. We don't have the political will to end hunger in this country. So that put me on a course to try and affect change through policy, versus charity alone.
I didn't know what to expect when I started. Seven years ago, I met George Miller, a congressman from California, during the debates around school lunches. About five years later, he was retiring; I saw him at a press conference where I was talking about transparency in labeling. He took me aside and said, "Most people in your position come once, maybe twice. A few photos ops and that's it, we don't see them again. People are taking you seriously because you keep showing up."
That's the message I give to all these young chefs who come up to the Hill with us: You can't just show up once, and think, "I did my part, I'm done." You've got to keep coming back.
Younger chefs [tend to be] scrappier. They're in their communities, using their restaurants as a platform to push issues like hunger, immigration, and social justice. You don't have to wait around for someone to give you a playbook—just do it. Find a local cabinet that you want to support. Find out who's running locally and get involved. Get together. Do fundraisers. In those smaller House races, 10, 20, $30,000 could mean a big difference.
I look at what I can affect and what interests me, and where I think we can push against entrenched interests and make some change. But it's up to the individual. I certainly don't think that I should impose my ideas onto other chefs—I don't do this because I'm a chef. I do this because I'm a father of three boys and I really care about the direction the country is going.
If you’re a chef and you want to get more involved in politics and policy, do it. If you don't, fine.
Watching Colicchio bat around trolls on Twitter has become a bit of a personal pastime, and I tell him as much. Why give them the time of day? Can’t he see they can’t be reasoned with? Turns out the aim is not to convert, exactly.
I pick and choose what jackass to respond to [on Twitter]. I'm looking for someone where I can, in 140 characters, both push the conversation forward and point out the absurdity of what they’re saying. Twitter is just a way to amplify a message.
If I'm pushing against a Trump presidency, there's going to be someone who doesn't like what I'm saying, They’re the ones who will tell me to just stay in the kitchen and cook. But I don't think it's as simple as, "Shut up and stick to food." I think it's, "shut up and stick to anything else besides speaking up." (My usual response to that is, "I'll go make you a sandwich. Now let's talk.")
When I published that piece on Medium, even that got the cold shoulder from a lot of established people. It was young chefs who actually responded to it, looking to make a change. They're doing what they should do: taking responsibility for what happens in their four walls. That's where it starts. The chefs from my generation don't seem to care that much. Especially if they have multiple restaurants. It’s like they’re worried they’ll piss off half their population, and lose business.
In the last 20 years, the “rock star” thing became part of our culture, and some people took advantage of it and got all caught up in it. How many women decided to either not enter this industry or leave this industry because of that atmosphere? Countless.
We've gone on a restaurant by restaurant listening tour in my restaurants, just to hear what's happening. If we want to make sure that we have a workplace where they feel protected, where they feel they can work without having to deal with the usual bullshit all day long—you need to talk about it.
The women's movement is the kick in the ass that we all needed. People are fed up, and they're motivated. What's going on in culinary schools? That's where it's going to happen. What do young women in culinary school think? What do they want to see?
VINTAGE! | Courtesy Colicchio, and James Beard Foundation
Colicchio is pragmatic and hopeful about the cooks who will grow into the great chefs of the next age—and like many chefs who have weathered the peaks and valleys of a full career, he feels less and less pressure to reinvent, despite a lingering need for continued relevancy. Maybe that instinct never really goes away.
It's been a rough couple of years. Coming out of the recession, 2013 was really strong, but it's been sliding ever since. People started funding restaurants again, and a ton of restaurants opened up, but there's no brand loyalty anymore.
Spending habits are different. People used to go where they knew what to expect, where they knew what to get. The old idea of a maître d' who had all the information, who knew that so-and-so likes to drink this and likes to sit here—that's gone.
Dining is almost like travel now. Once you've experienced a place, you may not go back, because there are other places to see. Been there, done that. Check it off. Taking a picture and posting it has taken the place of brand loyalty, so more and more it's a production thing for us. How do you create those moments, how do you create those experiences?
The restaurant can't just be about food anymore—you've got to create an event, constantly. It's bizarre. I don't have a lot of the answers, but I'm not worried about putting a light on the table to better take an Instagram photo. I'm really not. If you cater to those whims, you're going to change, and then in two months, something else is going to change and so will you.
I still think at some point there's going to be a backlash against this sort of cold idea where your relationships are all through social media. You're still going to need some time across the table with someone. That's what restaurants should be about.
As a result, I don't go out much anymore. Nowadays it's more about bringing people around a table for me. It's not even about what we're eating—it's just about the fact that you can get people around and just act like adults and talk to each other. I cook at home constantly. I started gardening about four years ago and I’m just head-over-heels crazy about it. It's about 20 or so raised beds. All summer long I'm cooking stuff right out of my garden, and there's nothing like it.
I do think shows like Top Chef and things like The Food Network have created a monster. I'm still struggling to figure it out. Certainly, things that I care about when it comes to food have changed, so how do you change with it? That's the hard part for me: as someone who is 55 years old and has been cooking for 40 years, how do you stay relevant?
When molecular gastronomy was the thing… it was like, do we really want to participate in that? Or is okay to be “behind?" As much as I like the intellectual idea and intellectual construct of creating food like that just because you can, I didn’t find joy in it. But then you figure, shit, if I don't do this, are people are going to think that it’s because I can't? Where does that leave me?
Is a perfectly spherical olive better than a normal olive? No. All this work to create something that's not better than the original, to me, is just mind-boggling. The closest I got to it was more about juxtaposing foods that you wouldn't expect. And I found that so much of it was asymmetric plating, and that felt okay. I thought what we were doing was really great, and it was taking some techniques that were really cool, but not being so self-conscious about those ideas and techniques.
Thirty years ago, no one was listing techniques on a menu. Then it became popular to announce what you could do. I mean, “fluid gel.” That is a word that doesn't make sense to be on a menu. “Red pepper fluid gel”?
Tasting menus weren’t new, either—but they were new to the young people discovering dining. What I like about a tasting menu is that in two hours you can try a lot of different things, but I can't sit at a table for more than two hours. That's my limit. If you're going to hold me captive for four hours and just keep pushing food, there's no enjoyment in that.
And having done fast-casual… I wish we had stopped at one, to tell you the truth [Crafted Hospitality's sandwich shop, 'wichcraft, open in 2003; it now has eight locations across the country]. Once you've sort of established what your values are, then you start solving problems that don't necessarily make better food. All of a sudden, the questions are, "How can we do this easier? How can we make this work for multiple locations?" as opposed to, "How do we make this sandwich better?"
You’re concerned about how to streamline, but not how to get better meat or better bread. It's a race to the bottom, and it's tough.
High-quality food is expensive. So can we still buy high-quality food, but either through smarter menu development or cooking in a way where you bring the cost of that down, get it to more people so they understand the value in real cooking? Of real food, in restaurants that support better farming, better farmers, better fishing?
It is in our public interest to make sure that the food that we're producing isn't polluting our waterways and stripping our land of nutrients and polluting our air and creating dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not in our public interest to continue fishing the way we do. It's not in our public interest to continue to raise pigs and chickens where we have no idea what to do with the waste anymore.
Is there a way you can get enough people to care about the whole system, not just the end-product?
Figuring all that out—that’s the joy I take from it now.