A Master of His Craft

"Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio has issued his verdict: We need safer, healthier food right now—and everyone deserves a place at the table.

Credit: Photo: Matt Furman/Redux

In the ever-growing world of celebrity chefs, Tom Colicchio is the rare character who’s every bit as comfortable discussing the politics of food with Rachel Maddow as he is stuffing a Cornish hen with Martha Stewart. And recently, the restaurateur and longtime judge on Bravo’s Top Chef suddenly became a lot more visible. In January, he got a show of his own, Best New Restaurant, on the same network. A month later, Colicchio—who in 2012 cofounded Food Policy Action, an advocacy organization that pressures lawmakers to make food a national priority—became MSNBC’s first-ever food correspondent, reporting on different aspects of America’s food system. And later this spring, he’ll host yet another yet-unamed show on Shift, MSNBC’s web channel, exploring major health, sustainability, and economic issues affecting the food and restaurant industries.

ERIK HOFFNER With all these new projects, do you even have time to go into a restaurant kitchen anymore?

TOM COLICCHIO I do spend a good amount of time in the kitchen, but actually I’m cooking a lot more at home these days. If I don’t have a lot to do, I feel lazy. Had I ever been tested, I probably would have been diagnosed with ADD, so it works for me to be able to switch back and forth between things. What it does cut into, unfortunately, is guitar time and fishing.

EH You’ve talked a lot about the connections between the food business, sustainability, public health, and public policy. Do you think we can reinvent the American diet to benefit the environment and public health?

TC We just announced at Colicchio & Sons that we’ll be shrinking our entrées down from the six- or seven-ounce piece of protein to three to five ounces. So that represents one way to do it. People need to start eating a little less—of certain types of food especially. Can we change the American diet? Yes, but if we’re going to encourage eating more fruits and vegetables, or if we’re going to go so far as to say they should be eating organic fruits and vegetables, then first we need to rethink certain things—like the way we price crop insurance or allocate our agricultural subsidies.

EH Most of those subsidies aren’t going to vegetable production.

TC Right. About 85 percent* is going to commodity crops and processed foods, and about 15 percent* is going to beef and dairy. One percent or less goes to “specialty crops”—better known as fruits and vegetables. So if you want to bend the cost curve to create more incentives to buy fruits and vegetables, you have to do it through policy. That could include expanding the market for organic vegetables, by, say, mandating that a certain percentage of vegetables in public school lunches be organic.

EH Is eating less meat something you support?

TC I’ve never suggested not eating meat—I have two steakhouses. But I do think it’s a good idea to eat less of it, for both health and environmental reasons. It’s also important to change the way we produce beef: The book Defending Beef makes a great case for letting large animals graze, move around, and trample down the soil. This used to be done by buffalo, and it’s actually a good way to get carbon back into the soil. But we don’t do that anymore. We take them off the grass and put them in a feedlot.

EH You recently helped Senators Barbara Boxer [D-CA] and Richard Blumenthal [D-CT] and Representative Peter DeFazio [D-OR] reintroduce the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which would direct the FDA to require food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods. Why are you so passionate about labeling?

TC I’m not anti-science; I do believe there’s some good that could come out of biotech in agriculture. But given the overuse of herbicides and the stronger insecticides that come with it, what are all these doing to the environment? Now glyphosate is showing up in freshwater streams and in breast milk. What are the effects of that? The biotech companies originally did a great job selling this product to farmers, but they never had to sell it to the American public.

So now you’re seeing pushback, with 90 percent of the country wanting labels. You hear people argue, “If you want to buy GMO-free, just buy organic.” Well, what if I can’t afford organic? Should I be left out? I should be able to purchase something that’s not GMO. I think [labeling] would probably end up helping biotech companies in the long run. If they become more transparent and then try to explain to the public why their products are so good—why they’re necessary, what they can do—then we could be having a very different debate.

EH You recently tweeted some high praise for Ted Genoways’s new book about the pork industry, The Chain.

TC I loved that it contained a huge amount of information but wasn’t just a dry book on food safety at a company like Hormel. There was an immigration story, a public health story. Often, with that type of book, you get lost in the weeds. I’ve put plenty of food books down without finishing them. This one I read cover to cover on a pair of flights to and from the West Coast.

EH I read it too, and I kept thinking that if it hadn’t been such a page-turner, I might have missed crucial points—like the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is about to experiment with relaxing inspection protocols in 616 pork-processing plants, at exactly the same moment that processing speeds are increasing.

TC Part of the reason I’m so glad MSNBC is bringing me on as a correspondent is because this is the kind of story that needs to get out. Too often, “food news” doesn’t make any reference to the context—the geopolitical issues, environment, or economy—so the stories seem incomplete. But when people are outraged, they’ll start to effect change. Walmart just decided to start paying its employees more. Do we think Walmart did so out of the goodness of its heart? It reacted to pressure from shoppers. Messaging does work. If we can break down some of these food-production issues so they can be understood, it’ll go a long way toward helping to fix some of the problems.

EH Food Policy Action, the advocacy organization you cofounded, is now tracking how various members of Congress vote on food. What are you noticing?

TC We summarize the bills, decide whether they represent good or bad food policies, then assign a score to each member of Congress. At first people pretended it didn’t exist, but by the third year, members were starting to tweet out their scores. We also got involved in a race in Florida last November, where we decided to support a candidate running against someone who was really bad on food issues—especially hunger. We organized a town hall meeting supporting his opponent and took out ads. She ran a great campaign and won by some 2,900 votes. We think we helped.

EH Last time we spoke, you said you didn’t see evidence—yet—of an organized, coherent food movement. How do we get there?

TC I come at this mainly from the perspective of a hunger advocate. After my wife and I produced A Place at the Table [a 2012 documentary about food insecurity], we looked at whether you could realistically create a constituency among the 50 million Americans struggling to feed themselves. That’s actually a pretty good-size constituency: Even when you strip out the 16 million hungry children who can’t vote, you still have a sizable voting bloc. That particular demographic doesn’t always get to the polls, though. So then, how do you broaden that constituency to include those who are involved in other parts of the food movement?

We need to support one another’s issues to create new constituencies. In the push to label GMOs, GMO proponents were reaching out to hunger advocates and saying that labeling would raise food prices and increase hunger. But after looking at the facts, we were able to come back and say, “No, actually, that’s not the case.” Then we made sure that hunger advocates in Congress knew exactly what those facts were.

EH So, last question: How did your big new garden grow this past year?

TC It was great! I had wanted to do it for years, and finally I bit the bullet and planted a much more substantial garden. I had more fun, all summer long, just working it and picking things with the kids. They really got into it. I’m looking at seed catalogs now the way I looked at Playboy when I was 16!

*More recent research shows that about 66 percent of agricultural subsidies is going to commodity crops and processed foods, and about 27 percent is going to beef and dairy.

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