Tom Colicchio on solving the hunger problem in America

Tom Colicchio on solving the hunger problem in America

With the 1994 founding of Gramercy Tavern, a New American restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Tom Colicchio launched a career that has since made him one of the country’s most recognized chefs and restaurateurs. In addition to Gramercy—which he’s since sold his interest in—Colicchio’s flagship restaurant, Craft, which opened a block away in 2001, has become a force of its own, inspiring spinoffs like Craftsteak at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and a chain of gourmet sandwich shops called ’wichcraft. Most recently, he’s opened Colicchio & Sons and Riverpark, both in New York. But beyond the fine-dining scene, many know Colicchio best as the head judge on Top Chef, Bravo’s hit reality competition series, which is just finishing up its 10th season. 

Like many in the restaurant business, Colicchio has long been heavily invested in issues of hunger and the various food charities that have sprung up to address it. The new documentary A Place At The Table, co-directed by Colicchio’s wife Lori Silverbush, adds his voice to many others dealing with the growing problem of hunger in America, which affects more than 50 million Americans. Colicchio recently spoke with The A.V. Club about testifying before Congress, the need for government action, and ways to solve a very solvable problem.

The A.V. Club: What first inspired you to get involved in hunger-related issues?

Tom Colicchio: It started about 25 years ago. As a chef, I had started working with groups like Share Our Strength and various local food banks in New York, raising money for hunger-related issues. And not only me, but the entire restaurant industry has been very focused on this issue. On some level, we feel that food is a basic right, and so it’s something the entire industry’s been focused on. So 25 years of doing that and understanding some of the issues around hunger. And then about five, six years ago, my wife Lori [Silverbush], who was one of the directors on the film, made a film about a young woman in juvenile detention and spent a lot of time in various juvenile facilities and realized that a lot of these kids came from backgrounds where they were often hungry. In fact, one woman said that she was in prison because she gets three meals a day. Soon after that, we were also mentoring a young girl, and we realized that she and her family were often hungry. And so these various things got my wife to try to figure out what she could do to maybe look at this issue and help with it. When she decided to make a film, she reached out to Kristi Jacobson, her co-director. And they decided to go ahead together on this project.

AVC: The research process was about a year on this film, right? Did you learn some things in the making of this as well?

TC: Yeah, we learned a bunch of things. First off, I remember Lori coming home and saying, “Hey, there’s this film that came out in the late ’60s, and it actually got people focused on the hunger, so we fixed it.” And that encouraged us that a film could have an impact again, which was important. We didn’t want to make a film just to make a film. We wanted there to be a reaction to the film, and we were confident that this could happen again. Then what we really learned in helping to raise money for the cause is that even though you’re working with really great groups and you’re raising a lot of money, the problem just keeps growing. So maybe that’s not the way to fix it. Then you start talking to other people who have been involved in this for a long time, and you realize that it’s a political condition; it happens because of various policies. Either we’re not funding social programs fully or there are policies that make highly processed, fattening foods cheap, while whole fruits and vegetables are expensive. These are all things that we do that cause this problem. 

We also came away with this notion that it can be fixed. It’s not a permanent problem, like terrorism, but a fixable one. And so those are kind of things that you put together and hope that a film like this—and the outreach that we put together around the film—can get the population focused on this issue again. I thought it was very strange that you had a presidential election and you had several primaries on both sides and hunger was never spoken about. You have 60 million Americans that are hungry, and if this becomes an issue that people vote on, a voting issue, I think we’ll get their attention. 

AVC: What are the gaps in charity? Is it a money shortage or are there structural issues that keep charities from managing a problem like this?

TC: I think it’s too big of a problem. Look at some of the things that government has already done in the past. We had an issue of cholera and yellow fever, and it was always considered to be a disease of the poor. There were a lot of charities back then just making people comfortable and getting them through it. The government can do something like wipe out mosquitoes to get rid of malaria. Or if the problem is bad water in the cities, let’s create a system to get fresh water from upstate and bring it into the cities. Government did this. So, again, we have these great organizations that are doing charitable work and making people feel comfortable. But it’s not fixing the problem, because it’s too big a problem to fix. Governments can fix a big problem like this. It’s what government should do and what happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the modern food safety nets started under the bipartisan bill that was sponsored by [George] McGovern. They got together and pretty much got rid of hunger until the ’80s, and then the government changed and they either stopped funding these programs or underfunded them. Little by little, it starts to creep up again until it becomes this major issue. The charitable response has been huge, but it’s not fixing the problem. Charity response should be a temporary fix to a problem, but it’s not a long-term fix to it.

AVC: Do you see something like farming subsidies being a major stumbling block here?

TC: It’s one subsidy, but I don’t think it’s a major stumbling block. There’s the issue of hunger, and there’s an issue of if you’re going to cut out food programs. We should be focusing on healthy food. Right now, fruits and vegetables are very expensive. So what can we do on the policy side to bring the cost of fruits and vegetables down? These subsidies should make healthy food more affordable. I don’t know too many parents that want to feed their kids soda, but high-fructose corn syrup is cheap. The price of soda in 20 years has gone down 40 percent while the price of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, has gone up 40 percent and obesity goes up right along that curve. Again, we’re talking about childhood obesity, which is actually part in parcel with hunger. 

AVC: The documentary stresses the counterintuitive notion that obesity and hunger are related.

TC: Yeah, and it all comes from not having the money to purchase foods that you want to purchase. Like I said, I don’t know too many people who want to feed their kids chips and sweetened drinks, but they don’t have a choice because they don’t have the money to purchase ingredients that can keep them healthy. It’s easy to demonize a parent who does that if they actually had a choice, but they don’t. That’s where the subsidies can come in—to help bring the prices of some of those things down—but that is only a part of it. The idea of SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] works. It works really well, and we can make sure that that doesn’t get cut. It’s in danger of getting cut, and I know there are some programs that are really, really smart, where if you’re taking SNAP dollars and you’re shopping at a farmers’ market, you get double the amount of the benefit. So if you have $10 on your EBT card, you can actually buy $20 of fruits and vegetables. So the incentive is to buy healthy foods. Programs like that work. The idea of a living wage is also really important, and that can go a long way to get people off public assistance and have enough money to take command of their lives. But it needs to go up, and there are things that government can do around that. For instance, the argument in small businesses will be if minimum wage goes up to, let’s say, $10 an hour—I think it should be even higher than $9—businesses are going to take a hit. That could be fixed on the tax side of things. There are intelligent ways to take care of this, but again these are things that government does and that government can do.

AVC: What would you do about the problem of food deserts? [“Food deserts” are areas without easy access to fruits and vegetables, often in the inner city or rural areas.] Because that seems a little bit harder to address.

TC: There are a lot of studies that have been done that say if you take a supermarket, put it out in a rural area, and actually have a good selection, a lot of businesses spread up around it. It becomes an anchor. So that’s one way. There’s also programs in the inner cities where they’re creating pockets of money where bodegas can actually get refrigeration in their stores so they can have fruits and vegetables. That’s the problem. A lot of these bodegas don’t have refrigeration. And that’s where people are shopping in the inner cities. I don’t think people are going to put a big supermarket in the middle of an urban area, but I think the network of bodegas and small stores can actually function effectively and it just takes these programs that you see. There are local solutions to this as well. It’s not just federal government. It’s also local governments that are reacting to this as well. There are things that can be done.

AVC: How did you come to testify before Congress? What was that experience like?

TC: It was really scary, actually. I was very nervous doing it, but it was all-in-all a great experience because you see government in action. There’s lobbying days where you can go there and if you know there’s a hearing, you can call your congressman and get on the docket. I reached out to our local congressman and said, “I’d love to lend my support here,” and he said, “Fine, come on in.”

AVC: That was it?

TC: Yeah, that was it. But having gone through that, you know there are two things they say you don’t want to see made: sausage and laws. And now that I’ve seen laws made and I know how sausage is made, I’ll stick to sausage. [Laughs.] The original bill [the Improving Nutrition For America’s Children Act] was asking for $10 billion over 10 years, and it gets watered down to $8 billion. Then it got watered down to four and a half billion in the Senate, and then they took half the money from food stamps. And watching that happen, everybody got together and said this was an amazing thing that we did. I mean you look at it and go, “Really?” It wasn’t that amazing. Another things about that hearing is there’s a lot of back and forth that you didn’t see [in the documentary] of various people questioning me and the other people that were there. But few people were there. Empty seats. And that was really surprising because that tells me that a lot of people had just made up their minds and they’re not going to hearings to listen. If they have something to add and get on the record, but they’re not there to learn. It sounds trite, but talking to Congressman [James] McGovern, from Massachusetts, he said when he starts getting phone calls about an issue, he’ll look at that issue again. He said a lot of times, as few as six votes can get him thinking about changing what he voted. So, again, if these various bills are coming from Congress, then we can reach out to our representatives and say, “Hey, this is how we want you to vote,” and then hold their feet to the fire on it. I think that hopefully we can get some traction on some of this stuff.

AVC: You’ve opened quite a few restaurants at this point. How do you manage quality control? Is there a danger of a bad restaurant tarnishing your name?

TC: I’m not the first person to deal with this. If you go back to the French chefs, once they got a great three-star review or something, they’d start doing their bistros and their brasseries. The chefs in my restaurants, they’ve all worked for me for a number of years. Typically what I do if I have an opportunity to open a restaurant outside New York, for instance, is I find someone in the organization—one of the sous chefs in the organization—and see if they’re ready to take that next step. So it’s really about providing opportunities for them. And we have ways of monitoring it and ways of making sure the quality stays very high. I don’t think too many people expect to see me at my restaurant in Las Vegas. I do go there, but I don’t think people expect to see me there every day. And again, this is something a lot of chefs have done. Even chefs like Thomas Keller, who has Per Se and French Laundry on different coasts, and restaurants in Vegas. We have ways to keep our quality up and like the great sports franchise, the Yankees are here for a reason. We have a really good farm team of young sous chefs coming up that have worked for a number of years. And it’s great to give them an opportunity. The difference between what a sous chef and a chef makes is about a 100 percent jump in salary. That’s how we deal with that.

AVC: With the advent of sites like Yelp and other user-review sites, consumers have a lot more power to influence other diners and perhaps the success of a restaurant period. How do you take that development? 

TC: It’s fine. I think if you are a fan of Yelp and you think that works, that’s fine by me. I do quite well on Yelp, but I actually prefer the old method of restaurant reviewers who have an audience. You know what their preferences are, and I think it’s easier to judge, but I think it’s fine. There’s been user reviews before with Zagat before it was put online—that was a user review. Things like OpenTable, which is a reservation system, has a very robust grading system, which I prefer because you actually have to eat there to get on the site and write the review, where with Yelp, you don’t. And I’ve seen reviews from restaurants that aren’t even open yet on Yelp. So they’re somewhat suspect at times. Also, you can pretty much kill all the negative reviews when you advertise [with Yelp].

AVC: That’s terrible.

TC: It’s all okay. Listen, my feeling is, the more people that want to get on board the food wagon and focus on it, that’s fine. If Yelp is the way to do it, if Zagat is the way to do it, if OpenTable is the way to do it, if a blog is the way to do it, it’s fine with me. It’s a crazy world.