To Tom Colicchio, something about America just doesn’t taste right. Public schools, he frets, serve kids substandard lunches; Republicans cut the SNAP program while food insecurity afflicts roughly 48 million people; and one-in-three people now battle obesity. This national crisis inspired Colicchio to co-found Food Policy Action, a nonprofit with a mission to, according to its website, “hold legislators accountable on votes that have an effect on food and farming.” Looking relaxed in a navy T-shirt and black shorts, Colicchio took time from the impending opening of his new Financial District restaurant, Fowler and Wells at Beekman hotel, to chat about his hunger for change.
Can you describe a memorable meal from your childhood? We would do Sunday gravy. Around three or four in the afternoon we had to be there. That’s what I grew up with, and I look forward to it now. It was slightly altered in summer. I started fishing and crabbing when I was about 4-years-old with my grandfather. When we cooked crabs, we would take the shell off, clean out the gills and then put them into marinara sauce, simmer for about 45 minutes and have it with linguini. I’ve always loved food. I remember as a little kid watching my mom make pancakes, and I went, ‘This is pretty easy. I could do this.’
Your mother ran a school lunch program. Do you think the cafeteria menu changed all that much? It’s changed a lot. Back then, they were actually doing more cooking in schools. Nowadays, everything’s just reheated. It’s just processed junk to save labor.
You told The New York Times in 2014 that the federal government should establish a Department of Food. Envision that agency’s key priority. Affordability and accessibility of healthier foods. Right now, we grow a lot of corn and soy—things that go into making highly processed foods. There was a study that just came out that our commodity crops are causing the obesity crisis because that’s all we’re eating. We’re not subsidizing fruits and vegetables. That’s one thing we can do.
“I don’t believe the private sector or charity can take care of the hunger problem we have in this country. The only thing that really works is government.”
Why has the concept of nonprofit, healthful fast-food restaurants not taken off? I don’t believe the private sector or charity can take care of the hunger problem we have in this country. The only thing that really works is government. Two years ago, $15 billion was cut out of the food stamp program. We did a fundraiser for New York Food Bank and raised $2 million in one night, and we feel great about that. We would have to that every single night for 12 years to make up for the $15 billion cut.
Given the scope of the problem, should a philanthropist donate to a PAC instead of a food bank? Yes, in some cases. While I certainly don’t want to denigrate any charitable efforts that people are making, I think philanthropists should start looking at alternatives.
The food movement struggles with branding issues. The term “locavore,” for instance, conjures up an effete urbanite. Do you have to change the language of the food movement? The problem is that the food movement, it all was started by elitists who can afford to put gardens in the backyard, eat organics and patronize fancy restaurants. I think the movement has moved away from that. I think we need to look at it more as a social justice issue, as opposed to just a way to feed wealthy people.
You need Frank Luntz. Frank Luntz would be great, yeah.
‘There’s nothing like opening night. To me, it’s like just before the curtain goes up at a concert or right before the bell rings at a boxing match.’
You said at TEDx last year, “We have to start…calling out elected officials.” Name a beatable legislator worth targeting. In the last election, we targeted Rep. Steven Southerland of Florida, and we beat him. Southerland was terrible on food issues. He wanted work requirements for people receiving SNAP, and he almost killed the farm bill. So, we targeted him, and he lost by about 3,000 votes.
Who will get your attention this cycle? I’ll let you know.
Play chef-anthropologist. What have you learned about human behavior by watching diners at restaurants? When people come into a restaurant, there are two types of people. Some come in to have a good time, and it’s easy to win them over. And some people—maybe they’ve had a bad day, maybe they had a bad experience at another restaurant—just have their guard up. It’s so hard to get them to know we’re on their side. We’re not here to screw you over. The one thing I find really strange, especially now with social media, is when someone has a problem, they’ll go home and post it. I can’t do anything once you’ve posted it at home. If you’re in the restaurant and there’s something wrong with your meal—it’s salty, it’s not cooked to your liking—say something! We’d be happy to fix it.
And I did it myself. I was in Miami during the Food and Wine Festival. And I’m at a steak house, Prime 112.
So I go in and order a porterhouse medium rare. It comes out medium well at best. I’m like, ‘I can’t be that guy,’—especially they know who I am. I’m a chef. I don’t want to be like what people think I am on TV. The waiter comes over and looks at it and goes, ‘Oh my god, that’s overcooked.’ I said, ‘Nah it’s okay.’ He goes, ‘No, you ordered medium rare.’ He just took it back. To me, that was great service. How many waiters would kind of look and hope you had it and walk away?
Hire that guy. I would love to hire that guy.
What attributes do chefs have that would transfer well to other entrepreneurs? Chefs are always in the moment, especially in the middle of the service. They’re seeing everything and they’re reacting to things very quickly. You know a chef doesn’t want to sit around in a meeting and wait three weeks to take care of a problem. They just want to see it and fix it. You know Danny Meyer always calls it “the excellence reflex,” where if you see a problem, automatically you react to it. Too often there’s a problem and it doesn’t get discussed until you know the weekly meeting or the monthly meeting. Then you need a 12-point plan to address it.
Chefs are famously drill-sergeant tough. Have you ever wasted food by throwing it at a sous chef? And would you like to apologize to any former employees? In my younger days when I was you know in my 20’s and early 30’s and I was at Mondrian and beginning of Gramercy Tavern, I would get a little heated. I don’t think I ever threw food at someone. I have taken plates and thrown them in the garbage and said, ‘We’re not serving this.’ But no, I never purposely hurt anyone. It’s never personal, so I have no one to apologize to. The only apology that I owe any of my employees is that as we grow I don’t have nearly enough interaction with my employees as I’d like to.
You have a restaurant empire now. At what point do you decide, ‘I’ve got enough?’ The answer is I have enough, but some of my employees don’t. Cooks that want to be sous chefs, sous chefs that want to be chefs, managers that want to be general managers. You know, the step up from a cook to a sous chef is double the salary. The step up from a sous chef to a chef is double the salary. I think the only way to keep people in an organization is to give them opportunities. Wolfgang Puck warned me a long time ago, ‘Tom, don’t try to do too many because the more you do, the more you’re going to work, the less money you’re going to make and the more problems you’re going to have.’ And he was right.
But I still enjoy opening restaurants. You know we’re going through the opening at Beekman. It’s exciting. There’s nothing like opening night. To me, it’s like just before the curtain goes up at a concert or right before the bell rings at a boxing match. It’s almost like a drug—you want it again.