Industry Weekly

[Visionary]

Talking trends, ‘Top Chef’ and ending hunger with Tom Colicchio

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Tom Colicchio.
Rayon Richards
Jason Harris

Tom Colicchio is more than one of the most important chefs in America. His Crafted Hospitality operates seven different restaurants in four different states, and his partnership with MGM Resorts International has produced Las Vegas stalwarts Craftsteak and Heritage Steak.

Colicchio is best known for his work hosting and judging the ultra popular cooking competition show Top Chef and is also one of the main voices of Food Policy Action, an organization aiming to end hunger in the United States and hold legislators accountable. We were lucky to catch up with him for an interview during the recent weekend of Vegas Uncork’d.

Is there a type of restaurant you don’t have that you’d like to open? Yeah. I want to do a beer restaurant. There’s a restaurant in Charleston called Edmond’s Ost. They have a really incredible beer selection. I’d like to do something like that, a deep dive into beer.

Would it be pairing-based with the food? I think you have to have beer-friendly food but that could run the gamut. I don’t like to force people into something to eat. What I’d rather do [is] find some great combinations. You train the staff and say “Here are five options. These are five things you can do with this dish.”

Do you have a favorite restaurant off the Strip in Las Vegas? Raku. When it was suggested to me and I went there for the first time, I went there three nights in a row. I just kept going back. I took Natalie Portman there, who is a vegan, and it worked out.

What impact has social media had on the food world and where do you see that going? It used to be where a chef would have to travel for culinary influences. You would travel to Tokyo or France or wherever to really spend time or see trends. Nowadays stuff goes up on social media and it goes around the world very quickly. It’s easier to see trends. It’s globalized cuisine. If you look at contemporary cuisine, it doesn’t matter if you are in Spain or Hong Kong or Copenhagen. It all has a very similar feel to it. The food might be different because the chefs are all cooking different food, but it all starts to feel the same.

Any insight into what might be the next big food trend? People are using a lot of live fuel, a lot of wood. One thing I’m starting to see more and more is menus are starting to shrink. Five entrees. Five appetizers. That’s it. Very, very focused food as opposed to trying to cast a wider net. That’s a trend I think you’ll see more of.

Every season Top Chef is based in one of the great food cities in America. Is there a city we’re not paying attention to that is building an excellent food culture? We’re gonna be in Colorado and I’m hearing that there is great stuff happening in Denver. There’s great food everywhere. There’s great food in Cleveland or Cincinnati.

Why do you think Top Chef has retained its lasting impact and loyal audience? Because we’re casting real chefs. If you look at the chefs that are on our show, they go on to win Beard Awards, they go on to win Best New Chef, they go on to do stuff. They open restaurants. You won’t hear from someone who won MasterChef again. Even on Chopped, most of the people there, you don’t really here about. We’re not casting a housewife that can cook good food. They can’t compete. They’ll never keep up. They can’t think fast enough. They can’t work fast enough. They’ll never produce the amount of food that these chefs are producing in a short of amount of time. We don’t care about personality. I don’t care how outrageous your tattoos are. You’re gonna win if you make good food and that’s it.

What was your favorite single bite and favorite all-time challenge on Top Chef? Favorite bite is Paul Qui. It was a very simple dish. It was this vegetable dashi dish. It was just so unassuming to look at and it had so much flavor.

Favorite challenge [goes] back to the first season and probably because we couldn’t do it today—the push cart challenge in San Francisco. We were actually in the Mission and the contestants were pushing carts around trying to get people to eat food and no one knew who the hell we were. It was a blast. As judges we ate right there in the street. No one bothered us. We were talking to the people who were eating. That was fun.

Why is there still hunger in America and in the world at large? A lot of it is because of war or because of drought and deep, deep poverty. In America, we shouldn’t have hungry people here. Currently we have about 42 million Americans that are food insecure. They’re starved nutritionally. We can enact policies in this country to end hunger. If we had the political will in this country to make sure people are fed more nutritious foods, we could end hunger.

Just [recently] it was announced that our new Secretary of Agriculture is going to roll back the standards that we put out through the last Childhood Nutrition ReAuthorization. We increased the standards, added more whole grains, cut out sugar, got rid of vending machines in school. We made some progress and that was all just rolled back.

What can people do on a local level? A lot of work is being done in terms of people volunteering at food banks to help out. We suggested in our film A Place At The Table—you gotta use your voice. You gotta call your representatives. Look at these town halls. People are showing up and they’re demanding change and they’re demanding healthcare.

Why isn’t Washington working more with food professionals to create better programs for child nourishment? That’s what Food Policy Action is trying to do. Besides FPA, we’re also working with the Beard Foundation that has started setting up boot camps to teach chefs how to be advocates. Policy is messy. It’s complicated. As soon as you start looking at policy, you are right in the middle of politics. And right now that’s a tough game.

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