Tom Colicchio earned his stripes as one of the most influential chefs of his generation when he and Danny Meyer opened Gramercy Tavern in New York City 23 years ago. Here, Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis interviews Colicchio about his quest to make healthy food accessible.
HUNTER LEWIS: You wear a lot of hats: chef, TV personality, charity leader, food policy advocate. What role is the most gratifying to you?
TOM COLICCHIO: I like them all. Father might be the most gratifying.
What's the most challenging thing about opening restaurants in 2017?
Labor. It's harder to get cooks. That said, at Fowler & Wells we've put together a really, really good and diverse kitchen staff. More than half my team [is] women.
The best kitchens I worked in had more women in them.
Absolutely. You know, in the heyday of Gramercy Tavern, we had more women in the kitchen and in power positions. I had a lot of talent. And they were all in subordinate roles to women. Women temper the edges. It takes a lot of the sort of macho [BS] out of the kitchen. That was by far the best team I've ever worked with.
You've been talking about a national food policy. What would a key tenet be?
Nutrition is expensive in this country, but calories are cheap. That's why you find people, especially people with low incomes, making what are considered "bad choices." I'm throwing air quotes up when I say that. But they don't really have much of a choice because they can't afford nutritious foods. So if we can bend the cost curve for nutritious foods, I think we'll have a healthier country.
I see people on social media telling chefs like you to "get back in the kitchen and stick to what you're good at." How do you respond?
Every single bit of the product [you] get—in your kitchen or a restaurant—is touched by policy. There's plenty of people lobbying for Big Food. So what's wrong with somebody advocating for a better food system? I don't know of a person, especially a mother, who doesn't want to feed her kids healthier food. So this issue cuts across partisan lines; it cuts across social-economic barriers. Everyone wants to put better food on the table for their kids. So if you think I should be quiet, well I don't think I should be.
Someone could successfully run for office with food at the central core of their mission.
One of these days it will happen. Someone should take up this mantle and run with it.
Why won't you run?
I thought about it. I have partners in my business. I'd have to stop TV. I couldn't do that. And I just have too much going on in my business. So it's kind of hard to walk away from that.
How do you define healthy?
For me, it's more of a plant-based diet—I have a steakhouse, but this is what I do at home—[where] meat becomes a side dish, not the main. Cooking automatically makes you healthier. You're cutting out some sugar, not eating processed foods. It's little things that make a big change.
LEARN MORE ABOUT Colicchio's political action committee agenda at foodpolicyaction.org. Two election cycles ago, Food Policy Action backed one candidate successfully. In the 2016 election, they backed three candidates, and one of those candidates was elected.