Q&A with Tom Colicchio, Part 2

Photo by Bill Bettencourt

The second part of my interview with chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio, conducted on the phone in late January:

VM: So how much has Top Chef changed your life?

TC: Well, it hasn’t changed me. I’ll still do the stupid stuff like live tweet the State of the Union [laughs] and not a huge number of people care about my political affiliation [he’s a Democrat]. But it has obviously changed … You know, walking down the street in New York, people sort of nod and say, “Hey, I like the show,” and stuff like that. Other times it’s hard. Doing food festivals now is always difficult. Food and Wine Miami, Food and Wine Aspen, it’s a little more [challenging]. But I asked for it, I’m not complaining. There’s a lot of positive stuff that come with it as well.

My wife and I just did this documentary on domestic hunger [Finding North], which is something I’ve been very active with for years now. And we managed to get pretty good funding based on the fact that I was a known entity. And it just premiered in Sundance, did really well, and hopefully we’ll get a distribution. It got great reviews in Variety, LA Times blog, so things are really going well with that. So things like that, it definitely opens doors.

VM: Do you get a lot of groupies?

TC: Yeah, you get them, you get them [laughs]. It’s … whatever. You know, it’s fine. You put yourself out there, you want to have fans. We cook. You put your [inaudible] out there and you have fans at home cooking. I can’t complain about it. You gotta take the good and the bad. It’s fine. Listen, quite frankly, I’m amused by the whole thing. It’s like pinch yourself, hey, it’s happening, awesome. Worse things can happen. I think part of it is, if you have celebrity [status], use it for good. If I can do stuff, you know, Mario and I and David Chang, we do an auction every year—a food bank in New York—and for the last couple of years it’s done over a hundred thousand dollars. And so people use celebrity to better whatever cause you’re interested in and if it’s important to you, than that’s how you use it. I mean to me, that’s the real benefit of this and not whether I get a free meal at a restaurant. It’s really what can you do with this to better somebody’s life.

VM: So how political are you?

TC: Umm… It’s like sport to me. [Laughs] As active as I could be without being a professional pundit, I guess, it’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’m definitely interested in the process. I’ve testified before Congress on behalf of the school lunch bill so now I can say I know how sausage is made, and I’ve seen how the law is made. [Laughs] I’ll stick to sausage.

VM: A lot of restaurateurs shy away from getting too political because they don’t want to turn off customers. Mario Batali got in a little trouble for comments he made about bankers—the kind of customers who can afford to eat at Babbo.

TC: Well, that wasn’t political. That was dumb [laughs]. You know what? Listen, I don’t make it personal. I’m a Democrat, I’m a liberal, I’m probably a moderate [for] New York City. We have the First Amendment for a reason. All I do is comment on it. I try not to belittle someone and his belief system. If you’re a conservative, that’s fine, I don’t care, that’s what makes this country work. It bugs me when I write a column and someone says, “Stick to cooking. What do you know, you idiot.” Really? How about a discussion here? I’d be happy to have a discussion with you. That’s like anybody telling me … to shut up and cook. That’s great. I haven’t heard that before….

[Domestic hunger] is a huge problem in this country. One in six Americans are food insecure, meaning that during the course of a month there’s trouble in finding food for the families. The food stamps—you qualify if you make $28,000 for a family of four. Now that’s ridiculous. That number should be raised, okay? School lunch, in my opinion, should be free for everybody if you’re in public school. And the big problem I have when I kind of look at it is with subsidies. What the U.S. government decides to subsidize, it’s all stuff that goes into making processed foods. So with $20 billion in subsidies, 1 percent goes to fruits and vegetables. The majority of it goes to corn, wheat, and soy, and some of it going to livestock. There’s a reason why fast food is cheap. And it’s also no nutrition at all and it’s making our kids obese and yet these are the policies we’re putting out there.

My opinion and the opinion of the filmmakers is that the charity model—and that’s how we’re feeding people now who are in need, a lot of them, are food banks. I mean, look at D.C. kitchen, they do amazing work. Share Our Strength, a group that Billy Shore started, amazing work. And they’re trying to fight hunger. There are food banks in New York. All these groups are doing great stuff. The charity model—raising money for charity, trying to fix this. It’s getting worse. For 25 years I’ve been raising money for hunger issues and the problem just keeps growing. And so at some point, government has to fix this….

It costs $20 million a year to fix this problem. But it costs $120 billion in health care costs to take care of heart disease and diabetes and things like that, and it’s only going to get worse because our kids now, the ones who are really obese and dealing with all this stuff, and so 20 years from now it’s only going to get worse. So you can fix the problem with $20 million or you can pay $120 billion. I don’t know, tell me [laughs]….

I guess for me I kept hearing a long time ago, don’t complain about the system if you don’t understand the system, so try to educate yourself as much as possible.

VM: I’m sorry, did you say something? I fell asleep after we stopped talking about Top Chef. [No, I didn’t say that. I swear I was listening politely.]

VM: And the name of the documentary?

TC: It’s called Finding North. You can Google it. There was one other film called Finding North that was kind of a soft porn. If you Google it, that may come up first [laughs]. But now that the film is getting a lot of Google hits, it’s actually pushing that [other] film down a little bit.

According to an IMDb plot summary, Finding North is a “Screwball romance involving a woman … who gets fired from her job as a bank teller when her friends arrange for a stripper to appear at the bank for her birthday. She then meets a man … whom she had earlier seen jump off a bridge and had assumed had committed suicide. With nothing else to do, she follows him to Texas. Along the way she slowly comes to realize he is gay and is despondent over the AIDS-related death of his former lover.”

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