Tom Colicchio has been a head judge on Top Chef for 11 years now, delivering some of our favorite, most devastatingly bitchy food disses along the way. Choice words like “did Snooki serve this?” and “I love chamomile, but I couldn’t taste it.”
Of course, the reason the show works, and the reason we’re still watching, is that while some of the disses may be bitchy, they’re rarely unfair. You can tell Colicchio isn’t there solely to stir up drama, or even to try to make himself into a big TV star. His criticisms are about the food, and the guy knows his stuff. Having worked in restaurants since he was a teenager, he’s a five-time James Beard Award winner, a veteran of New York’s acclaimed Gramercy Tavern, and current honcho of his Craft Restaurant group. Perhaps more important than all that (to a viewer, anyway) is that in a food show landscape littered with shticky screamers like Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine (or God forbid, Jon Taffer), Colicchio proves that louder isn’t better. And in fact he does more with a well placed smirk or eye roll than Ramsay does with a hundred plates smashed against walls.
Having hosted Best New Restaurant for Bravo and been named a food correspondent for MSNBC (a role which never panned out), he’ll be back for at least a few more seasons of Top Chef. One aspect of Colicchio’s career that receives less attention, however, is his advocacy work, which the New York Times called “arguably unmatched in both stridency and scope.”
He’s been working with food banks for years, as well as lobbying congress over school lunches and helping to promote a legislative scorecard tracking how congresspeople vote on food-related issues. We got the chance to speak with Colicchio over the phone recently as he was promoting America’s Better Sandwich Contest, for which Oroweat, will donate a loaf of bread for every submission. We tried to cover as much ground as we could in 15 minutes, and Colicchio obliged by being, as ever, pithy and succinct.
[Note: this interview took place a few days before Colicchio’s “racially-tinged restaurant name” controversy hit the news, which is why we never asked about it]
So, tell me about the sandwich contest.
So, I teamed up with Arnold, Oroweat and Brownberry and the contest is America’s Better Sandwich Contest. The really cool thing about this is, the contest is you submit your favorite sandwich recipe, and if you win you can win $25,000, but more importantly is Oroweat, Arnold and Brownberry, for every submission, they’re donating a loaf of bread to Feeding America. Feeding America is America’s leading anti-hunger organization. They support food pantries across the country and so, not only, if you win, can you put some bread in your pocket but you could really help to put some bread on to families’ tables that are really struggling.
Very cool. Going to general questions, do you have a first food memory?
Oh, God. A first food memory. Man, that’s a tough one. There are so many. A first one? I used to go fishing at a very young age with my grandfather and every morning, before we’d go fishing, early in the morning, he’d wake up and he would make eggs and peppers. He would fry peppers and onions and then, almost like a frittata, crack eggs in it. That smell, waking up in the morning is one of the first things I remember. I mean, I started going out with him when I was three or four years and I remember that smell. And to this day, if I go out fishing in the morning, I try to make eggs and peppers. In fact, I went out just yesterday. It was my birthday and we went out and I made that dish. But that was one of the first food memories that I can remember, yeah.
Where did you guys fish?
Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.