Tom Colicchio bristles at the idea of a “celebrity chef.” He’s also the lead judge on Top Chef, one of the most iconic cooking competition shows of all time. This week we ask Tom: What role should TV play in a chef’s career — and does a chef need to go on TV to be successful? Plus, we talk about the future of restaurants, our national food supply, and how to solve the restaurant labor shortage.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Feel Real Good" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Like Fire" by Jacob Gossel
- "Rogue Apples" by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Diercks
- "Young and Free" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
Photo courtesy of Crafted Hospitality.
Tom Colicchio: It was a pool club in Clark N.J., The Grand Centurions. I was hired to scoop ice cream at work and work the cash register and within a week I was cooking.
Dan Pashman: This is Tom Colicchio, chef, restaurateur, and head judge on Top Chef. He got his first cooking job when he was 14. It was a long way from the fine dining kitchens and TV sets where he’d end up. But it had its perks.
Tom Colicchio: Damn good job. I was getting paid 275 dollars a week under the table. You know, I was able to work in a pair of cut offs and sometimes a shirt and sometimes shoes. It's a great job. It really was.
Dan Pashman: It seems like from, what I understand, it was like from that moment, it was just single-minded focus for decades.
Tom Colicchio: Quite frankly, when I was cooking in the snack bar at the club, I didn’t think of it as a career until probably soon after that, my dad suggested that I think about becoming a chef. I started working in a restaurant in town called, Evelyn’s Seafood Restaurant and it was a busy seafood restaurant. We would do 1000 covers on a Saturday night. I was completely hooked after that. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Hooked on what exactly? What hooked you?
Tom Colicchio: The sense of accomplishment that I got from cooking that I didn’t get, say, turning in a project at school, which often was turned in incomplete. I struggled in school and so now all of a sudden I wasn’t struggling in the kitchen. It all just made sense. You know, I’d get a project, I’d start, I'd finish it. I was finally starting to get some affirmation for the work that I was doing as opposed to, why can you seem to turn your homework in on time?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. A few years back I had chef and food TV legend Jacques Pepin on the show. He told me that when he was coming up, there was no such thing as a celebrity chef. Being a chef wasn’t a glamorous job. It was more like being a plumber.
Dan Pashman: As we know, that’s changed. In the 80s, there was an explosion of upscale restaurant culture. The chefs at a city’s top spots became big names, at least for more affluent people who were into the dining scene. Then came the explosion of food media, which brought these chefs out of their fancy kitchens and into living rooms across the country.
Dan Pashman: Over that time, Tom Colicchio has been at the center of it all. He never went to culinary school, but in the 80’s he worked his way up to some of the most iconic restaurants in New York. He became a central figure in the city’s restaurant scene, opening his own place, Gramercy Tavern in 1994. Then came his next restaurant, Craft, and soon after, his restaurant group, Crafted Hospitality.
Dan Pashman: When cooking competition shows became launchpads for chefs’ careers, Tom was there too. In 2006, he was cast as head judge on Top Chef. As that show became a hit, Tom went from a big deal in restaurants to a TV star.
Dan Pashman: Today, the world of chefs and restaurants, and the world of TV, feed off each other. But I was curious to ask Tom how exactly? What are the pros and cons of the relationship? And how does it affect both what we watch, and what we eat?
Dan Pashman: Tom says that one of the big downsides of the rise of the celebrity chef, is young chefs think they have to be on TV to be successful. He tried to set them straight a few years back, when he gave the commencement address at the Culinary Institute of America.
Tom Colicchio: What I what I said was, if you spent all this money coming to the school because you think you're going to be the next chef on TV, if your parents are sitting next to you, apologize for wasting their money because it's not going to happen.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Colicchio: You know, I think the contestants that are on Top Chef that do really well and they don't have to win — their careers change because they're on TV. It's easier for them to access money and capital to open a restaurant. So, yeah, being on the show, if you can capitalize on it, has paid dividends for a lot of the contestants.
Dan Pashman: So chefs can benefit from being on TV, but Tom says for young chefs in particular, the exposure comes with pitfalls.
Tom Colicchio: You get on TV and all of a sudden you're asked to go on the circuit. You know, when I say the circuit, I mean the festival circuit. Again, pre-COVID, where it was Food & Wine—Aspen, and there's a festival in Austin, there's a festival in Charleston, there's a festival in New York, there's a festival in L.A., there's a festival in Monterey—there's festivals everywhere.
Dan Pashman: It's like a musician going on tour.
Tom Colicchio: Right. But a young chef that doesn't have that support team and they get their first chef's job, like maybe they do really well on Top Chef, they get their first chef's job, and all of a sudden they're getting pulled every week to go somewhere. It puts a lot of pressure on the team that they haven't developed yet and things could slip away
Dan Pashman: Right. It becomes hard to maintain quality and the restaurant.
Tom Colicchio: It's not only that, but part of being a chef is being a leader and being there for your team. And also, if you're not there, they kind of lose faith in you. So it's balance.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Colicchio: And that's what I always tell people. I get phone calls sometimes from restaurateurs that are back to—you know, someone on Top Chef saying, "Can you please talk to them. They're not in the restaurant. What do I do?" I'm like, not my job. Sorry, but...I tell people, you got to stay home. I'm not saying don't do the festivals but don't go every weekend.
Dan Pashman: Tom has felt this same pull between media and his actual cooking career. But he was a successful chef for so long before he got on TV, his restaurants were already well-oiled machines. He says, he had time to train a team that can run things when he isn’t there. He’s better able to balance it all but there are still downsides.
Tom Colicchio: More people are coming to the restaurant because of the show, but the customer changes and they want pictures with you. And if you're not there, they feel disappointed that you're not there to take a picture.
Dan Pashman: It just feels like if you want to have one restaurant, you're going to own it. You're going to cook the food. It's going to be your food. And you want to run a successful business in your restaurant. You don't need TV to do that. But if you have even modest aspirations to, let's say, have a restaurant group even to get to that point, I think it's hard to do it...
Tom Colicchio: No, no. I completely disagree with you.
Dan Pashman: You don't think you need some amount of celebrity?
Tom Colicchio: I'll name some chefs, Marc Vetri. He's not on TV. In fact, Marc has a pretty pronounced stutter and that's what keeps him off of TV. Paul Kahan, bunch of restaurants, you don't see him on TV. Barbabra Lynch, not on TV. I can go on and on. There's plenty of chefs that go on to have multiple restaurants that never do TV. This is my point I was making earlier to the students at CIA. You'll have success being a chef. You don't need to be on TV.
Dan Pashman: I see Tom’s point. Maybe the distinction is that if you want to be a—you probably need TV for that. But being on TV isn’t for everyone. Tom didn’t think it was for him. He turned down the Top Chef job three times.
Tom Colicchio: I have friends that are actors. My wife's a writer and director, and I know what people have to do to come across on the screen and I certainly wasn't trained to do that.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Colicchio: And so that lack of training, I was definitely hesitant to put myself through that and really fail. You know, up until this point, I didn't have too many failures in terms of a business career. And so why put yourself out there?
Dan Pashman: What's the difference between the skills required to be a good chef in a restaurant and the skills required to be a good chef on TV?
Tom Colicchio: In both cases, you have to have a lot of skills. But I find that the chefs who can really think on their feet quickly and conceive of a dish in their head and execute it really well, are the chefs that are going to do better on TV. And I know chefs that—I mean, listen, that's how I work. I don't plan a lot. Friends of mine, for instance, Alfred Portale, great chef. One the best chefs of the country's ever produced. He writes out the dish, he sketches it out first, spends a lot of time with it, works on it, works on it, works out before it goes on the menu. Certain chefs do that. The heyday of Gramercy Tavern, when I had just an amazing team, I had a ten-course tasting menu that was was never written. It was in my head. And when somebody order it, I would just tell people what to do. I had the team to do that.
Dan Pashman: You need to be an improviser on TV.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, I think it works best. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Another key to being a great chef on TV? Don’t look back. Tom says as soon as you start second guessing yourself, you're gonna start making mistakes. And, he adds, the strain of cooking on a competition show isn’t just mental.
Tom Colicchio: On our show, a certain amount of physical stamina is required. It is brutal, you hear them halfway through, if they get halfway through, start to say, I'm tired. People start getting hurt. They start breaking down. Knees start to go, backs start to go. It is physically demanding.
Dan Pashman: In the 15 years since the show debuted. How do you think it's changed?
Tom Colicchio: Oh, it's changed a lot. You go back and look at the first season, it's really clunky. There's better camera work, better lighting. We used to put all our equipment in a small little cube truck...
Dan Pashman: Right.
Tom Colicchio: If we had to go on location. Nowadays, with 150 people and three trucks. When you see our show, there's minimum six cameras, sometimes seven or eight cameras working. You'll never see a camera in a shot, never.
Dan Pashman: In some shows you don't want to have one camera person moving into a place where they end up in the background of another camera person's shot.
Tom Colicchio: Oh, you'll see it all the time on shows.
Dan Pashman: Right. And when you have seven or eight cameras all moving around at once, that's a very difficult thing to accomplish.
Tom Colicchio: It's a ballet. And I got to say that they're just absolute professionals.
Dan Pashman: In the leadup to our chat with you. I reached out to several friends and colleagues who are just absolute Top Chef super fans. They've seen every episode. And our colleague at Stitcher, Abigail, she said, “I think one of the biggest changes in the show is how nice the judges are. I feel like they were pretty mean in the early seasons and have gotten noticeably more like mentors and supportive.” Is that something you're aware of?
Tom Colicchio: Absolutely aware of it and absolutely true. That's a great observation. The chefs have—because they've seen the show and they don't want to be that guy or that woman on the show, they're coming out it a little differently. They're also working together much more nicely, as well. It's less cut throat and more supportive. But my role—and that's how I look at my role, is I'm a mentor. I'm going to give them feedback. I'm going to give them honest feedback. I'm not going to get into who did what, why, where, how. I don't care about that stuff. We used to. But I think, we were produced early on to be a little stricter and sterner and the whole tenor of the show has really changed. I think it's been the last probably six seasons or so, maybe seven seasons. But it's—you know, 15 years in, 18 seasons in, I love doing the show. I absolutely love it. I even think, you know, it's like—I'd say, it's like going away to summer camp because you see—it's a lot of the same—
Dan Pashman: You see the same people. Right, right.
Tom Colicchio: A lot of the same people you don't see during the year. A bunch of us played play instruments and get together and jam and it's great.
Dan Pashman: There's another thing that’s led to changes in tone on Top Chef over the past several years. The rise of the MeToo movement in the restaurant industry. Women have spoken out about harassment and abuse and inequality in opportunities in kitchens dominated by men. In the fall of 2017, as the first wave of accusations against big name chefs started coming out, Tom wrote a blog post that called out the larger culture of misogyny in restaurants.
Dan Pashman: It was titled “An Open Letter to (Male) Chefs.” He wrote, “Those of us with our own kitchens should be asking ‘What have I been able to take for granted on my way to the top that women often can’t, and how can I help fix that?’” A month later, the first stories came out about Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, detailing accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the two restaurateurs. Tom says no question, this is also part of the reason that Top Chef has evolved.
Tom Colicchio: There's a lot less sexism, you know, the banter back and forth that—I mean, the first season, you know, someone saying, "I'm not your bitch, bitch.", that would never happen. I mean, and that became the tagline for the season. It was on a shirt. Yeah, that that doesn't happen. I think everybody's much more respectful. And I think there is—a lot of it was in jest and a lot of it was fun and joking but I think people are realizing that that, you know, one person's joke is one person's slander. And so the industry is changing. I think that that behavior is just not acceptable. You know, you look at the chefs, they're all much more supportive. And this is why I hope, you know, I feel really good about where the industry is heading, because I'm looking at the chefs who are coming on the show and I look how supportive they are versus where they were 15 years ago, where they were cutthroat. And I think that's where industry's heading.
Dan Pashman: That's all obviously good news, that things are moving in a better direction. Still, there are, on the show and in the world of restaurant kitchens, still some bad actors and still some people who engage in some bullying behavior. I understand that some of that is good drama for a TV show. I'm curious how much of that do you see?
Tom Colicchio: Zero. Absolutely none of it. I mean, I see the chefs—number one, we are not allowed to interact with the chefs at all unless we're on camera. And when we're on camera, I mean, where they're cooking for us, if I'm doing a walk through the kitchen...
Dan Pashman: When they're on their best behavior, if you're walking through the kitchen...
Tom Colicchio: Or not.
Dan Pashman: Right, reasonably.
Tom Colicchio: When I'm walking through the kitchen, they're cooking, when they're presenting food, when we're eating food, when we're critiquing them at a judges table. That's it. Outside of that, we do not talk to them. We don't see them. Anything that's going on in where they're living, we don't see it. Sometimes we hear a rumour about it. Sometimes, you know, but for the most part, we don't see it and don't care and therefore don't judge on it.
Dan Pashman: And so that's interesting because on one hand, I can understand why those rules would be in place. And it makes for a more—one line of argument, I'm sure this is why these rules exist is because it makes for a more fair competition.
Tom Colicchio: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: You're judging based on the food. You're not going to get distracted by any other sort of like reality TV tension.
Tom Colicchio: Right.
Dan Pashman: On the other hand, I feel like sometimes the bad actors orare bullies, do well on the show even in recent years. I feel like sort of part of the reason why bad behavior has been tolerated for so long in restaurant kitchens is that there's this idea that as long as the food is incredible, whatever you had to do behind the scenes to get that result is justified. So I wonder if perhaps that there's that same mentality in the show and if perhaps it might make sense, like should bad behavior in the kitchen be part of the judging?
Tom Colicchio: Uh, no. I don't think it should be.
Dan Pashman: As one example to Tom, I bring up Michael Voltaggio, who won Top Chef Vegas in 2009. During a challenge, Voltaggio was teamed up with another contestant, Robin Leventhal. She was in charge of dessert, and at one point he grabbed her sauce bottle from her hand and started finishing her dish for her, the way he thought it should be done...
[CLIP TOP CHEF VEGAS]
CLIP (ROBIN LEVENTHAL): Can I do it? This is my dessert. [BLEEP] This is my [BLEEP] damn dessert.
CLIP (MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO): Yeah, then can you cut them smaller and don't cuss at me again like that.
CLIP (ROBIN LEVENTHAL): I don't you want you...
CLIP (MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO): Don't cuss at me like that again. Do you understand me?
CLIP (ROBIN LEVENTHAL): I asked you to let me...
CLIP (MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO): Don't talk to me like that again.
CLIP (ROBIN LEVENTHAL): I asked you to let me do my....
CLIP (MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO): Don't talk to me like that again. I'm helping you.
CLIP (ROBIN LEVENTHAL): I don't need your help....
CLIP (MICHAEL VOLTAGGIO): I'm helping you. This is a restaurant. Okay? Just be professional.
Dan Pashman: I asked Tom, should something like that be a factor in the judging on Top Chef?
Tom Colicchio: I don't think that's where we should be focusing—you know, cornering someone to walk in and threatening them if they didn't have sex. That's horrible. Purposely overlooking someone for promotion because they're a woman or minority, that's a problem. Again, the off color jokes, the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes that were commonplace in kitchens, understanding how the person on the other side of that hears it, that's not to be tolerated anymore. Taking a spoon out of someone's hand because you don't trust how they're saucing it, that, to me, that's not bad behavior. That's just of wanting to win. And but just saying, hey, give me that, that's, I mean—I don't know. I don't know. I don't want to excuses for anybody, but also, if we're not here to see it, how do I judge on that? You know, I—it's a competition. Listen, we decided season one, we're going to judge on food and that's it. There's a lot of stuff that we talk about, about what makes a great chef and leadership and all that. That's all great to talk about. We judge on the food in front of us, and that's it.
Dan Pashman: I'm torn. I don't pretend to have the right answer. And I think there's a lot of wisdom into the way that you've done it. It's just like to me, it's an interesting question to ask. You know, like I've heard you talk about the idea that a chef is more than just a cook.
Tom Colicchio: Sure. Sure
Dan Pashman: A chef is a manager, an overseer that a leader.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And so if you're going to pick the top chef, the way that a person treats other people in the kitchen, you know, might be something—I don't know. I understand that the logistics of it would be difficult.
Tom Colicchio: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You're not going to sit there for 24/7 watching every single chef. But I do think it's interesting thing to consider.
Tom Colicchio: When you think about leadership, you're talking about hiring the right team, managing the right team. That's not going to come out in a reality show. You know, they're not hiring staff. They're not putting policies in place. They're not—it's a little different. Of course, there's a lot to being a successful chef. And again, let's start with the word chef. It doesn't mean best cook. It means boss. That's a French word for boss. If Bruce Springsteen were French. He would be call a chef, not the boss. And so, yeah, there's the criteria that go into being a successful chef and you can't judge that in a reality show.
Dan Pashman: Top Chef’s approach is clearly working. It’s now in it’s 18th season, and over that time the show’s universe has grown dramatically, with spinoff shows, cookbooks, and even a TV dinner at one point. But in the past year, the restaurant industry has been much less fortunate. When we come back, Tom and I talk about surviving the past year as a restaurant owner, and what the future of restaurants will look like. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I talk with Ayesha Curry, who at 32 has built a food empire. But despite her bestselling cookbooks, TV shows, and cookware line, she says that people still underestimate her.
CLIP (AYESHA CURRY): The struggle for me is in people realizing how hard I really do work. Everybody thinks things just happen and they don't. And there's like a lot of behind the scenes—I'm a very behind the scenes worker. So I like to work silently and then have the work speak for itself. And oftentimes what ends up happening is people just think that it pops out of nowhere and it doesn't.
Dan Pashman: We also talk about the pros and cons of cooking with your kids, that episode with Ayesha Curry is up now. Get it wherever you got this one.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Tom Colicchio. In addition to his work as a chef, restaurateur, and TV star, Tom has spent years as a food activist. He’s advocated for free school lunches and ending hunger in the U.S. Last year, as COVID decimated the restaurant industry, Tom took on a new cause. He co-founded the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which lobbied for relief for the restaurants hit hardest. Thanks to his history in the restaurant business and as an advocate, Tom is just as comfortable talking about food supply chains as he is critiquing a dish on Top Chef. And that knowledge has come in handy, as COVID has exposed flaws in our food systems.
Tom Colicchio: One of the biggest problems that we saw in food processing plants, meat processing plants, where so many people were affected because of the way they work. It's all close quarters. They couldn't shut down. And what we're seeing is that our supply is too centralized. It's very efficient, and that's why it's been done, is for efficiency. But it needs to be more spread out. One pork plant went down, I think, in South Dakota, it took five percent of the pork in the country. It's efficient. It's not resilient.
Dan Pashman: COVID didn’t create these problems but just exposed them. And Tom says having so much of our food supply centralized in a handful of locations, it's gonna become a bigger problem as climate change progresses.
Tom Colicchio: We're going to start seeing more and more drought. Storms that are going to really test the limits of our food production in this country. It happened last year. A lot of the corn crop in Iowa was destroyed from the derecho, I think it was called. This localized storm. So we need to spread out production a bit more and to make, again, our food production more resilient.
Dan Pashman: When COVID hit, Tom started advocating for the restaurant industry. But he also had to figure out what to do in his own restaurants. In March of last year, when restaurants were closing down, he had to lay off about 300 of his employees.
Dan Pashman: What was that like for you?
Tom Colicchio: One of the worst days of my professional career. We were in pretty good contact. I had a pretty good handle on what I thought was going to happen. Im a bit of a news junkie and I was looking at news reports coming out of Asia back in January about this—I started telling my staff in February to get ready to close down. I told them to stop buying wine, stop, you know....And then we started talking to the staff saying this is a possibility. From talking to people, I had a pretty good sense that unemployment was going to be pretty robust. So telling my staff, listen, apply right away, it's going to be robust. It's going to get you through. But still, it's a terrible day.
Dan Pashman: Thanks in part to lobbying by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the latest stimulus package included 28 billion dollars specifically for independent restaurants. Now, as we turn a corner with COVID, the industry is facing a different issue.
Dan Pashman: Now, as restaurants are opening back up, there's a lot of talk about a labor shortage in the industry. There are some who blame—who say, well, the increased unemployment is paying people "too much". Therefore, they're not incentivized to go back to work in restaurants. Others say, well, there's problems with the working conditions in a lot of restaurants. Or the COVID safety or other issues. What are your thoughts? What is the cause of this labor shortage?
Tom Colicchio: I think it's twofold. One, people are afraid to go back to work. They don't want to get sick. I think as more and more people are vaccinated, they'll feel a little better about going back to work. I think that in restaurants, think about the front of the house, you know? I think they're concerned that they're going to come in, they're going to give up unemployment and they're going to get one or two shifts. And that's not going to cut it. And they're going to lose their benefits and or maybe they’re promised four shifts. But eventually, they're going to get cut down to one or two. So I understand that. There's a lot of people left our industry. There's a lot of young people who moved out of the cities and moved back home with their parents. There's also a lot of people who started jobs. I mean, I read a story recently of a pastry pastry cook, I think, or an assistant chef who was working at Gramercy Tavern who started doing her baked goods from home. And she has a business right now and is not going to go back to work because she started a business. And so a lot of people started businesses during COVID. Everyone had a side hustle, a food side hustle. And a lot of them are going, OK, I just made a business. Why? I'm not going to go back to work in a restaurant. So there's a lot of reasons why we're seeing a labor shortage, not at all attributed to robust unemployment benefits.
Dan Pashman: Putting aside pay and the unemployment issue, just in terms of working conditions, are there things that restaurants can and should do, whether COVID related or just larger restaurant issues that would that would make these jobs more attractive?
Tom Colicchio: Listen, I think it comes down to just being fair. You know, there's certain amount of breaks that people are supposed to get, make sure they're taking their breaks, and make sure little things, like when you sit down for family meal...
Dan Pashman: The staff meal.
Tom Colicchio: Staff meal. If you're talking about the evening, which most people do, people have to be punched in. I mean, little things like making sure the staff meals better isn't as hard work because you're on your feet and you're dealing with customers, you're in a hot kitchen. That's not going to change, but it's how you motivate people. The days of getting in someone's face to motivate them, it's over. You have a labor force that won't accept that. You can blame it on all kinds of things. I've heard the brigade system, the hierarchy, the kitchen being blamed for it. No, it's not. I don't think that's the problem. I think it's inability for someone at the top to communicate their vision, to be clear about it, to hold people accountable without belittling them and to, you know, just creating an environment that is feels better to work in. That's it. Now, I think a lot of—you know, I try to do this in my restaurants. Have I been perfect? Probably not. But this is how I try to run my business. And I've got a lot of—you know, people have been very loyal over the years.
Dan Pashman: Tom says another thing that would help address the labor shortage, make sure cooks are paid better.
Tom Colicchio: The big change that we have to come to terms with is the idea that kitchen labor, it's cheap labor because they're not skilled. You hear it a lot. Unskilled labor. nonsense. It's skilled labor. Often when you see someone who's unskilled is the recent graduate from culinary school that has a lot of book knowledge about food but doesn't have the experience. But then there's a whole other level of really skilled cooks, who have no aspirations to be a great chef or be on TV. But they can cook with the best of them. They deserve a much higher pay scale than someone coming out of culinary school, who really has no experience. But with the person coming out of culinary school has a student debt. And so they want to move up the ladder very quickly. It used to be, you know, when I was coming up, you worked ten years as a cook before you took a sous-chef's position. And then five years before you took a chef's position. Now, it's like a year and a half out of culinary school, it's I want to be a sous-chef. Well, you do because you got bills to pay.
Dan Pashman: And we should say, I mean, the cooks, the non-Culinary Institute cooks you're referring to, are more likely to be immigrants, newer immigrants. And so that's, I think, there's also sort of a prejudice there in the perception that they're somehow unskilled.
Tom Colicchio: Yes, I think, for the general public. But you know what? They understand their skill level. And you get a, you know, someone who's working kitchen for kitchens for 10 years and can hold out a pasta station in the busiest of Italian restaurants. they know their value.
Dan Pashman: In the earlier days of COVID, the chef and restaurant owner Gabrielle Hamilton wrote a fantastic piece in The New York Times, which you may have seen. I'm sure you know her. So for folks who don't, I mean, she had a restaurant called Prune in New York for—or had a restaurant for 20 years. Well known and well respected, certainly in the New York area. She wrote this piece about the decision to close a restaurant in early days of COVID and she talked about the increasing financial pressure on restaurants. Then COVID hits and she writes, "Restaurant operators had already become oddly cagey and quick to display a false front with each other. You asked, 'How's business?', and the answer always was, 'Yeah, great. Best quarter we ever had.' But then coronavirus hits and these same restaurant owners rush into the public square yelling, Fire, fire. They now reveal that they had also been operating under razor thin margins. It instantly turns 180 degrees, even famous successful chefs, owners of empires, those with supremely wealthy investors upon whom you imagine they could call for capital should they need it now openly describe how dire a position they're in. The sad testimony gushes out, confirming everything that used to be so convincingly denied." What are your thoughts on that?
Tom Colicchio: I think she's a very talented writer.
Dan Pashman: Have you had that similar experience
Tom Colicchio: Of being an accomplished writer? No.
Dan Pashman: Well, I mean, have you found yourself being one of the people she describes?
Tom Colicchio: No, I mean, I think I've been—you know, I don't think I was putting up some false front that everything is peaches and cream. It's just I've been always pretty clear that's a tough business and margins are thin. In terms of yelling fire in the public square? Yeah, I was out there yelling fire in the public square. I got a sense that there was an opportunity for target relief for our industry. So, yeah, I'll scream in the public square to help out restaurants. I think history will judge me for doing the right thing by going to the public square and letting politicians, letting the public know about razor thin margins and about what would happen to the 15 million people, who worked in our industry. And once you factor in fishermen and farmers and winemakers and cheesemakers and plumbers, electricians and exterminators ,who also support our industry, we're talking about 20 million people, who probably make a living from independent restaurants. And so, yeah. I made it my mission, along with a bunch of other fantastic chefs and restaurateurs across the country to get that targeted help. So if I resemble that remark, fine. So be it.
Dan Pashman: What has COVID revealed to you about restaurants that you didn't know before?
Tom Colicchio: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Our industry was going through big changes before COVID. COVID just shown a spotlight on our industry. I think unless variants of this pandemic come back in a bad way, I suspect that come December we're going to see our businesses explode. There's a lot of money, a lot of pent up demand sitting on the sidelines. People want to get out. Back in 2008, during the recession, it took me five years to get back to pre-recession business. I think this cycle's gonna be a lot faster. I've been doing this for 35 years. I expected chefs and restaurateurs to be resilient. The people who are out there feeding frontline workers, feeding members of the community, feeding kids at school. That's the restaurant industry that I know. That's the restaurant industry that deserves to be saved. And yeah, there are bad actors and there's systemic problems in our industry, but if you look at the generosity, that's the memory that I'll hold dear to my heart.
Dan Pashman: So over the past year, Tom’s been busy with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, with filming a season of Top Chef. But, like a lot of us, he’s been home a lot too, cooking three meals a day for his family. And completely by accident, that home cooking turned into his latest project...
Tom Colicchio: Well, yeah, I opened a new restaurant last week called Balada. We took our private dining room next door to Craft that we actually had just renovated before COVID. And so we just opened a new restaurant there called Balada and we sort of did it as a pop up. There's a very good chance we're going to make it permanent. And it's an Italian trattoria. I've never really cooked Italian food in a restaurant. I found myself doing more of that style of cooking at home and thought, this is probably what I should be doing right now. And what's great is, you know, we're only open four nights a week. I'm cooking. I'm actually working the pasta station every night so far. It's been great.
Dan Pashman: So who yells at you and you're falling behind?
Tom Colicchio: No one, man. I yell at myself. I'm tough on myself.
Dan Pashman: How long had it been since you were cooking on a line on a regular basis?
Tom Colicchio: Oh, on a regular on a regular basis, it's been a while. But before COVID, I was doing it a lot, you know, where I'd go into Craft and go to the meat station, tell the cook, you know, step outside. I'll work the station for an hour or so. But, you know, as soon as I got tired, I would tap out. But I love doing it. I mean, I'm a line cook at heart. That's what I love doing. It's where I'm most comfortable, especially if you can just pretend you're not the restaurant owner. Put your head down, get into a groove, and put out great food. And that's that's what I love doing.
Dan Pashman: Just like back at the swim club.
Tom Colicchio: Exactly. Exactly. It's only I'm not in cut offs in a in a T-shirt and flip flops. Although I wish I were.
Dan Pashman: That’s chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio. Season 18 of Top Chef is airing now, and you can find a full list of his restaurants at CraftedHospitality.com.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, I talk with Gustavo Alvarez, who wrote a book about cooking while in prison. He’ll talk about learning to boil water with an electric cord and razor blades, and the instant ramen that saved his life. That’s next week. While you wait for that one, make sure you check out last week’s show with the culinary empire builder Ayesha Curry. And please make sure you connect with our show so you don’t miss future episodes. In Spotify and Stitcher, follow, in Apple Podcasts, subscribe. You can do it right now while you’re listening. Thanks.