'Top Chef' judge stirs the pot with hunger documentary
Posted February 26, 2013
Tom Colicchio's passion for food takes many forms. Since 2006, the five-time James Beard medal winner has headed the Judges' Table on Top Chef, Bravo's cooking competition show whose 10th-season finale airs on Wednesday (10 ET/PT). Colicchio, 50, also is the overseer of the highly rated Craft restaurants in New York and Los Angeles as as well as various spinoffs such as Craftsteak. Now, the father of three has joined forces with filmmaker and wife Lori Silverbush as executive producer of A Place at the Table, a documentary opening Friday in theaters, on iTunes and on demand, that examines the growing problem of hunger in our country - a crisis that affects 1 in 4 children - as seen through the lives of three families. Colicchio spoke with USA TODAY's Susan Wloszczyna about both his eye-opening movie and the Top Chef wrapup.
Q. Let's talk Top Chef first. Did you ever expect the show would last this long?
Colicchio: Not really. Other reality shows have not had such a long shelf life. But we are staying up there.
Q. This season, a controversial decision was made to bring back three 'cheftestants' - C.J., Josie and Stefan - who were kicked off in previous seasons. Why was that done?
Colicchio: I shouldn't answer that question. I didn't do it.
Q. How would you rank this season that was held in Seattle for the first time and features two female chefs - Kristen and Brooke - facing off in the finale?
Colicchio: It's kind of hard for me to say. It may sound strange, but I'm not a fan. It is a very different reality for people who are fans. I do like the show, but I don't go on websites and follow it. Looking at it from the perspective of the contestants, it was pretty strong. We had really good chefs from varied backgrounds. We don't care about the personalities. We aren't allowed to talk to them. All that behind-the-scenes stuff, we have no idea about what is happening. The judges have been accused of playing personalities, but we have no involvement with them. We eat the food. What is in front of us, that is it.
Q. A female chef will win for only the second time since Season 4's champ Stephanie Izard. Does that please you?
Colicchio: The way I see it, if a woman is the best chef, then a woman will win. We don't look at it like that. As Stephanie said, she was happy to be the winner of Top Chef, not the first woman.
Q. One last Top Chef question: What was the best dish you ever ate on the show?
Colicchio: The artichoke risotto with braised pork belly that runner-up Tiffani Faison made in Season 1. And Season 9 winner Paul Qui's sunchoke dashi soup with vegetables, a simple broth that was part of the mentor challenge.
Q. Besides the fact that your wife is a filmmaker and co-directed A Place at the Table, how did you get involved?
Colicchio: For the past 25 years, I have raised money to fight hunger and supported local food banks like City Harvest and such groups as Share Our Strength. Lori was aware of the work I was doing. She had been mentoring a young girl who was routinely hungry and so was her family. She was researching the topic one day and said, "Hey, I can make a film out of this." My job as executive producer was to pretty much raise money and actively promote the film at screenings.
Q. The film makes a strong case that the poor nutrition and rise in obesity plaguing our country is compounded by the subsidizing of mega-sized agribusinesses rather than smaller farms, which produce most of the nation's fruit and vegetables supply; the unrealistic salary cutoff for receiving food-stamp assistance; the meager amount spent per child for school lunch programs; and the low federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour. But with sequestration looming and tax increases so unpopular, won't Congress be averse to such efforts?
Colicchio: They are and they aren't. There was a large expansion of government under George W. Bush. Money was just spent on different things, corporate welfare and the military bill. We got to get people out to see the film. A lot of people know there is hunger in this country, but they don't understand how severe it is. We want to put a face on hunger. Most think of hunger as world hunger in developing countries. But here it hits you square in the face. We want both sides of Congress to see it and be embarrassed that we can't feed people. I have yet to hear a politician say they were pro-hunger.
Q. What can those who see the documentary do to encourage policy change?
Colicchio: They can go to takepart.com/table and find out more about how to promote legislation and encourage their officials to vote for such programs. There is another site called foodpolicyaction.org where you can sign up for alerts when food legislation is being considered in Congress and also see how your representative has voted in the past.
Q. What can the average person do to make sure that his or her own family is eating properly?
Colicchio: My family eats whole food, lots of vegetables. No fast food at all. See how many boxes and cans you have at home. If you don't have a lot, you are OK. Healthy means being stocked with fresh vegetables, meat and grains. Good whole food.
Q: What is your go-to healthy dinner?
Colicchio: Right now it's winter, so a lot of soup. Chicken soup. I give it an Italian twist with olive oil and finish it with Parmesan cheese.
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