Tom Colicchio Hopes (and Fears) COVID-19 Will Change the Restaurant Industry - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Tom Colicchio
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The “Top Chef” head judge thinks COVID-19 will devastate the restaurant industry — but it may bring positive change too.

By Pallabi Munsi

New York food impresario Tom Colicchio got into all of our living rooms with his 17-season run as the head judge on Top Chef. But when the Emmy winner and New Jersey native sat down on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, it was a judgment-free zone. Below are excerpts from the discussion, where he got into the problems the real-life food industry faces when it comes to COVID-19, and how his dad connected him to cooking culture with one well-timed book.

‘I would have never thought I’d be on TV’

Carlos Watson: If I had met you [as a teenager], which would I have said: “Is Tom more likely to be a chef or TV star?” What was more likely? What would you have believed at 16, 17?

Tom Colicchio: In a million years, I would have never thought I’d be on TV. In fact, I was the kid who, if I got called up in front of the class, was not happy to publicly speak.

My first love, I wanted to be an oceanographer. I started fishing at a young age and just had a love for the ocean, but I couldn’t get into Biology II in high school, so that was the end of that career. But I started cooking when I was about 13 or 14, and by the time I was 15, my dad suggested that I may consider that as a career. My dad, he and I didn’t sit down and have those big, long talks that some dads do with their children, but it stuck with me, and I remembered him saying that. He actually reached out to a friend of his who had an air-conditioning and refrigeration business who had a few accounts with restaurants, and he got me an interview. I started working in restaurants, but in front of the house, when I was about 15. And then as soon as I graduated high school, I started working in the kitchen.

‘That, to me, just really unlocked the whole secret of cooking’

Watson: What was it about cooking that drew you in? I ask that with a certain level of personal interest because I was also the family cook growing up.

Colicchio: No. 1, food was always important. We had to be home for dinner every night. My mother always cooked. Sometimes my father cooked as well. She had her recipes that she could work through. I also noticed that on the sort of holidays and things like that, food was always really central. We cooked for days and got ready for those holidays. And even in the summer, we would go crabbing down in Barnegat Bay and often catch a bunch of crabs, and sometimes fish and some clams and stuff, and that summer meal around the table was pretty important because you’d bring family and friends around, and because it was crab, picking crab all night is a little laborious and lengthy. And I noticed that the talk would go from family gossip to sports and then politics, in that order. But I noticed how food kept people around that table.

Again, I didn’t think much of it as a 15-year-old, but I just had a love for food. And also, it came very easily to me. I’d watch my mother and go, “Oh, I think I can I do that.” And then, when I was about 15 or 16, my dad came home with a book by the chef Jacques Pépin. And it was a book called La Technique. And what really struck me is this wasn’t a book that had a lot of recipes. It was a book about technique, and he really drove home this idea that technique was more important than recipes.… Once I got to learn those techniques, I got to realize, I know how to do that. And so that, to me, just really unlocked the whole secret of cooking.

‘You have to lead by example’

Colicchio: I always grew up with strong women around me, and my relationships, I always had strong women and understood from their standpoint what … how they were often treated in the workplace. And in terms of race, I grew up in Elizabeth, where there were, I mean, Elizabeth is next door to Newark. During the riots in Newark that bled into Elizabeth, I remember having — I don’t want to sound like this — Black friends. But my friends who I hung out, who I played sports with and stuff, I was like, “What’s the problem here? I don’t understand it.” And so, at a young age, I was just confused about this whole race riot thing. As a kid trying to navigate that, I was like, “What the hell is going on here? Should I not like my friends because the color of their skin? I don’t get it.” I don’t want to say I was colorblind, because nobody’s colorblind. But … restaurants are typically where we’re hiring people who are new to the workforce, and sometimes recently incarcerated. Anthony Bourdain used to say, “It’s the last job before you go to the prison and the first job you get on the way out.”

So, if someone complains, you root that out. You don’t let that get swept under the rug. I don’t care who it is. I don’t care if it’s an executive chef. In fact, in one of my restaurants, an executive chef just did something that was completely out of line. He was gone the next day. You can’t let anyone protect that person. You can’t let someone talk you out of it. It has to be fast, it has to be decisive. You have to lead by example.

‘There are a lot of things that have been bubbling up to the surface’

Watson: What do you make of this COVID moment? Is it going to change the restaurant industry for the long term, or is it going to be a short-term challenge, but things will largely return to normal?

Colicchio: Yeah, there’s going to be some short-term and long-term impacts. Short term, obviously, we’re just trying to get through it. In fact, most of us won’t. Eighty-five percent of restaurants will probably close if we don’t get some help from the government. 

Watson: You really think that large a percentage would go under?

Colicchio: Absolutely, yeah. And so, short term, we’ve got to get through this, we’ve got to manage to stay open, we’ve got to manage to figure a way to get through this and get to the vaccine where people will feel comfortable coming out again. Before that, we’re dead in the water. Right now, people think like, “All right, I go past this place and all these seats are outside and people are hanging out.” Well, guess what? Fall is coming. It’s going to go inside, and right now, New York, we’re not dining inside. LA’s closed inside too. And so, it’s going to change quickly.

But short term, I think there are a lot of things that have been bubbling up to the surface on our industry that maybe can finally change. Issues around one wage, getting rid of the tip credit and paying waitstaff not sub-minimum-wage anymore, but with that comes tip sharing. Right now in New York that’s illegal, but I think One Fair Wage has been pushing that fight, and I think maybe now, maybe the industry will be more open to something like that. I think there’s a lot of talk about trying to figure out a way to make restaurants more equitable, meaning equitable among gender, among races, more equitable among workers that are there. Finding out ways to give cooks, like myself when I came up with that recipe, kind of credit somehow. I don’t know if it’s monetary credit or just credit. There’s so much that people are talking about.

And quite frankly, the leadership on a lot of that stuff I think is going to have to come from younger chefs, who are really hell-bent on changing the system, and my generation of chefs have to almost get out of the way a little bit and help them. I’m going to do what I can to change, to lobby and use my voice on behalf of some of these changes. But I also think it’s time to listen and hear what the younger generation, people who want to change things, how they want to change it. And instead of saying, “No, you can’t do that.” Say, ”All right. Let’s help you do that. Let’s make that happen. I can be a catalyst. I can help.”

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