You probably know chef Tom Colicchio from his 13-season stint as head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. Or maybe you’ve visited one of his many restaurants, including the iconic Craft or one of its many offshoots. But there’s another side emerging of this James Beard Award-winning powerhouse: a staunch advocate for healthier eating, healthier choices, and access to healthier foods for everyone.
In addition to his ongoing work with Food Policy Action, it was recently announced that Colicchio is working with John Hancock to help develop and promote their HealthyFood program, an expansion of John Hancock Vitality life insurance, which rewards policyholders with discounts and money back for making smarter choices on healthier foods at grocery stores. That’s just one more way he’s helping to promote good health outside the kitchen.
Cooking Light sat down with the chef last week to get his take on what we’re doing right—and what could use some attention—about the way America eats.
Cooking Light: How has healthy cooking evolved during your time in the kitchen?
Tom Colicchio: It’s actually changing right now, too. The idea of “healthy cooking” is starting to merge with the idea of cooking in general. It’s the focus on whole foods, and the trends toward healthy fats. Old rules like “don’t eat butter, eat margarine.” But there’s nothing wrong with butter. All of these things we thought were true are turning out not to be true. I really think if you want to eat healthy, just avoid packaged foods. It’s as simple as that. And it may take a little more time to shop and cook, but that’s really it.
CL: What’s the role of a chef in politics now that food and policy are even more interlinked?
TC: Food and policy has always been linked. I don’t think there’s necessarily a “role” for a chef. The work I do around policy has nothing to do with being a chef. Now I may have a soapbox because of being on TV, but I think that if you’re a chef you don’t necessarily have to be an advocate. I am because I’m a citizen and I care. It’s got nothing to do with being a chef. I don’t know if I didn’t have a TV show that gave me a platform that I would be as amplified as I am right now. I’d still do it, but I don’t know if I’d reach as many people. Food and policy have been linked together for a long, long time. The average person is just starting to realize that, and I get a lot of pushback. Detractors say “keep policy out of the kitchen,” but everything that’s in your kitchen is touched by policy.
CL: Speaking of pushback, in light of things what like Chef Jamie Oliver or Michelle Obama are doing, how do we move beyond that resistance?
TC: I hear it all the time, “stay out of food, stay out of politics.” That First Amendment is a real bitch, isn’t it? But I think that you can’t go down to Washington one time and think it’s going to change things. This is a 15-year span where you may see something. It’s not going to happen overnight. But you have to keep showing up. A couple of years back, Marion Nestle had an impromptu gathering to talk about policy. Right around that time, my wife was working on “A Place at the Table” and it was becoming apparent to us that hunger had more to do with bad policy than lack of food in this country.
There are some people who are doing it right: Michel Nischan, he got language into the farm bill. He’s done a great job, but I think that too often chefs are relegated to a grass roots role, but we need grass tops as well. We have attacked this from all sides–you go there and lobby around better nutrition in the school lunch program, but there’s no one doing it, just a few organizations. Big food doesn’t want to change those recipes. They’re fighting like crazy to keep ketchup as a vegetable, and salt and sugar in those lunches. I think the public—one of Food Policy Action’s missions—is that we want to get people to vote around the single issue. Just like people will around the Second Amendment and reproductive rights. I don’t think you’ll ever see food as high an issue as the economy, though it does play into the economy, but if you get people to talk about it and really care about it, it can get there.
CL: Why aren’t more people talking about food policy?
TC: There’s no pressure. We are pushing them to and it’s hard. The only person I’ve heard saying anything right now is Bernie Sanders saying we should label GMOs. Now, I’m not of the mindset that they [GMOs] are inherently dangerous—I think that some of the technology has created bad farming practices that can lead to unhealthy soil and possible bad health outcomes—but I still think they should be labeled. People have a right to know, so that if they feel like opting out, they should know. I actually think it hurts science not to label GMOs. Because some of the good that can come from the technology is getting mixed into the whole Monsanto controversies. There’s some great stuff that can come out of this. You get a lot of geneticists relying on funding that are freaking out that they’re not going to get funding. It could’ve been done discretely 20 years ago where you’d see a label on corn that simply said “GMO corn.” And that’s it. I think that was a big mistake. But I think if you want to get rid of antibiotics in the food system, this is something that has to happen in Congress. It’s not going to change solely from activism. Take the change you have in the social movement and it has to turn into a political movement.
CL: Tell me more about your work with John Hancock’s HealthyFood program.
TC: I was approached by John Hancock telling me I’d be a great fit for this program, and I said, “You’re right, I would be.” Basically what they’re doing is incentivizing healthy food. I’ve been waiting for this, the push to focus more on nutrition than curing disease. Currently we spent 200 billion dollars-plus a year on healthcare because of poor diet. And so when they told me about the program, incentivizing fruits and vegetables and giving money back to consumers, like a frequent flier program for healthy choices, I thought, “This is brilliant, sign me up!”
CL: OK, I’m a HUGE Top Chef fan, so I selfishly have to ask for a scoop on the next season.
TC: We start shooting season 14 in Charleston this spring. We’ve been trying to get down there the last three seasons, and it finally worked out. I’ve been pushing them to do Charleston and we finally got it. I’m psyched. I love Charleston, and I love the South.
CL: So what’s next for you? How about a run for office?
TC: I’ll never run for politics. It’s way too frustrating. This is about as close as I want to get to it. They say there’s two things you don’t want to see get made, sausage and laws. And now that I know how both are made, I’ll stick with sausage.