Hi! The Internet Food Association (several of us, anyway) are reporting live from the Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival. Tom, Spencer, Ficke, Emily, Mandy, and Kriston are working from the AC/DC newsroom on the 34th floor of the Waterfront Tower at Harrah’s Casino. It’s lovely, y’all. Plus, so far only two of us have lost money! All of us just returned from the poolside, dome-enclosed Food & Wine Spectacular, where Spencer and Kriston caught up with Tom Colicchio.
Top Chef‘s affable host shares something in common with the IFA: He is eager to talk about policy. Though he was on hand to talk about Craft, the show, and his celebrity, he spoke to the IFA about a documentary that he and his wife (documentary filmmaker Lori Silverbush) are making about hunger in America. The film — preliminarily titled Hungry in America, appropriately enough — is only in the fundraising stage at this point, but he says he’s collaborating with fellow concerned chef Mario Batali and others on the film, which he hopes to wrap next year.
“The face of hunger is families. It’s not about the kid in Africa with flies swarming over his face,” Colicchio explained. “It’s homebound elderly, it’s military families, it’s people who have to make a decision between medication or buying food.”
Set against a two-level showcase of small plates and wines representing fare from Atlantic City hotel kitchens, the Elizabeth, NJ chef waved away an impatient publicist to continue talking about the institutional impediments to basic nutrition that keep 38 million Americans — and 13 million children — hungry. Farm subsidies are a particular target. “You’re taking acres and acres of land that could be used for food production and turning it to gas production,” Colicchio noted. “And it costs more gas to grow ethanol than the ethanol you actually get out of it. It’s crazy. And this is all about farm subsidies, and it’s all about senators protecting their constituencies.”
Some celebrity chefs have faced vague, class-based criticism after weighing in on policy questions. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse might be the most pronounced recent example: after urging an overhaul of the National School Lunch Program earlier this year, Waters has been accused of a commendable but impractical idealism. Nonetheless, Colicchio finds her example instructive. “You know what? I think you have to be that radical to get things going,” he said. “So even if a third of what she’s asking for starts happening, that’s better than where we are now.”
Colicchio’s passion about hunger might be hereditary. While he made his name at high-end New York restaurants like the Gotham Bar & Grill and his mid-90s venture Gramercy Tavern — and Craft might well be recession-proof — his childhood in Elizabeth, one of New Jersey’s perennially underserved urban centers, provided something like the opposite of a white-tablecloth perspective. “My mother ran a cafeteria in New Jersey,” Colicchio said. He and his brother were unable to convince her to retire, long after their success made it unnecessary for her to continue working. “She said, ‘You know what? I know that these kids who are coming in, I know that the breakfast we’re doing and the lunch that we’re doing, this could be the only meal that they’re getting all day long.'”