“Guys, this isn’t a one-time deal. You have to keep coming back,” is the message Tom Colicchio said he gives to every chef who comes to Washington, D.C., with him — and it’s the message he follows.
Colicchio, 52, keeps a busy schedule. He’s the founder of Craft Restaurants and owns and operates restaurants from California and New York to Las Vegas and Miami. He’s a judge on Bravo’s "Top Chef," which will air its 13th season this fall, and he is becoming one of the most identifiable celebrity lobbyists on food and hunger issues. Colicchio made his first appearance on Capitol Hill in 2010, testifying before the House Education and Labor Committee to call for the reauthorization and expansion of the Child Nutrition Act.
“I find myself in the slightly surreal position of being able to comment on issues of importance to me and a public willing to listen,” he said. “There was a time that my job wasn’t public at all. The chef stayed in the kitchen. … Nobody really cared what we had to say; just cared what we did on our plates. Today, that’s changed a bit.”
Since 2010, he has worked to continue the trend of chef activism in Washington. In the past few months, he and more than 20 chefs have presented a petition to Congress signed by more than 700 of their colleagues in support of genetically modified organism-labeling legislation. He also was Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree’s guest at the 2015 State of the Union address, and he joined Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., as they reintroduced the GMO-labeling legislation Colicchio had petitioned for.
“I always thought that, well, charity could take care of the problem and we’re OK,” he said of why he began lobbying. “But, again, look at the farm bill. If you cut $8.9 billion out of the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] program, all the charity in the world cannot make up for that.”
Colicchio will admit his celebrity helps open doors, but those who know him say his powerful understanding of the issues and his articulate presentation lends him a credibility that some celebrities aren’t afforded on the Hill. He continuously works to educate himself on the food issues he is most passionate about; that includes understanding both sides of the argument as he frequently engages with those holding differing opinions.
“He is smart about these things and he goes beyond the ‘Hey, hip consumers want to buy local food in high-end New York restaurants,’” Pingree, a restrauteur herself , told CQ Roll Call. “I mean, he is in there talking about why he thinks SNAP benefits matter and why he thinks, as a person whose career is centered on food, it’s unthinkable that we would have hungry children in our country.”
For the Capitol Hill crowd, one of his most endearing qualities is that he keeps returning.
“I didn’t want to be, and I hate using the word, [a] 'celebrity' that goes down there once, photo op and then I go back,” he said. “I don’t think you’re taken seriously if you do that. I am under no illusion that one trip down there is going to change anything.”
Colicchio, along with other chefs who come to D.C. to lobby, bring a sense of legitimacy to their issue advocacy that not all outside organizations carry. While their policy issues might be considered progressive, as chefs — and business owners — they are able to approach them from a unique angle that isn’t necessarily intimidating or partisan.
“I can’t quite explain it, but I have seen it happen,” Pingree said of chefs' celebrity on the Hill. “Maybe it’s just as simple as Democrats and Republicans like going to tasty, popular restaurants where the food is great, so it’s exciting to them.”
For as much as Colicchio enjoys his lobbying efforts, he has no interest in writing policy nor, he emphatically added, is he interested in running for Congress. He views his involvement in food and hunger policy more from a grass-roots level. This led to the creation of Food Policy Action, a Washington-based organization that grades members of Congress based on their votes that have an effect on food and farming.
As a co-founder and a board member of the organization, Colicchio started Food Policy Action in hope of creating a political movement around food, which can span many issues: food production, labor, the environment and alleviating hunger. He hopes the organization can help mobilize voters to cast ballots based off of a politician’s food policy record, similar to those who vote around the Second Amendment or reproductive rights. It’s just one of his ways of approaching food policy.
“He’s got this star power matched with an exceptional understanding of the issues and an exceptional ability to communicate what he knows,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group and chairman of Food Policy Action.
Colicchio has also been the executive producer of a documentary (co-directed by his wife Lori Silverbush) about food insecurity in the United States, "A Place at the Table ," that has served as a calling card for his advocacy.
For as much praise as Colicchio gets in Washington, D.C., he has no plans on abandoning his restaurant career or cutting out TV to advocate for food policy full time. But he does make it clear that short of hiring lobbyists, the one thing people can do to effect change is show up and create a discussion. That’s what he plans to keep doing. While he might not see an end game in the nation's capital, saying the issues and policies can change every day, he isn’t discouraged quite yet.
“No one is paying me to do this, no one pays my expense,” he said. “I am doing this because I care; because I think that citizens should be more engaged.”
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