Chef Tom Colicchio is one of the many restaurateurs wondering what will be left of the industry after the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course.
Colicchio, who serves as head judge on the Bravo series Top Chef, laid off more than 400 staff members in the past few months. His five restaurants in New York and Los Angeles have been shuttered since March 14, and the two restaurants he's associated with in Las Vegas have closed as well. He says he's focused less on a timeline for reopening and more on what the "new normal" might look like while the country waits for a vaccine.
"There's going to be a reduction in our seating. ... The bartender is going to have a face mask on and the server's going to have a face mask on," he says. "Sitting down after you finish your meal, everything's going to have to be disinfected."
Colicchio is a longtime activist on issues related to the food supply chain, restaurants and hunger relief. He notes that most restaurants run on low margins and without large cash reserves. In response to the pandemic, he helped form the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby Congress for relief for the industry.
The coalition is "asking for a restaurant stabilization package," he says. "We are looking for income replacement that will go to cover employees, or pay suppliers, and sustain us through the losses that we're going to incur for the next at least eight months to a year."
Colicchio says restaurants are "cultural centers" that provide a semblance of normalcy and connection in trying times. He's particularly concerned about the smaller "mom and pop" establishments.
"We actually need to make sure those places that make us feel connected and part of a community are there for the long haul," he says. "We're really looking at saving every restaurant, because we think that every restaurant needs to be there."
On how disrupted supply chains have resulted in large-scale food waste
Certain producers and certain distributors are set up to do certain things. So if you have a milk distributor that is set up to purchase milk from a dairy farm, and they are producing milk for, say, institutions — meaning college campuses and hotels — maybe they produce milk in a 5-gallon container that has a plastic bladder in it and it's set up to put in a dispenser. Those are all closed when schools closed and college campuses closed and hotels all closed down. Now, you have this distributor set up to do that. They can't turn on a dime and all of a sudden start putting milk into gallon and half-gallon containers. There's different labeling involved there. It's a different production line. So those dairy farmers that were selling into that market, they don't have a market anymore, and so they have to throw out their milk. It's not even a matter of taking it and shipping it to a different producer, because those other producers, they're at capacity. ...
Eggs, for instance. We're hearing stories about eggs that are just being cracked and thrown out. Again, there is a market and production in place that a lot of institutional feedings use — hospitals and schools and colleges and larger restaurant operations and hotel operations — that buy eggs already cracked, pasteurized in a gallon container. Well, that business is gone. So these eggs, there's nowhere for them to go. It's not a simple sort of thing to just change that production on a dime.
On how the closure of slaughterhouses has had an impact on farmers
If you are a farmer and you're growing a pig, [you] want that pig to be 200 pounds because that's the way [your] production line can accommodate that pig and with various cuts that are a certain size. Now, all of a sudden that pig, it's 200 pounds and those slaughterhouses are closed. That pig has nowhere to go. And these farmers aren't manufacturers. They don't slaughter these animals. They just grow them and they put [them] on a truck and they bring them to the slaughterhouse. Now, all of a sudden that slaughterhouse is closed. What do they do with that animal? If they continue to feed it, it just gets too big — especially once it hits 200 pounds. It starts growing very quickly. No. 2, they're feeding this animal and there's nowhere to go. So there's a cost that they are incurring. They know they're not going to have a market for it. So they're killing these animals. Hopefully they're killing them as humanely as possible.
On food being wasted, despite the record number of people who are relying on food stamps and food banks
There should have been a way to move food around the country. There should be a plan for this. And see, this is the problem when you decide that you want to shrink government down, to the size that you could "drown it in a bathtub" — that's the old Grover Norquist line. All these years, we keep getting spoon-fed that big government's bad and we don't want big government; it's too intrusive and it gets in the way of our freedoms. But we don't want big government, we want smart government. Smart government that has plans in place when something like this happens. They know what to do. They don't deny it's happening. They don't sit there and pretend that somehow it's all going to go away. No, you have a plan to act. And so this is what we need to do.
Now, my understanding is, there's a couple of bills right now that are moving through Congress that are getting support on both sides to actually start moving this food and somehow getting it to where it needs to go. Because ... there's a huge demand. I mean, prior to COVID, we had about 38 million Americans using SNAP, or food stamps. ... so we have a major, major problem right now. We have enough food in this country. We produce enough food in this country. We need a plan to divert that food, get it to where it needs [to go].
On his plan to fix the distribution model and help restaurants, suppliers and people in need
If somebody asked me, I could have a plan together in 10 minutes. So, for instance, what I would have said is, OK, restaurant, I'm going to give you 75% of your revenue that you did last year. We'll break it down per month, and I'm going to give you that money and you're going to hire your staff back, and you're going to pay your suppliers and you're going to continue to produce food — not your menu, but produce food, because that's a whole distribution model now that we can tap into. We're going to continue to produce food, and you're going to create menus that are less expensive [so] that you can actually turn your restaurants into community feeding centers. Because restaurants process food. So if I get a whole case of chickens and my butchers break them down, we cut them into portions. We could cook them. We can prepare them. We can get them to the food pantries and food distribution [sites].
We had a distribution set up. No one tapped into it. So instead of trying to actually create something new, you just kind of have to go with what you have. What we didn't have was the money flowing through the restaurants to do that. This is a pretty simple solution. And it works because you don't have to go around the system or create something new. You work within the system.
Could you imagine, if every restaurant was turned into a community feeding center where we don't have to do thousands of meals, every restaurant could do 200, 300, and then there's no choke point? It happens seamlessly, and that whole ecosystem of the restaurant — the employees, the suppliers — all of it stays intact. That would've been the best way to do it, and [to] feed a lot of hungry people at the same time.
On how he believes the government can do better
What's frustrating is hearing, "No one knew. No one knew this was going to happen." Yeah, plenty of people knew this was going to happen. Bill Gates talked about it two years ago in a documentary that was made. People have known this. I'm angry because ... this would protect restaurants, suppliers, employees. You know what it protects? It protects the country, and this is the kind of thing our government is supposed to do.
For too long, we've spent a lot of money on the military because the military was supposed to protect the country. The military can't protect against something like this. So we need to be smarter. We need it to say, you know what? There are things out there that are greater than a missile attack from another country. And we need to actually rethink the way America protects its citizenry, looking at a safety net that protects more people. ... We have to start thinking ahead. What does the new normal look like? What are the great ideas out there that can actually move this country forward? We have an opportunity now. And so we have to start thinking about, how do we envision, how do we protect our food supply, how to make it more resistant to what is going to happen again?
Lauren Krenzel and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, the celebrated chef Tom Colicchio, is one of the many chefs wondering if their restaurants will survive the COVID-19 pandemic. He's owned and run restaurants across the country for over 20 years. On March 14, because of the pandemic, he had to close the five restaurants he now has in New York and Los Angeles. The two he is associated with Vegas have closed as well. He had to lay off over 400 members of his staff. He's also a longtime activist on issues related to the food chain, restaurants and hunger. In response to the pandemic, he helped form the Independent Restaurant Coalition to lobby Congress for relief for the restaurant industry, which he fears will be decimated by the pandemic.
Colicchio has won multiple James Beard Awards. He's also the head judge for "Top Chef," the cooking competition show that brings talented chefs together from around the country to compete in cooking challenges. Season 17 is now airing on Bravo. It was shot before the pandemic in LA, highlighting the city's restaurants, markets, chefs and local cuisine. The competing chefs are given assignments, often using unusual combinations of ingredients, unlikely tools - like a machete - and sometimes in challenging locations outside of the kitchen.
Tom Colicchio, welcome to FRESH AIR. I hope you and your family have been well. How are you?
TOM COLICCHIO: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me. We're doing OK. You know, we live in Brooklyn. And a couple weeks ago - maybe almost a month ago now - we moved out. So we have a little farmhouse out in Long Island, so we moved out here. It's just A little quieter, easier to shop. The boys have a little more room to run around. But for the most part, I guess we're in much better shape than some. And - but yeah, we're getting through it.
COLICCHIO: I guess it also helps that I can cook.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Come to my house.
GROSS: Do you know if you'll be able to open your restaurants?
COLICCHIO: We're trying to figure that out. In fact, you know, we're having calls with my staff right now, and we're trying to figure out the best way to go about it. You know, when we open up, there's going to be a reduction in our seating. So we're looking at a combination of probably three things to open up. And one would be whatever a la carte business is available, also to do a combination of cooked food that we'll deliver and also a version of a CSA where we can use all of our suppliers to create boxes that can go out to our customers as well so we can put together some of our farmers, our fishermen, our - you know, people that produce chicken for us or pork and just create boxes where there'll be some prep done but you'll still have to cook at home.
GROSS: I see. So you're basically talking about changing the nature of your business.
COLICCHIO: Absolutely. At least for the next year until there's a vaccine, we're going to have to. You know, we're looking at a possibility of maybe 30% of our original business. So we're looking at opening up into a really depressed market. And so we have to figure out how to, you know, increase our revenue streams as much as possible.
GROSS: You seemed kind of down on the idea a little earlier in the epidemic of restaurants doing delivery and takeout. I think you said it was putting employees at risk without really raising enough money to be that helpful for the restaurants who were doing it. Have you changed your mind about that, or are you just thinking of a different time period so the whole game will be changed then?
COLICCHIO: Right. Early on, when we were in the midst of New York just getting completely overwhelmed - I have a friend of mine who's - two friends of mine by the way, who are ER doctors - and just, you know, hearing from them from time to time, they were in a war. And you know, you listen to the scientists, and they were, you know, telling everyone - if you possibly can, stay home; stay home.
And so for me, I - and this is me personally. And you know, every restaurant sort of, they have to make their own decision based on the situation they're in. But for me, it was, I think, a better choice to keep my employees home. Unemployment had kicked in. The federal plus-up on unemployment has kicked in. And so for me, the calculation was I want people to stay home. I want them to stay home with their families. Kids didn't have a school to go to, so daycare wasn't arranged for. And so I just thought it was a safer option, especially when the overwhelming majority of my employees come in on public transportation. And so to ask them to do that and put themselves and their families in jeopardy, I didn't think was a good idea.
Now I think the numbers are starting to come down. I think in a few more weeks, they'll continue to come down. And then I think it may be safer to make a different decision. But again, this - everything changes day by day, week by week. And I imagine a week by now, I'll probably feel a little more comfortable asking my staff to come in.
GROSS: Your restaurants are pretty high end, and you're talking about changing them into places that put together the food. And - so you'd either get it cooked or maybe you'd get the ingredients with directions on how to cook it yourself. But what about restaurants - 'cause I know you're so familiar with the restaurant industry - what about restaurants who are lower priced, more - you know, like, medium priced or, you know, diners and delis and places like that. How do you see that part of the restaurant industry changing in the next year or two?
COLICCHIO: Well, a lot of those small restaurants have already been doing takeout. There's been a trend over the last couple of years to incorporate some sort of home delivery or takeout into even medium-sized restaurants, either through some of the apps that are out there - you know, the Seamless and the DoorDashes of the world. So there has been a move to doing that already because the competition has become so, so stiff that you're looking for any way that you can to increase revenue. Some of the problem with those delivery services is that they charge you 30% and our margins are already slim enough. And so you're hoping to make...
GROSS: Wait, wait - when you say they charge you, do you mean, like, you the restaurant or me the consumer?
COLICCHIO: No, me the restaurant. They charge us 30% for the privilege of delivering our food. And obviously, they're using their technology. But you know, during that time, they're capturing a lot of data. So yeah, it's 30%. And our margins aren't that great. And so when you factor that in - you know, you hope to make it up on volume. But I don't know if the volume is going to be enough.
And so you know, everyone's going to have to sort of figure it out. But I think that all businesses are going to have to sort of modify what they do at least for the next year or so until we have a vaccine - because the question really isn't, when can a restaurant open up? In New York, I think the guidance now - I think it's around July 15. I think restaurants are in the third sort of go-round in terms of what opens up. But that's not the question. The question isn't when I can open. The question is when the public feels comfortable walking into a restaurant where the bartender is going to have a face mask on and the server's going to have a face mask on. And there's so many touch points. Even opening the door, someone's going to have to come behind it and disinfect it. Sitting down - after you're - you know, you've finished your meal, everything's going to have to be disinfected. I mean, the smell of disinfectant in a restaurant when you're trying to eat a meal - I just don't know if people are going to feel comfortable doing that.
And I suspect that, you know, maybe for the first couple weeks just people will feel some sort of solidarity and they want to get out there and help. But I think they're going to grow tired of it. And then, you know, what happens if you're in a restaurant and even if it's semi-crowded someone coughs - do you empty out the restaurant? If a worker comes down with COVID, do you have to stop serving? And so there's too many questions, and I think that the expense of doing sort of distance eating, I think, will be again another layer of expense that restaurants are not going to able to cope with.
And my biggest fear is that, yes, we get opened. And what happens two months, three months into this? Is that when the restaurants are going to start to close? And so I think there are so many questions that need to be answered right now. And I don't think anyone really has the answer.
GROSS: Restaurants, like theaters, are hit in a pretty unique way 'cause you need people to show up. Like, your customers have to be there in a crowded space. And I know you're part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition that's lobbying for relief for the restaurant industry, with an emphasis on independent restaurants as opposed to franchises. What are some of the unique situations that you think your end of the restaurant industry is in, you know, the independent restaurants?
COLICCHIO: Well, like most restaurants, our margins are pretty low, and in fact, over the last couple of years, they've become tighter and tighter as rents have gone up and labor has gotten tighter. And, you know, we're not able to raise prices. There's just no elasticity left in the marketplace. And so restaurants don't have large cash reserves. In fact, most restaurants - you know, when we - if we were open today, the revenue that we're taking in today goes to pay for expenses that we incurred, you know, 30 to 45 days ago. And so when that cash flow stops, we're at a loss.
Again, we have maybe 15 days of reserve if you're factoring in payroll and payables and rent, insurance payments. And so we just don't have the wherewithal to get through this. And so we need something that's going to get us open and sustain us for at least the next six months to a year. And that's why the Independent Restaurant Coalition is asking for a restaurant stabilization package.
We are looking for, you know, income replacement that will go to, again, cover employees, pay suppliers and sustain us through the losses that we're going to incur for the next, you know, at least eight months to a year. Or else what's going to happen - again, what's going to happen is what I mentioned earlier; restaurants will get open, and then we will run out of money, and we will close, and everyone we hire back will be on unemployment again.
GROSS: I'm somebody who used to, back in the olden days (laughter) - used to eat out a lot. You know, I would do the show and get all my work done, and it was really nice to just, like, sit down for a little while and talk to my husband without having to, like, prepare food or wash dishes or anything like that. And it was just, like, the most relaxing part of the day. And, you know, we'd go to cheap places. It was, in that sense, you know, manageable and affordable, quick, efficient.
And I'm sure a lot of people like me just really miss the opportunity to have - I mean, none of us have the lives we used to right now, anyways. So I'm thinking about, you know, restaurants as something that we're going to really miss, socially, for a while to come if restaurants can't open.
COLICCHIO: Yeah, there's a few things there that you mentioned and let me try to unpack it. One, you mentioned that you and your husband would go to less expensive neighborhood restaurants, and the Independent Restaurant Coalition, that's who we're fighting for.
Listen - I may have an easier time of getting open, you know, than some others, but, you know, we're really concerned - we're concerned that mom and pop that have one restaurant, the recent immigrant that's just been naturalized that pulled all of their money and, you know, mom and dad are both working in that restaurant and maybe some of the kids are, and this is a lifelong passion of theirs - and these are the restaurants that we also, you know, need - believe need to be saved - not, you know, white tablecloth restaurants like ours. Although, you know, I have, really, five restaurants.
But we're really looking at saving every restaurant because we think that every restaurant needs to be there for exactly what you talked about. When we return, you know, to any sort of normalcy, we need restaurants and those public institutions and, you know, those cultural centers that we go to to make ourselves feel good. That's what makes us feel normal and connected, and we need that there when we get through this.
Listen - we have to deal with the financial issue. We have to deal with the health issues, financial issues around this. But at the end of this, we actually need to make sure those places that make us feel connected and part of a community are there for the long haul.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is chef and restauranteur Tom Colicchio, who's also the head judge on "Top Chef," the cooking competition series, and Season 17 of "Top Chef" is now underway on Bravo. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is chef and restaurant owner Tom Colicchio. He's the head judge on "Top Chef," the cooking competition series that's now underway on Bravo with Season 17. He's closed all of his restaurants because of the pandemic. He is also a food activist. He's on the leadership team of the newly created Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying Congress for relief for the restaurant industry, which he fears will be decimated by the pandemic.
Let's talk about the food chain a little bit. You know, the food chain is probably very confused right now. So much food went to restaurants because that's where so many of us ate. But now those restaurants are closed. Is that food getting diverted to supermarkets and small markets or - what is happening with it?
COLICCHIO: No, these are all great questions - and, in most cases, not. And there's a lot of disruptions right now happening across the supply chain. There are large issues right now, especially with meat producers and meat distributors. We've seen Tyson close plants and Smithfield close plants because workers weren't protected. A lot of the workers got sick. I mean, in one plant alone in South Dakota, Smithfield - 3,600 employees - over a thousand got sick, and they had to shut the plant down. I believe that plant actually produced 5% of this country's pork.
And so, you know, what we have here on a large scale - there's two different ways to look at it. On a large scale, we have corporate concentration that is - quite frankly, these companies are monopolies at this point, and they have taken a distribution model and have kind of, you know, stacked it up and concentrated it in certain areas. And so our food system is not resilient. Instead of actually spreading that out and having much more, you know, smaller regional producers, we've relied and allowed these companies to buy up the smaller companies and just become really, really big. And so that's one problem on a large scale. So, I mean, there were estimates that 90% of the meat production could be jeopardized. So you have that.
And also, you have - the problem with producers - certain producers and certain distributors are set up to do certain things. And so if you have a milk distributor that is set up to, you know, purchase milk from a dairy farm and they are producing milk for, say, institutions, meaning college campuses and hotels - I mean, maybe they produce milk in a 5 gallon container that is - you know, has a plastic bladder in it, and it's set up to put in a dispenser - those all close.
When schools closed and college campuses closed and hotels all closed down - now you have this distributor set up to do that - they can't turn on a dime and all of a sudden start putting milk into gallon and half-gallon containers. There's different labeling involved there. It's a different production line. And so those dairy farmers that were selling into that market, they don't have a market anymore. And so they have to throw out their milk. They can't - it's not even a matter of taking it and shipping it to a different producer because those other producers, they're at capacity.
Same thing that's going on in the meat industry. If you are a farmer and you're growing a pig, well, they want that pig to be 200 pounds because that's the way their production line can accommodate that pig and those various cuts that are a certain size. Now all of a sudden, that pig hits 200 pounds and those slaughterhouse are closed? That pig has nowhere to go. And these farmers aren't, you know, manufacturers. They don't slaughter these animals. They just grow them, and they put them on a truck, and they bring them to the slaughterhouse. Now all of a sudden, that slaughterhouse is closed. What do they do with that animal? If they continue to feed it, it just gets too big, especially - once it hits 200 pounds, it starts growing very quickly.
No. 2 - they're feeding this animal, and they're feeding this animal, and it has nowhere to go. So there's a cost that they are incurring. They know they're not going to have a market for it, so they're killing these animals. Hopefully, they're killing them as humanely as possible. But it's not a simple sort of thing to just change that production on a dime. And so that's the large producers.
GROSS: Let me just interrupt here. I'm just finding it very upsetting (laughter) hearing all of this because there's people going hungry. There's people who don't have food because they don't have any money to buy it because they've lost their income. There's also people who don't have access to food because their supermarket has run out of what they need.
So to hear this recitation of all of the food that is being, you know, dumped and all the hogs that are just getting euthanized but not used as the food they were intended for and dying a kind of pointless death, it's all very disturbing. And it leads me to think, like, surely - maybe not with the hogs - but surely with, like, milk that's in the wrong, you know, too big of a container, there must be a way of getting that to the people who really need it because, I mean, there's all these food banks now.
COLICCHIO: This is a whole distribution problem. Now, here's the big issue, I think. Government should have had a plan ready to go, where it's a playbook. They know what to do. They dust it off during a pandemic, and they can figure out a way to move food around. There should have been a way to move food around the country. There should have been a plan for this.
And see - this is the problem when you decide that you want to shrink government down to the size that you could, you know, drown it in a bathtub - that's the old Grover Norquist line. And so, you know, all these years, we keep getting spoon-fed that big government's bad and we don't want big government; it's too intrusive, and it gets in the way of our freedoms. But, you know, we don't want big government; we want smart government, smart government that has plans in place. When something like this happens, they know what to do. They don't deny it's happening. They don't sit there and pretend that there's going to - you know, somehow just - it's all going to go away. No, you have a plan to act. And so this is what we need to do.
Now, my understanding - there's a couple of bills right now that are moving through Congress that are getting support on both sides to actually start moving this food and somehow getting it to where it needs to go because you're right; there's a huge demand. I mean, prior to COVID, we had about 38 million Americans using SNAP or food stamps. Numbers that I'm hearing out of states like Maryland, they're seeing a 71% increase in applications. So if you extrapolate that out throughout the country, we're talking about another 25 million people that will need assistance, plus the amount of people that are going to food banks, that aren't on food stamps or on SNAP.
And so we have a major, major problem right now. We have enough food in this country. We produce enough food in this country. We need a plan to divert that food, get it to where it needs. But this takes planning. This takes an actual understanding of a problem. And unfortunately, right now I don't think we have the kind of smart government that can actually turn on a dime and put this - something like this in place, at least quickly enough. And so yeah, we could do better here, but you have to acknowledge the problem first.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is chef, restauranteur and food activist Tom Colicchio. He's also the head judge on the cooking competition series "Top Chef." Season 17 is now underway on Bravo. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINO OLIVIERO, RIZIERO ORTOLANI, ENRICO RAVA AND GIOVANNI TOMMASO'S "TI GUARDERO' NEL CURORE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with James Beard Award-winning chef Tom Colicchio, who is also a restaurateur with five restaurants in New York and LA and two that he's associated with in Las Vegas. They're all closed now because of the pandemic. Colicchio is the head judge on "Top Chef," the cooking competition series, which is now on Bravo in its 17th season. He's also a food activist and is on the leadership team of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying Congress for relief for the restaurant industry, which, he fears, will be decimated by the pandemic.
So one thing the government is doing now, the Trump administration has ordered meat processing facilities to stay open because, as you mentioned, several have had to close because of outbreaks of COVID-19. What do you think of that order?
COLICCHIO: Well, listen; I think it's hollow because you're telling them that they have to stay open, but there's still no protection for the workers. So the workers are, you know, they're innocent. We're talking about a $10-an-hour to a $13-an-hour worker who is thinking, like, well, if I don't come to work, I'm going to get laid off. And, you know, I have to feed my family. So they're forced to go in. But they go there and there's no protection. There's no mask. There's no gloves. There's no, again, separation of, you know - these production lines, you're shoulder-to-shoulder with people.
And so again, I think these slaughterhouses and these meat production plants, if they had decided that there's going to be a problem, we actually need to start, you know, a little bit of social distancing at work here - we need to slow the production lines down, OK? We don't - the demand's going to drop anyway. And maybe if we have 3,000 employees in a plant, we bring in, you know, a third of that workforce for two weeks straight. And then we give them a month off. And we pay them during this time. We give them a month off. And then we cycle in the next crew.
This way, at least we know who's sick, when to isolate them. They could actually spend time home if they're sick. And they're not forced to come to work. And so people are showing up sick. And there's just no - and so yeah, the president could say, hey, you open again. Workers aren't getting protected. And any protections at all are just a suggestion of what needs to be done. And so that's not helpful. People are going to get sick. And you're going to continue to see outbreaks.
GROSS: You really think that there could be a government plan to fix the supply chain during the pandemic so that food intended to be delivered in bulk to restaurants and schools and institutions of various sorts could be, you know, repackaged in a way so that it could go to supermarkets and be used by consumers who are eating at home instead of in school or in restaurants or wherever. But we don't have anything like that now. But you think there could be a plan like that if government had the will.
COLICCHIO: Sure. If somebody asked me, I could've had a plan together in 10 minutes. So for instance, what I would've said is, OK, restaurant. I'm going to give you 75% of your revenue that you did last year. And we'll break it down per month. And I'm going to give you that money. And you're going to hire your staff back, OK? And you're going to pay your suppliers. And you're going to continue to produce food, not your menu, but produce food, because that's a whole distribution model now that we can tap into.
We're going to continue to produce food. And you're going to create menus that are, you know, less expensive, that you can actually turn your restaurants into community feeding centers. You can actually - because restaurants process food. So if I get a whole case of chickens in, my butchers break them down. We cut them into portions. We could cook them. We can prepare them. We can get them to the food pantries and food distribution. We had a distribution set up. No one tapped into it. So instead of trying to actually create something new, you just kind of have to go with what you have. What we didn't have was the money flowing through the restaurants to do that.
This is a pretty simple solution. And it works because you don't have to go around the system or create something new. You work within the system. And so could you imagine if every restaurant was turned into a community where - a community feeding center where - you don't have to do thousands of meals. Every restaurant could do 200, 300. And then there's no chokepoint. It happens seamlessly. And that whole ecosystem of the restaurant - the employees, the suppliers - all of it stays intact. That would've been the best way to do it and feed a lot of hungry people at the same time.
GROSS: And how would you envision paying for that?
COLICCHIO: The government would have to pay for that, you know? They're paying unemployment anyway. So the funds are just going to flow through. There's additional money for food. It's what they do when there's a disaster. FEMA comes in. They find someone who can help feed people. They pay them X amount of dollars for - per meal. And they do that.
Now, this is a much larger scale. But, you know, we're doing this anyway. And then on top of that, if someone had told me to do that and they're going - and the rent's going to get paid and I'm producing food, my team is working, I could do that for the next year. I don't have to worry about closing my restaurant either because for the next year, I have a mission and that is to feed people who need it.
GROSS: I am hearing anger in your voice. And I'm wondering how you're dealing with the anger of believing that there is a plan that would benefit you and your team, your employees and the people who would be eating the food, and the farmers and the people producing the chickens and all that? You believe that there's a plan that would work, that would benefit everybody and it's not happening. So I ask again, how are you dealing with your anger and frustration?
COLICCHIO: I'm frustrated. I'm frustrated only because - what's frustrating is hearing, no one knew. No one knew this was going to happen. Yeah, plenty of people knew this was going to happen. Bill Gates talked about it two years ago on a documentary that was made. People have known this. And so again, I'm angry because you're right. This would protect restaurants, suppliers, employees. You know what it protects? It protects the country. And this is the kind of thing our government is supposed to do.
So for too long, we've spent a lot of money on the military because the military was supposed to protect the country. The military can't protect against something like this. So we need to be smarter. We need to say, you know what? There are things out there that are greater than a missile attack from another country. And we need to actually rethink the way America protects its citizenry - you know, looking at a safety net that protects more people, looking at why - you know, here's the thing, Terry. You know, again, I'd mentioned earlier that 36 million people were on food stamps or SNAP before the pandemic. And now we're looking at 25, 30, another 40 million people - however many it's going to be.
And so what do we aspire to after this, going back to 36 million? That's not good enough. And so we have to start thinking ahead. What does the new normal look like? What are the great ideas out there that can actually move this country forward? We have an opportunity now. And so we have to start thinking about, how do we envision - how do we protect our food supply, how to make it more resistant to what is going to happen again? How do we create a plan where, instantly, you know, we can take care of this? - because the same thing could be done for climate change disasters, too. If there's a major storm that goes through, the government could very quickly get money going through restaurants. I mean, this is - Jose Andres has been saying this for a while. This is kind of, you know, the model that he's been talking about as well. And so how do you just flip a switch and go, OK, restaurants now, you know how to feed people; here's the money, go and do it? We can get this done.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is chef and restaurant owner Tom Colicchio, who's the head judge on "Top Chef," the cooking competition series. And Season 17 of "Top Chef" is now underway on Bravo. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with chef and restaurant owner Tom Colicchio. He's the head judge on the cooking competition series "Top Chef." Season 17 is underway now on Bravo. He's closed all of his restaurants because of the pandemic. He's also a food activist. He's on the leadership team of the newly created Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying Congress for relief for the restaurant industry.
How old were you when you started cooking? Did you ever, like, cook at diners and do, like, short-order cook kind of stuff? And if so, did you learn interesting things from that?
COLICCHIO: Absolutely. So one of the first jobs I had, I think I was about 15. My parents belonged to an Italian American swim club, OK? So it wasn't some country club. We - it's not how I grew up. But it was an Italian American swim club in Clark, N.J., called The Gran Centurions. And there was a snack bar there. And, you know, the guy who ran the concession hired me to, you know, scoop ice cream and work the cash register for the summer. And within a week, I was cooking. And he was paying me - I think it was like $275 a week under the table. As a 15-year-old kid, I was making so much money. It was the best job I ever had. I worked in a pair of cut-offs, sometimes a shirt, almost never shoes. And I was, you know, making grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers and steak sandwiches. And, you know, occasionally, I'd put a special of, like, spareribs on. And it was great.
And what I learned - yes, I learned a lot. I learned how to actually use heat. I learned how to sit in front of a grill and a stove and cook things, and knew how to, you know, move pots and pans around. And I learned how to be a short-order cook. And to this day, it still serves me well. I can get on a line and mix it up, and I'm fast and organized. And that's what it taught me at the age of 15.
GROSS: I don't know how old you are now, and you don't have to tell me. But compare how you handle your eating now and your drinking to when you were a young chef.
COLICCHIO: I'm 57. I have no problem with telling people how old I am. It's - you can figure it out if you want. And around eight years ago - and I've always been someone who can - I can hide my weight pretty well. But I was up to about 220 pounds. And I'm 5'8 1/2" - 5'9" on my best day. And I just started feeling sluggish. And I also had, you know, two little kids at that time. And one summer, I did two things. I stopped drinking diet soda, and I started gardening. And I would wake up 6 in the morning and spend two hours in the garden. And a lot of it is lugging things around and bending over a lot. I lost close to 35 pounds that summer without dieting, without trying to lose weight. And keeping that up, especially when you get older, it's hard to keep the weight off. And so for me, it's, you know, reminding myself to exercise, definitely being much more careful with what I'm eating, how I'm eating, definitely drinking a lot less. But, yeah, I mean, if I can talk to my, you know, 26-year-old self, I would definitely say, cut out a lot of vices that you had back then because you're going to pay for it down the road.
And so, you know, luckily for me, I'm healthier now. And again, a lot of it's working on mental health as well. And, you know, seeing chefs like Anthony Bourdain, you know, take his life, I think there's been a real focus on sort of the mental health aspect of chefs. So a lot of chefs are meditating and trying to take care of themselves a little better, so, yeah. But, you know, it was a breaking point in our industry, and I think everyone's realizing it just - it didn't work. It didn't work the way we were treating people in our restaurants, didn't work yelling and screaming and carrying on. So there's, again, a lot of reflection and a lot of just trying to figure out a better way forward.
GROSS: You mentioned Anthony Bourdain as a turning point. What else do you think led to the change?
COLICCHIO: I think a lot of things. I think the #MeToo movement definitely had an effect on the restaurant industry. You know, clearly, we had to hold a mirror up to ourselves and take a good, you know, hard look at what we were doing and how we were doing it. I think looking at the way minorities always struggled in our industry in terms of raising money for their own restaurants and being treated, you know, equally - I think that's something we had to take a hard look at. Clearly, the way that we - you know, if we believe that better farming practices could have an effect on climate change, do we have a responsibility to seek out those small farmers that are farming with an eye towards putting carbon back into the soil as opposed to just depleting it, meaning growing vegetables organically and not using the overuse of pesticides and insecticides and fertilizers? And so, yeah, there's a responsibility that I think we have. And then we have to be able to tell that story to the consumer. And I think chefs have gotten much better at doing that.
GROSS: After 9/11, you were helping to prepare and distribute food to people working at Ground Zero. What did you do? Like, what role did you take on for yourself?
COLICCHIO: I did. So I actually got married four days after 9/11. My wife and I got married in Martha's Vineyard. We came very close to postponing the wedding, and we didn't. And we didn't because I - there was something that I wore around my neck, and there was a little saying on it, and it was actually the same saying that was inscribed on my wedding ring. And when we told the rabbi who was marrying us that we were thinking of postponing, she said, look inside your ring, and the inscription was, don't postpone joy. And so we went ahead with the wedding and didn't go on a honeymoon. And after the wedding, I ended up back in New York. And I was working on - I think it was World Yacht had a boat that they parked close to 9/11 on the water. And there was a galley there, and I ran the midnight shift. So I got there 12 o'clock at night, cleaned the kitchen up and started cooking for the workers who were working down there. They would come in at night and, you know, have a meal. And that's what I did. It wasn't heroic. It wasn't - you know, I almost never talk about it. And it was just me doing my small part to help out.
GROSS: You know, the inscription on your ring, don't postpone joy, and your decision to go ahead with the wedding - was it possible to experience joy so shortly after 9/11? And you - I mean, you were working and living in New York.
COLICCHIO: Yeah. You know, it was. And it was because, you know, there was something inside of us that said we can't let - the people that did that, we can't let them win. And yeah, it's horrible. And it was horrible to watch the news, and it was horrible to - you know, what we felt living in New York. But again, you feel joy because the country came together. And there are times that we went a little too far, but the country came together during that time. 'Cause during that time - listen, I'm a liberal Democrat. But when I saw George Bush with a bullhorn in his hand saying that - you know, whatever he had to say to comfort America, I felt good about that. I don't want to get into how he persecuted the war; that's different. But still, I think we were able to feel joy when you could.
And you can now, too. As horrible as it is - you know, when I was in Brooklyn, the worst thing was at nighttime - 2 o'clock in the morning you'd hear the ambulance going through the streets. And it was - it was really strange because they weren't moving quickly. They were driving slowly, but the siren was on. And I knew people who were sick and friends of mine who, you know, died. And - but I still have to be able to feel joy because that's the only way we're going to get through this.
And so - yeah, I pick and choose my moments. And you know, I'm getting a puppy in two days. And so...
COLICCHIO: ...For the last three or four - my dog died. She was such a big part of our family, and she died in November. And you know, I'd been hounding my wife to get another puppy, and finally she said OK. And every morning I wake up and my two boys - I say, boys, what day is it today? And their response is, one day closer to getting a puppy. And so you know, yeah, you have to find moments of joy. And you have to - you know, you have to be strong for the people around you and be strong for my children, who are just - that don't know how to navigate this.
And so, yeah, you have to find those moments. That's I think what makes us human. And I think you can have multiple emotions at any given time. And I think you need to explore, you know, the whole range of emotions right now to get through this.
GROSS: Well, Tom Colicchio, I wish you good luck with figuring out your future and the future of your restaurants. And you know, I wish good luck to the restaurant industry. So many of us depend on it for so many reasons. So please stay well. Good health to you and your family. And thank you so much for doing this interview.
COLICCHIO: Well, thank you very much. You stay safe, too.
GROSS: Tom Colicchio is a chef, restaurateur, food activist and head judge on "Top Chef." The 17th season of "Top Chef" is now being shown on Bravo.
After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new independent film "Driveways," which starts streaming tomorrow. It features one of Brian Dennehy's last performances. This is FRESH AIR.
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