Head Judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, and President & Executive Chef, Crafted Hospitality
Where did your passion for the business come from?
I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother in New Jersey and started working as a teen chef in a hometown seafood restaurant. As a teenager, I taught myself the culinary fundamentals from the classic books La Technique and La Methode by French chef Jacques Pépin. My Dad suggested that I pursue food as a career.
Please share your career path with our readers?
I got my first job at the age of 17 in the kitchen of Evelyn’s Seafood Restaurant in my hometown: Elizabeth, NY. Then I started working in a string of New York City restaurants: The Quilted Giraffe, Gotham Bar & Grill and Rakel and Mondrian. In 1994, I worked with Danny Meyer to open Gramercy Tavern.
When did you go out on your own?
In March 2001, I left full-time operations at Gramercy Tavern to open my own restaurant, Craft. We focused on simple, prepared meat and vegetable dishes. I wanted to showcase the craftsmanship of cooking, not the artistry, and the way to do that is to have the highest-quality ingredients and do as little to them as possible and serve them as simply as possible.
What were the keys to the successful expansion of the Craft brand?
We expanded the Craft family of restaurants across the United States. We launched concepts including Craftsteak, an upscale steakhouse; Craftbar, a more-casual food and drink establishment; and ‘wichcraft, a sandwich shop.
Has your reality TV work helped you prepare for your new role as MSNBC’s first food correspondent, or is this a totally different experience for you?
In dealing with the physical aspect of being in front of the camera and all that stuff, yes, reality TV has definitely prepared me for that. But I think the work I’ve been doing on food policy, starting with making the documentary A Place at The Table and spending time up on the Hill, I think I’ll probably lean on that a lot more than the reality TV.
Speaking of that increased time in Washington on Capitol Hill, you’ve become a spokesperson against the DARK Act.
I don’t necessarily look at this through a chef’s lens, more from a consumer standpoint, more of someone who has a family. I’m not against the role of science in food. What I don’t like is the prevalent use of GMO’s and leaving the consumer in the dark.
Is it hard to keep from confusing this type of issue with the tree hugging and Al Gore?
That is where I come at it from. If you care about the environment, you care about the amount of glyphosate that is being used, because it could be spread, you know. It’s used for two things. Number one, you can plant all this corn, dump glyphosate on it, and it doesn’t kill the corn, it kills every weed, it kills everything in the field. And so, yes, does it make it easier to farm? Yes. It may for some period of time until weeds become resistant, and then you have to use more. You have to go to something more dangerous. So I am deeply concerned with the amount of insecticide that’s being used. I don’t want to participate in that. I want to find food that is cleaner.
So what is the labeling solution that you are proposing?
I’m not suggesting that we ban anything. And not that we put a skull and crossbones on a package. And not that we make it law that manufacturers have to go out and source other types of ingredients. So I’m suggesting on the ingredient line where it says corn, it says GE for Genetically modified corn, that’s it.
Who is it that’s responsible for this?
The Monsantos and the DuPonts of the world. They’re dumping hundreds to millions of dollars into this campaign and then you have the grocery manufacturers that are doing the same thing. You think for a second that that guy who’s watching a football game on Sunday afternoons is going to look at the back of his bag of Doritos and decide he’s not going to eat them anymore because of a label? Wow, GMO corn. I can’t eat this anymore? No, it’s not going to happen.
Do you see any benefits for the restaurateur for GMO applications?
I’ll put my chef’s hat on for a second. Where you’re taking a Chinook salmon, which isn’t even Atlantic salmon, you’re adding genes from this ocean pout. When it is too cold salmon doesn’t grow, they grow slower. So you put this gene in there and actually the animal will grow faster. So now, okay, so there are benefits here. The salmon grows faster, so you have to feed it less food, which gets it to the market faster.
How and why should a chef get involved in this debate?
Chefs have become a trusted source for food and nutrition. I think it’s important that chefs lend their voice if they feel the need to, they should lend their voices. I think we’re a trusted source. We’re also, I think, if you look at the chefs who are signing this petition, there are over 2000 signatures across the United States in various markets. And we’re also business owners. I think if I were a member of Congress, and I were voting against this, and I had a bunch of signatures that I’m looking at, I would say to myself hmmm, politically this may be a great idea.
What was the niche that you and your co-horts were looking to fill with the Best New Restaurant TV show?
It all gets lumped into “reality” TV, but I actually look at the show as reality competition, which is slightly different from reality TV. On Top Chef there’s a combination of reality and competition, whereas I think there’s very little reality on Best New Restaurant. Obviously it’s real, but it’s more about the competition. The contestants aren’t interacting with each other as much as on Top Chef.
You’ve been doing TV for a long time. How do you think peoples’ tastes in food TV have changed over time?
If you look at food TV going back to Julia Child, those early shows were mostly cooking shows. Then you got a whole network dedicated to cooking, and a lot of the morning shows and even some of the late-night shows started doing cooking segments.
I remember my first cooking segment was in 1991 on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. I was doing a braised red snapper with eggplant caviar and a rosemary-lemon vinaigrette. I showed up at 8 o’clock that morning and the producer was like, “Where have you been? You missed rehearsal!” And back then, you set up your own station there was no stylist, you did it all yourself. I had this little cooler and started unpacking everything, and every 10 minutes the producer would come over and go, “You’re going to mess this up, I can’t believe this, I should just cut you right now.”
So we start the segment and I put some eggplant in the oven – the oven wasn’t on, because I had a swap-out all ready to go and then Regis starts messing with the oven. And I’m like, “Regis, it’s okay, come back over here, it’s on the table” and pulled the cooked eggplant out. And he goes, “Well, that’s what happens when you miss rehearsal.” Now, I thought he was talking about me, and I’m thinking, I can’t believe he just threw me under the bus like that! But I just let him roll on, and it turns out he missed rehearsal. He didn’t even know I missed it because he wasn’t there. So we get through the segment and I get it done in time and it’s just perfect. The producer came over after the segment and she just said, “Wow, that was really great. Anytime you want to come by, just let us know.” And I was like, “I will never do TV again.”
Do you think people are interested in the pure competition aspect of the show?
I think people seem to be enjoying learning about the real back-of-house things that go on in restaurants. If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant business, you know people are fascinated by how food actually comes out of the kitchen. Most people also believe that there are like two people back there and that the chefs cook everything, so I think they kind of like seeing the curtain being pulled back a little bit.
In your new role, are you trying to reach the same audience that currently watches your reality TV shows, or are you speaking to a different set of people entirely?
Reality TV is the way to get them to the table, and then you have to hope the message you’re sending comes through. Recently when I was on The Rachel Maddow Show, we were talking about how the First Lady is trying to get the message across that it’s healthier to eat fruits and vegetables. And that’s an easy story to digest – we all know we need fruits and vegetables, we get it. But then you have to look at why, often, people aren’t choosing fruits and vegetables. You start to think, well, why is a fast food burger more expensive than a peach? If you present these issues in a way that people can understand and digest, they will want to know more. I think the public is ready for this.
In addtion to the GMO issue, you have also been involved with tackling food waste.
Food waste has become such a major issue in our food system because it historically hasn’t gotten the attention it deserved from the public or the government. As illustrated throughout the film Just Eat In, the private sector is failing to create an efficient system and American citizens are the ones paying the price. This should be an apolitical issue… can you really imagine someone on either side of the aisle arguing that we should be wasting more food?
The fact that 40% of the food we produce in this country gets thrown away really illustrates the scope of the issue, but taking such a macro approach leaves people wondering how they can help. Households wasting 25% of the food they purchase hits closer to home and is powerfully depicted with the image of a shopper dropping 1 of her 4 bags of groceries and just continuing on to her car.
How can we continue this conversation beyond the film and help to curb this problem?
The biggest thing we can focus on is educating children about the value of fresh food, where it’s from, how it’s grown, etc. and how to prepare it. I find that the more blemishes something has, the more flavorful it tends to be. Not only does this give the next generation the tools necessary to make responsible food choices throughout their lives, but it engages their parents, teachers, and other stakeholders to learn about these issues and their importance.