He finished shooting the latest season of the popular reality TV show back in June and has spent the last few months working to open his new restaurant, Fowler & Wells, at the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan. “It doesn’t get any easier,” he says with a laugh by phone from New York, in between meetings for his latest project.
“There’s nothing like opening night. It’s like a great concert. The house lights go down and you get this burst of energy,” Colicchio adds. “You don’t get to do it that often, but you do it once and you get a buzz for it. You want to do it again.”
At this stage of his career as a restaurateur, Colicchio says his real role is “coaching,” not cooking. Whereas 20 years ago, that would have including “screaming” at his kitchen staff, now he just walks over calmly and explains how something could be done better. It’s a skill that has been honed in front of millions on Top Chef, where he is an intimidating but calm presence for the contestants. “I don’t have a lot to prove anymore, so I’m much more relaxed,” he says. “And I think the kitchen actually functions better. Everyone’s not on edge.”
For the show’s 14th season, Colicchio and fellow judges Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, and put a new spin on the now-familiar Top Chef format. This time, they have pitted eight new contestants against eight chefs who appeared on the show in previous seasons but fell short of victory. The returning chefs include fan favorites like Sam Talbot (Season 2: Los Angeles) and Brooke Williamson (Season 10: Seattle).
Here, Colicchio discusses what viewers can expect from the upcoming season as well as the fears he has about his fellow reality-competition show host-turned-President-elect Donald Trump.
This will be the 14th season of Top Chef. When you first signed on a decade ago, did you have any sense you’d still be doing the show now?
Absolutely not. I had no idea. I didn’t know what to expect from it. I thought it would be a show that maybe a few family members and some industry people would watch and that it would run its course. So, no, no idea.
What was the process like of choosing the old chefs to bring back this season?
As far as the casting, I think a lot of it had to do with chefs that are talented and trying to set up a mix of personalities. I think what happened is that last season we brought back one and the dynamic was OK. Like a lot of TV, if it works a little, do it a lot. I think the new contestants were a little bit challenged because the contestants that had competed before, they could have either almost mentored the younger chefs and showed them the ropes or they could have been real assholes. And for the most part, I think they really helped them along, which helped to even the playing field. For us, judging was kind of hard because a lot of these people I know now. So you really just had to keep it all about business and it wasn’t personal, but it was tough.
From the viewer’s perspective, it seems like the contestants get to know you guys fairly well, so has that been a challenge even in previous seasons?
We really don’t get to know them until afterward. Obviously, we spend a good six weeks with them, pretty much seeing them every day, so we get a good sense of who they are as chefs and who they are as people. Any situation, when you get a bunch of people and you put them in a high-pressure situation for a period of time, personalities come out and you get to really know them. Also, I think there’s a certain empathy that we all have for them because we know how damn hard it is. And they have no idea when they come on the show. No idea. Maybe they’ve talked to a few people that they know that have been on the show, though they’re not supposed to. It is physically one of the most demanding things.
Every single chef, once they get about halfway through the season, they start saying, “I’ve never had to do anything this hard.” They are exhausted. Sixteen hours a day on camera, cooking, running around, shopping the way they’re shopping. And mentally, it’s even more challenging than the physical aspect. The idea that every day you’re forced to create and you’re being critiqued. And I can tell you just from opening restaurants—and I’m in the middle of a restaurant opening right now—that when you know the critics are going to start coming in, the bloggers are going to start coming in, it’s mentally taxing. They’re not ready for that. So I think I have a certain amount of empathy for someone who goes through it. It’s almost like you’re a professor and when your students come back you can share what they’re gone through.
Do you think chefs are by nature competitive and do you feel that way about yourself?
I think people are competitive by nature. Once you hit a certain level, you naturally select for people who are more competitive. You have to have that sense of competition in order to get to a certain place in your career. When you’re young, especially, I think it comes out even more. The older you get, maybe you kind of relax a little bit. But when you’re young, especially now, it’s a crowded field out there. When I was coming up, it was competitive, but it was nowhere near what it’s like now. You’ve got to stand out. Everybody’s looking to make their mark.
This season is set in Charleston, South Carolina. Why did you want to do the show there?
I’ve spent a lot of time down there—great food scene, great city—and so it’s something that I was pushing for a while. I don’t have a whole lot of say in where we go and what we do, contrary to what everybody believes. We always try to keep it fresh and do something different. Clearly it’s going through a big resurgence right now with the restaurants and the food there, but it’s always had a real, deep history. Especially when you look at the Gullah cuisine, which is the cuisine that came over from Africa—that the slaves cooked when they were actually able to explore their own cuisine—and how that merged with Southern cuisine, and what it became. And we explore it all season long, really. Besides having a city where I think the food scene is amazing, there’s a certain cultural history in South Carolina and I think it was great to explore that. If you think about it, just a year before there was a mass shooting at a church there and they are still healing from that. All these things that are playing on the subsurface in the towns and some of the things that we explore, I think it will just be a really interesting season.
As the host of a reality competition show, how does it feel to have one of your own about to enter the White House?
I wouldn’t quite say he’s one of my own, and that might inform where my politics are. I actually campaigned for Hillary Clinton. I was thrilled to introduce her to the stage the day before the election in Pittsburgh, so I’m not happy about the outcome. He’s going to be our president and if he’s successful then the country’s successful. That’s partly true. You hear that a lot right now: If he’s successful, the country’s successful. Well, if he’s successful in deporting 11 million people, no, the country’s not going to be successful. If he’s successful at continuing his misogynist message, then no, this country’s not going to be successful. If he continues to govern the way he campaigned, we’re not going to be successful. We may find some small successes here and there, but I think we have to take a real gut check and look at how we determine what success is in this country, and whether we continue to be inclusive or if we’re going to be a divided country. If he’s able to unite the country, then I think that’s fine, but I don’t see how that happens if he governs in the manner in which he campaigned.
How do you anticipate the election results will impact food policy and the restaurant industry that you’ve really made a focus of your activism?
It all depends, because he hasn’t really talked about policy, so we don’t know—with the exception of immigration, which could definitely impact the food system. Just two or three days ago on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, there are farmers who claim that stuff is lying in the field because they can’t get people to pick them. You hear the stories of tomato fields that aren’t being picked. Restaurants right now, it’s impossible to find cooks. So I think his stance on immigration can deeply affect food in this country. Now, he didn’t run on ending entitlements so I don’t know what his stance is on SNAP or federal nutrition programs. I have no idea what stance he’s going to take on the farm bill. Based on some of the people that he has on his transition team, I’m concerned.
It’s hard to say, because he wasn’t someone that ran on a platform of policies that were clear to understand and where he actually took positions on things. So we don’t know. You could look at that in two ways: Do you actively reach out and lobby him and try to advocate for change? And that’s something I’ll always do. Because quite frankly, I don’t care who solves the problem of hunger in this country. We can solve it. We produce enough food. If we can, No. 1, acknowledge that healthy food in this country is too expensive and help come up with a solution, maybe it’s federal subsidy programs on how to make nutritious food more accessible and less expensive, I don’t care who does that, I’ll be behind them. I make no bones about it, I’m a Democrat, but on certain issues that I really care about, I’ll get behind anyone who chooses to fix these problems.
On a personal level, Trump seems to favor fast food over farm-to-table. Do you think that gives us any hints as to what his food policy will be?
Bill Clinton did, too. He’s a vegan now, but he did when he first got into office. His personal eating habits should have nothing to do with the health of this country. And I think that the Obamas were a great example. The garden—I don’t believe for a second that anyone believes that everybody in that country was going to eat out of that garden or that you’re going to grow your own food and that’s how you’re going to solve hunger. But it’s the example that [First Lady Michelle Obama] set, where she says, this is how I’m going to feed my children. And it was really about the health of the nation. So it was really symbolic. But, listen, if his eating habits are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Big Macs, that’s fine. But I don’t think that national nutrition policy should be set by his eating habits.