‘Top Chef’ Host Tom Colicchio: Coronavirus Could Kill 75% of Restaurants
The new season of “Top Chef All-Stars” premieres this week, but after laying off hundreds of workers, Tom Colicchio has much bigger things on his mind.
Five days ago, Chef Tom Colicchio made the “hardest decision” of his career. He closed all of his restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and laid off close to 300 employees.
The coronavirus pandemic is hitting everyone around the country and the world in hard and unexpected ways. But it has been especially devastating for restaurants, which are closing almost across the board, likely leaving millions of Americans without jobs for the foreseeable future. With no end in sight, it’s hard to see how and when the industry comes back from this.
Colicchio, who opened the first of his Craft restaurants almost 20 years ago, isn’t exactly feeling hopeful. “I think if we’re lucky 25 percent of the restaurants will stay open,” he tells me by phone from New York this week. But he does see a “silver lining” if the country is able to pull itself together and get through to the other side.
Amidst the crisis, this Thursday night marks the premiere of Top Chef All-Stars on Bravo, which he hosts alongside Padma Lakshmi. The 17th season of the Emmy-winning reality-competition show brings back familiar faces from seasons past to battle it out in the kitchen for one more chance at glory.
The timing may be odd, but even Colicchio is looking forward to the healthy distraction.
First of all, how are you holding up?
You know, it’s rough. Closing restaurants and losing hundreds of employees is not something you ever thought you’d have to do.
Do you feel like the restaurant industry ever experienced anything like this?
Do you think the country’s ever seen anything like this? No. No. I mean, I think if we’re lucky 25 percent of the restaurants will stay open.
That after this is all over only 25 percent will remain open?
Maybe? Who knows? This is devastating. Small, independent restaurants don’t have the wherewithal—even the larger companies, that’s just not how we’re set up to operate. We don’t have cash reserves. The money that we make today, if we were open, goes to pay bills from 45 days ago. Margins are razor thin. This is not the business that people think it is.
Yeah, there’s this perception that it’s all celebrity chefs and that restaurants are booming in a way that maybe they’re not in reality.
It’s not at all. Especially compared to retail. Retail profits are 30 percent. Our profits, if we make profits, a good year is 8 percent. It used to be better, but rents are higher, labor’s higher, everything’s higher. Quite frankly, if we were operating the way we should operate, restaurant prices should be 20 or 30 percent higher. But we can’t do that because people say it’s too expensive. And we’re seeing that it’s exposing our system. Something like this is exposing our health care system, it’s exposing the way big business works. It’s exposing the inequities that everyone lives with. So yeah, I’m a “celebrity chef” who’s on TV. But do you really think that Top Chef pays me like an actor is paid? I do OK and I’m not complaining, but this is not what people think it is. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Can you walk me through the decision-making that you had to do over the past week or so when it came to shutting down all of your restaurants?
Well, it wasn’t this week. I’m a bit of a news junkie so I’ve been following this since January, looking at this and going, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. I told my staff, this doesn’t look good, we should prepare for a big slowdown. I didn’t think it would be like this! Two weeks ago, it was like, OK, we’re losing banquet business like crazy. We had $370,000 in cancellations in two days. Then we had a plan: We’ll close two restaurants and we’ll operate the restaurants that are out of hotels. We’ll operate it with a skeleton crew and get by. And a day later, it was like, that ain’t gonna happen. And then we thought, Vegas will stay open. Nope! 12 hours later, Vegas is closing. A month ago, we started preparing and thought, we’re ahead of this. And then all of a sudden, every day it gets worse and worse. So you can’t plan for this. And so it’s terrible. And then you see how our government just completely bungled their response to this. Completely! It’s not even close.
Beyond all the delays in taking it seriously, now that we’re here, what do you think the national government should be doing, especially for the restaurant industry, that they’re not?
Well, we don’t know what they’re doing yet. Is there going to be rent release? Is there going to be mortgage release? Is there going to be payroll support? And then when we reopen, are they going to recapitalize our businesses? We figure, in one restaurant alone, $150-200,000 just to get open again. Then we need some runway, because we’re not going to be busy at first. You think in two months we’ll be full? No. We’ll be running at half capacity. And if you’re running at half capacity, you’re losing money.
The long-term impact is much bigger than anyone realizes at this point.
Right. And then you throw in that everyone’s health care is tied to employment. So if you’re not working, then what happens? Now here’s the silver lining for me: If we get this right, we can rebuild this entire country. This is why I say this is our generation’s World War II moment. And what happened after that war? Huge public works projects. We built this country. That’s what we’re going to need. So you have to have someone with vision now. Because you have to put people to work. This is about something big.
It’s interesting to see this happening at this point in the presidential campaign, because that’s what Bernie Sanders has been arguing for, a fundamental change in the system. Now it’s not looking like he’s going to stay in the race too much longer but I’m curious where you come down on that.
Yeah, sure, listen, I like a lot of Bernie’s policies. I don’t think the policies are the problem. I don’t think the message is the problem, I think it’s the messenger. Nothing personal against him, I think some of the message was good, but I think after the Trump presidency my feeling was that the country wasn’t ready to go that far left and we need a bridge. Now that’s all blown up. When you have a government talking about UBI [universal basic income], which Andrew Yang was pushing. People were like, that’s socialist, that’s crazy! Now you have every single Republican saying that’s what we have to do.
When you have Steve Mnuchin talking up UBI…
Yeah, this has moved us so far in that direction. What I’d love to see now from Bernie Sanders is, he can sit there now and go, “I’m right.” But you’re not going to be the president, the numbers aren’t there for you. But you have a seat at the table. We know what your ideas are and I think everyone’s open to it. I think we’ll see national health care. All of the stuff that he wanted is going to happen because of this. And so now it’s just about leadership. Do you think for a second if you asked Joe Biden about national health care, if he could just go in there one day and say “it’s done” and get 60 votes on that [in the Senate]? He’d say great! This is my problem with Bernie Sanders: It’s a great idea, and I know you want to inspire something big, but if all his people believed he was going to go there and they were going to have health care, they were kidding themselves. But Top Chef’s going to be great this season! [laughs]
Is it pretty weird for you to have the new season of Top Chef premiering this week during all of this?
It’s weird in a way but I know people have been looking forward to it. They want some relief, they want to take their minds off of this. So you can look at it one way and say, with everything going on, is it frivolous? But no, even I need a break. I’m someone who has news on all day long, but now I’m turning it off.
People need a distraction. And it will be fun to watch something that was filmed before this happened. It’s like going back in time.
Yes. And this is really important—we shot our finale in Italy. I know people don’t understand production so when they hear we’re in Italy shooting the finale, they’ll be going, “Are you guys insane? You can’t go there!” We already shot it. We came home in November.
So I’m out in L.A. and there’s a lot of activity here in terms of supporting local restaurants by buying gift certificates and doing takeout orders. What’s the best thing people can do to support local restaurants when they can’t go eat there?
My feeling is takeout, right now—and people are going to get mad at me—but I think it’s irresponsible. L.A. might be a little different but in New York I find it really irresponsible to ask my staff to get on public transportation and come into the restaurant. Stay home. So the little bit of takeout you’re going to do? I don’t know if it’s worth it to put your staff in jeopardy. If I could do it by myself? If I could go in and make a bunch of meals on my own? That’s a chance I would take. But who’s getting that takeout? It’s people who could probably have food at home. My suggestion is give it two weeks. Let’s figure out the protocols. Let’s see how we can do this and let’s do it safe. We’ve got to stop the spread.
For people who have to cook at home now who are used to going out for dinner, do you have any tips or suggestions?
Yeah, so I started a hashtag on Twitter that I was kind of half-joking, but then it blew up. So what I did was, I said a lot of people are home cooking who aren’t used to cooking, if you want any tips, let me know and I added the hashtag #CookingInACrisis. What’s great is, people are helping each other. People are saying, this is all I have in my house, what do I do? And recipes are going back and forth. So it’s created this community that’s great.
So finally, when you’re not watching the news, what are you doing to stay sane?
Well, I’m trying to keep my kids from killing each other. I have an almost 9-year-old and a 10-year-old and they’re on spring break right now, but in another week they’re going to be doing “distance learning,” so we’ve got to figure that out. I do play guitar so I’m spending a little bit of time getting better. Bingeing a little TV. The Plot Against America started so I’m watching that. Trying to make sure my wife and I don’t kill each other. There’s going to be two things in nine months: There’s going to be a lot of babies born and a lot of people filing for divorce. And it may be the same people!