Aside from just finishing a tenth season as head judge of his hit cooking competition show this year with Top Chef: Seattle and helming an expanding collection of critically praised restaurants—including the original Craft and newer stand-outs like Colicchio & Sons—renowned culinary world personality Tom Colicchio came to Naples to whip up the ultimate sit-down dinner at what NI anointed “The Party of the Year” for its show-stopping decor, philanthropic roots and surplus of star power. (LeAnn Rimes and British vocal sensation Blake also entertained the 152 guests.) After the final 760th dish was plated, the James Beard legend with five awards under his toque graciously chatted with us about his long-standing ties with our town, his cause célèbre and documentary out now, A Place at the Table, plus catching up with cheftestants after Top Chef and his all-time favorite season.
NI: How did you start your involvement with the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF), which has hosted the annual Naples Winter Wine Festival (NWWF) since 2001?
Very early on I was asked to come down as a chef for the festival. It’s one of many events that we as chefs are asked to do. It seemed right. I liked the format where you’re asked to cook in someone’s home for the vintner dinners. It’s a little more intimate, which is nice. I also knew people who were involved early on—Ann Colgin, Joe Wender. So I agreed to do it, and then a couple of years after that Bob Scott [one of Colicchio’s business partners and a trustee of the NCEF] bought a home down here, and he got involved. I think I’ve done it about four times now in addition to this party tonight.
You are known for giving back. Can you speak more about your philanthropic pursuits and what philanthropy means to you?
I’ve done 30 years of fundraising. I think chefs are always there to help give back. A lot of us feel that. In my case, I didn’t think I’d be in the position of helping people, and it’s hard to say no. I mostly focus on hunger issues. In fact, my wife and I and a business partner have a film out called A Place at the Table.
Can you give our readers a quick run-down?
It was going to be called Hungry in America, but the name changed, and now it’s called A Place at the Table. National distribution started March 1. It focuses on hunger and the fact that 50 million people in this country are food insecure, including 17 million children. It’s a problem. We also feel that we can do all the fundraisers in the world, and you can sit here on a night like tonight and raise $1.2 million for various organizations, which is great, but at some point you have to ask yourself, why is there a need and how do we fix the need? A lot of these issues stem from poverty: How do you fix that, and how do you attempt to fix that? I would love to see a day where we didn’t have to do fundraisers to take care of hunger issues because it was addressed at a core level—a level of why certain foods that are healthy are kept artificially expensive in the marketplace.
That’s the alternative to someone with a low income, to go and feed your kids fast food because they either don’t have the time or resources to go out and buy fresh food, which is more expensive. The idea that a fresh peach costs more than a fast food hamburger is ridiculous when you think about it. We want to shine a light on some of these situations.
That’s part of why we did the film. After 20 years of fundraising and working with a bunch of great organizations like Share Our Strength and various local food banks feeding America, that need keeps growing. And it’s not because people are doing a bad job. You’ve got to look at the root cause of this stuff, and we’re hoping this film will make people look at that.
Was there anything else that influenced how you went about the documentary?
Back in 1969 there was a film that came out. It was a CBS documentary and news program. And after it came out it, since it showed children starving in this country—not a Third World country, this country—the government got together and took action. The different parties got together, and they created the modern safety net. They created WIC [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], the food stamp program, and essentially pretty much got rid of hunger. But the ideology changed in the ’80s, and we’re back to where we started. It’s a problem again.
Did you have other goals with the film?
Part of the reason we did it, too, is that we wanted to change the face of hunger. It’s very easy to connect hunger with homelessness. But these are people who are working. People who are working two jobs but still can’t feed their families. Working a job and being paid minimum wage, you can’t feed your family. Again, poverty is a problem here.
So you think food insecurity is a systemic issue?
Right. It’s a systemic issue that needs to be addressed. So we’re hoping we can at least through the film shine a light on it and get people to look at it, and see what is really going on. We found a whole community in Colorado that is essentially food insecure. The chief of police is on food assistance. These are not people looking for a handout; it’s just that circumstances have put them there.
And in addition to trying to fix the root problem, you will still continue to give back to causes that you’ve been an advocate for?
Oh yeah. Fundraising and helping to raise money is something I’ve been doing for many years. At this point if I wanted to do something every weekend—pretty much every day—I could. I often do.
Some of your philanthropic work deals with music because it’s a passion of yours, right? I’ve read you go to Bonnaroo, and I know you were at last May’s inaugural The Great GoogaMooga food festival. [Ed note: The two festivals named are run by the same event production company, Superfly.]
I’ve been to Bonnaroo five times now. All the guys from Superfly are friends of mine. GoogaMooga was fun. It’s going to happen again. I’m actually rushing home tomorrow for another charity event to play guitar. It’s called Guitar Mash, and it’s for Church Street School. It’s a school that gives free music lessons to kids. There are a bunch of professional guitar players that are playing, and I’m actually going up on stage and playing with some people. I’m scared to death.
Oh, I’m sure it will be fun.
It’s fun. [laughs] But these guys are really good. However, I do find musicians are very generous and forgiving.
Switching gears a bit, what inspired your menu selections for tonight?
The last course of dinner—the short-rib course—it’s a crowd pleaser. It’s one of our signatures. It’s also something you could produce nicely for all these people because it’s cooked through. The first course I wanted to start with a cold course. It’s a dish we’ve done before [hamachi crudo]. It’s a good dish, and there are a couple of new things we added—the smoked crème fraîche we had never done before.
The pasta, actually, was something I started working on for a fall menu. It is not on our menus anywhere, and it has never been on our menus. I knew I wanted to do a dish with luxury items, like white truffles. I knew the dish would work. This is the first time I’m serving it. It will probably end up on one of the menus, most likely Colicchio & Sons.
The snapper dish is a dish I’ve done for a long time, over 20 years. Again, since it’s braised, you’re not cooking it to order and you’re keeping it nice and moist because you’re cooking it in the vinaigrette.
Creating a menu has to do with looking at the dishes that I cook, and knowing we’re doing it for 150-something people. There’s always that in the back of your mind.
Do you keep in touch with any of the former cheftestants?
Not really. Some I do. I see them from time to time at events. The only one that I’ve really had any contact with is Harold. He lives in New York, but then again a lot of them live in New York. Michael Voltaggio, too. I see him from time to time in L.A. I’ve been to his restaurant. But no, I can’t say I really stay in contact with them. [Ed note: Harold Dieterle was the winner of Top Chef Season 1: San Francisco, and he now owns three restaurants in New York City—Perilla, Kin Shop and The Marrow, which opened in late December. Michael Voltaggio won Top Chef Season 6: Las Vegas. His restaurant, ink., made a huge splash when it opened in 2011, and he also launched a sandwich shop nearby called ink.sack.]
Do you have a favorite season of Top Chef?
The Las Vegas season. That was collectively the best group of chefs.