Chefs Leverage Their Star Power for Improving Food Policy
By Whitney Pipkin, Edible DC Contributor
Washington rolled out (its best attempt at) a red carpet last night at Union Market’s Dock 5 to leverage the celebrity of dozens of chefs for a cause close to this city’s heart: food policy.
But really they were there to roast Tom Colicchio, the New York City-based chef-owner of Crafted Hospitality and co-founder of Food Policy Action. The organization maintains a scorecard that ranks politicians for their support of better food systems to address the country’s hunger, safety and sustainability issues. The event was the second of its kind (Nora Pouillon was the subject of last year’s roast) to raise support for the Chef Action Network, a separate nonprofit focused on galvanizing chefs for the cause of improved food policy.
Today, 30 chefs from 34 states hit the hill to meet with representatives about the Child Nutrition Act currently being considered by Congress. (Follow them and other supporters on social media at #saveschoollunch and #chefslead.)
Eric Kessler, founder of the Chef Action Network, said chefs want to leverage their celebrity for change in the broader food system. They’ve lobbied against antibiotic overuse in the food supply and for better school lunches.
As Colicchio put it, “every single thing in our kitchen is touched by policy.”
It didn’t take much effort to convince the audience of that Monday night, considering how many lawmakers and lobbyists were mingling among the food industry folk. DC chefs David Guas, Spike Mendelsohn and Erik Bruner-Yang, among others, prepared the dinner and proved, once again, that Washington has more than politics to proffer.
Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) were honored at the event for their bipartisan support of farm-to-school programs and of hunger as “a moral issue,” as Leahy said.
Nancy Pelosi even made an appearance at the event long enough to take in the speeches and have her picture taken with Padma Lakshmi, the shall-we-say-stunning host of Bravo’s Top Chef TV show, which will feature three contestants from DC in its next season.
The main event of the evening included Lakshmi and others lobbing insults (some feigned, some real) at Colicchio. Fellow Top Chef judge Richard Blais delivered the first of many jabs aimed at Colicchio’s New Jersey roots, building a caricature of him as a barely reformed angry mobster. He also accused Colicchio of having midlife crisis-like hobbies to include boxing and catching sharks.
Chef Kerry Heffernan lent the evening a rehearsal dinner feel when he shared about breaking into cars in Barcelona with Colicchio, who’d been the best man at his wedding. Even Padma took to the mic to try her hand at Colicchio’s Jersey accent and to roll her eyes at the man who is — for those who know him well or have been judged by him on the show — the king of eye rolling.
The 400 Washingtonians who attended the event savored the chance to see the Top Chef cast in true form, with Colicchio dishing out his own insults once he took the stage.
And as Katherine Miller, executive director of the Chef Action Network, put it, there was plenty of bourbon to fuel conversations, fundraising — and perhaps a little policymaking — as Washington’s food and policy worlds mingled into the evening.
Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist covering food, farms and the environment from Alexandria, VA. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others. She writes at thinkabouteat.com. @whitpipkin