"Top Chef" judge and restaurateur Tom Colicchio is done putting up with "kitchen culture" — the toxic, machismo-driven environments that elevated a generation of chefs to celebrity status. As sexual harassment allegations about chefs John Besh and Todd English have come to light, Colicchio says it's time for a change, and one that isn't happening fast enough in professional kitchens around the country.
"[Besh and English] are kind of a symptom of our culture," Colicchio tells LIVESTRONG.COM. "A culture that doesn't respect women for who they are or how they think. A culture that allows 'locker-room talk' and banter to go on unchecked without realizing the effect it has on women in the workplace."
In his own kitchens, Colicchio says, "We have a clear action that you should take if you feel violated, if you feel harassed. Our policy is go directly to HR, do not stop at your manager." But his kitchens aren't immune. "We've over the years had to fire people. Just recently we had to fire someone for making an inappropriate comment," he says. "We have clear rules."
In an open letter posted on Medium Wednesday, Colicchio did not mince words in telling his fellow chefs and industry leaders to take action. "It's time for men in the restaurant industry to say to each other: enough," he writes. "Enough: Because deep down men know that sexist sh*t-talk is just a lazy substitute for real wit. They know that work is not sexy time. They know that if they have to insist it was consensual, it probably wasn't."
Colicchio told LIVESTRONG.COM that the only way he sees culture changing is by starting early — at home and at culinary school. "Chefs of my generation, we have to start training the younger generation now," he says. "I saw a lot of bad behavior in restaurants … and this isn't something that can wait until someone gets in a kitchen and you start training them on it."
On "Top Chef," gender parity is something that's been a through line for all 14 seasons and will be again when the new season starts in December. "We actually cast [the program] purposely to have equal amounts of men and women in the show, and we look at not only making sure that all genders are represented, but that all people are represented — different sexual orientations, people of different cultures. That's something we've really worked at," Colicchio says. "And I think when you see that role model, I think that's a positive role model for people who want to get in the industry."
Colicchio is also speaking out on an issue that he's been working on for years: ending hunger for the more than 41 million Americans who face food insecurity. This year he's specifically focused on the hunger issues facing veterans. "We wanted to tell that story in A Place at the Table [his 2012 documentary about hunger issues], and we found that a lot of them didn't want to be on camera," he tells LIVESTRONG.COM. "It's clear this is a community impacted by poverty and by hunger, and we felt it was time to tell that story."
Not only do more than 1.5 million veterans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and similar nutrition assistance programs annually, but the majority of families living on or off military bases also qualify for free or reduced school lunches. That's why Colicchio is so urgently bringing awareness to hunger issues affecting military families — before Congressional debates begin in early 2018 that contain provisions that would cut crucial food programs that benefit our military.
So what's the best way to help veterans who are hungry? Colicchio says to visit FoodisFuel.org, click 'Call Now' and use an easy-to-follow script once you're connected to your local congressional representatives, urging them to support legislation that keeps programs like SNAP going.
"We can't put our heads in the sand and think food and politics don't have anything to do with each other," Colicchio says. "Every single thing that we eat is touched by policy and therefore touched by politics."
What Do YOU Think?
Will you still eat at restaurants owned by chefs who support the old-school kitchen culture? Do you call your congressperson when an issue is up for debate that you care about? Share your thoughts in the comments.