Nourishing people is in Tom Colicchio's DNA. That molecular-level passion has led to a slew of smash-hit restaurants (currently six and counting), eight James Beard awards, a 15-season-long gig as a judge on Top Chef and no small measure of celebrity. It's also what set him on a mission to end hunger in the U.S. "More than 41 million Americans struggle with hunger, and clearly the problem isn't scarcity of food," says Colicchio. "People are hungry because we don't have the right policies in place to make sure everyone gets fed."
Related: 2018 EatingWell American Food Heroes
Six years ago, he and Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook co-founded Food Policy Action, an advocacy group that's focused on food safety, nutrition and hunger issues—particularly school lunch programs and hunger among veterans. The latter is a problem that Colicchio says most of us don't realize exists, but afflicts one in four people returning from active duty. "There's a large homeless population among vets. They come back and they struggle with issues like PTSD and finding work," he explains. "The idea that these men and women who fought for our country are now going without nutritious food—that bugs me."
He's been a constant presence on Capitol Hill, lobbying against the proposed cuts to nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), which would deepen the problem of hunger in this country. Last spring, Colicchio convened a Plate of the Union summit with lawmakers and more than 30 U.S. chefs—including José Andrés and Andrew Zimmern—to advocate for better access to healthy food. He also launched a national Food Is Fuel media campaign—timed to Veteran's Day—through his nonprofit anti-hunger organization, A Place at the Table. The goal: to encourage people to call their local representatives and demand action on food insecurity. "I want to put politicians on notice," he says. "It may not change the way they vote, but at least it may give them pause when they're thinking about these issues."
Colicchio recently stepped away from his role at Food Policy Action—in part because of his frustration over the inaction on food policy in Washington right now. "There's no one to talk to in the current administration," he says. "All these issues that we care about, it doesn't seem they care about at all." But he is committed to solving hunger through other avenues: "Time is something I don't have much of. I'd rather spend it making a difference trying to change Congress as opposed to trying to deal with the current Congress."
Tom's food hero: "A guy named Slim from the first restaurant I worked in. (It's a little embarrassing because I don't know his real name!) But he taught me that you learn the basics, and then you can bend them a little bit—break the rules, and do your own thing."
Last thing he cooked: "Last night at home I made a duck breast basted with a spice blend. And we had some leftover rice, so I fried it in the leftover duck fat with some green beans and scallions."
Surprising fact: Colicchio is a passionate gardener—snow peas, herbs, carrots, beets, you name it, he grows it.