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Chef Tom Colicchio on Why He’s Backing Indoor Ag and Whether We’ll See Alt Meats on His Menus

May 10, 2019

Colicchio is slated to appear at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit in New York next month so we caught up with him to discuss indoor farming, alternative protein, and restaurant tech.

Tom Colicchio is the cofounder of one of New York’s best-loved restaurants: The Gramercy Tarvern. Now he is the chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality, which currently includes New York’s Craft, Riverpark and Temple Court; Los Angeles’ Craft; and Las Vegas’ Heritage Steak and Craftsteak. Outside of his fine dining restaurants, Colicchio opened ‘wichcraft – a sandwich and salad fast casual concept in New York City in 2003 and in late 2018, he and his team opened Small Batch in Garden City, NY, a casual dining restaurant. He has also established himself as a “Citizen Chef” advocating for a food system that values access, affordability and nutrition over corporate interests. So it’s not surprise that he’s interested in the growing food tech and agtech industries. In fact, he’s an investor and partner of Bowery, the vertical farming group in New Jersey that supplies some of his restaurants. Why?

“They came to me, they said, ‘We can change the flavor. We can intensify the arugula, and make it more peppery just by changing some lighting.’ And I thought it was really fascinating that you can change the flavor profile that way,” Colicchio told AgFunderNews. “But what really won me over was I’ve tasted indoor produces grown over the years, and this was the only time that the flavor was just the taste of the earth. It had flavor to it. It wasn’t limp, flavorless green. It really had flavor, and texture.”

We caught up with Colicchio ahead of Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit to learn more about his view of indoor ag but also food tech more broadly.

How does indoor farming play into sourcing for your restaurant? What challenges have you encountered when it comes to sourcing in the past?

The reason why a lot of things are flavorless now is that they are growing a tomato that grows perfectly round. They’re picking it when it’s under ripe. They gas it so it turns red. It’s still under ripe, even though it’s red. And it’s just flavorless. But they’re doing it for production so they can ship it. It’s kind of hard to ship vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes anywhere. I think that’s an advantage of growing indoors. The greens that I get today were picked yesterday.

Whenever you can shorten the cycle between when something is picked and harvested, to when we’re actually serving it, that’s really a key here. Flavor changes immensely. Just shortening that cycle is really important. When greens and vegetables are grown thirty minutes outside of the city, you’re talking about something that’s really fresher, really flavorful.

What are your thoughts on new production methodologies like alternative proteins, whether it’s plant-based meat or cultured meat?

If someone decides they don’t want to eat meat and is looking for a meat substitute, I think the Impossible Burger and other meat and protein companies are a great option. I was involved with cultured beef early on, almost when they first started looking at it. They actually reached out to me to cook the first burger and then they decided not to have a chef, do it. They wanted a scientist to do it, which was fine. I had some misgivings about it, anyway. Because I didn’t want people to think that I’m serving some crazy meat in my restaurants.

But, to me, it’s fascinating that you can grow real ground beef–you’re not going to grow muscle. And you’re taking a culture so you’re not killing animals. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that we get rid of meat, and meat producers know it. But, if you can cut into that a little bit, it can lower methane emissions and there would be fewer antibiotics used on animals.

Ultimately, I think it’s far off. If they get the cost in line and make it affordable, then it makes sense.

As a chef, do you worry at all about some of the ingredients going into plant-based protein alternatives?

My feeling is if you decide to be a vegan, or vegetarian, why are you looking for a substitute for meat? Just eat plants and call it a day. I’m not a fan of it. But I think these alternatives are fine and the market is demanding it, so someone’s going to fill that need. I think this is smart on so many levels but I don’t think everyone’s going to move away from eating meat to eating plant-based protein. My feeling is if you are going to go out and eat meat, make it higher quality meat.

There are a number of restaurant technologies out there today such as devices that help you reduce your food waste in the restaurant by my measuring your trash. Have you seen any that interest you?

Yeah, I have seen technologies that reduce waste, and there are other things that have been around for a while, like the ORCA, which takes plate waste and turns it into water that can be flushed right down to the sewer system. I’m actually working with a company looking at ways we can use technology to take food waste, mostly produce, meats, dairy, and bakery waste, and turn it into animal feed such as high protein pelletized animal feed that can be fed to chickens. We’ve actually done some trials with chickens and pigs and now we’re also looking at pet food.

We’re taking that waste right from grocery stores, not from restaurants, and to me, that’s a big game changer because if you’re using that you’re recycling that food and it’s not waste anymore. As long as it doesn’t go into a landfill, it’s not waste. If you think about it, a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, what did we feed our animals on the farm? All the waste. They’re eating grass, and then they were fed waste in the form of uneaten or spoiled food.

I have chickens. We keep about eight chickens for eggs, and we feed them everything that we were going to put in the compost except chicken. So, all leftover vegetables, plus when I clear out the garden, all the trimmings, and stuff, goes to feed the chickens. This is the way we used to deal with animals on the farm, so we’re kind of going back to that, but just on a much larger scale.

I have seen technologies to measure waste in restaurants. The fact of the matter is chefs are trained not to waste anything. That’s why I’m not so focused on restaurants. If you’re doing buffets and things like that, it’s a big waste. But in restaurants, chefs are trained not to waste anything, because that’s how we make our money. We’re trained to chop very carefully, make sure everything is being used, and be really maniacal about stuff going in the garbage. Even bits and ends, they’re fresh; maybe you’re just squaring something off. You’re taking a pepper, and you’re squaring, “Okay. I want to make a perfect dice.” Those pieces, those ends, they can go into a pasta dish, or a salad, or something.

It’s the average American who wastes between $1,500 to $1,800 a year of groceries that go in the garbage. I think if the average consumer cut back on their waste, you’d make a huge impact. That said, I think buffets should be outlawed. They should just go away. There’s so much waste on a buffet. They have to look plentiful at all times, and it’s just so wasteful.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges today for the food and catering industry?

I think labor is an ongoing problem. You talk to chefs everywhere in the States, they can’t find help or good help. And, we’re graduating kids out of Culinary School by the thousands but somehow we’re always short-staffed. Every chef I talk to has the same problem. And the workforce is changing. The younger generation is not interested in working seventy hours a week like I did when I came up. They’re happy to work forty hours a week, and that’s fine if that’s the lifestyle they want. It’s a lot of work. You have to work around that schedule, but that means you need more people.

What do you think about using robotics in restaurants? Whether that’s robotic service, or maybe some robotic help in the kitchen. We aren’t there yet but we could be.

No, we are there. There is a restaurant that was conceived by a couple of people who are at MIT, and actually, Chef Daniel Boulud got involved with it. They’re doing vegetable and grain bowls fully automated. There are pizza robots now. There are hamburger robots now. It’s out there, it’s happening. Part of it is because of the labor shortage. I think there’s always going to be pressure on labor when it comes to actually finding profits in the restaurant industry, in any industry, really. There’s only so much you can get from raw materials, or from efficiencies, and after a while, you have to look at labor. And it’s unfortunate, but a lot of jobs are being lost through automation. Yes, a certain amount of jobs get shipped overseas, but a lot of jobs are being lost to automation in factories, in production plants, and I think it’s going to happen in restaurants, especially in fast-casual because it is very narrowly focused.

What are some of the biggest food trends you are seeing today?

I think it’s plant-based eating. It’s becoming more and more prevalent. It used to be that if you were a vegetarian, you’d say you were a vegetarian and someone would throw together a vegetable plate but that’s no longer an option. You have several dishes on the menu that are plant-based, plant-forward. So, you see more and more of that. I think that’s going to continue.

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