Tom Colicchio Wants To Serve You Pizza In The Metaverse

If you had Tom Colicchio hawking NFT pizzas on your 2021 bingo card, let me be the first to congratulate you. Chefs endorsing products is hardly new, but historically they tend to promote legacy brands, copper-clad cookware or trusted names in kitchen appliances, over more speculative commodities. A chef without a reputation is just a cook. What does that make a chef who cooks virtual food?

Throughout his career, Colicchio has a distinguished track record of charitable giving and activism, but he certainly hasn’t shied away from opportunities to profit from his likeness since Bravo’s Top Chef, now in its 18th season, hit the airwaves. He pops up on my Facebook feed regularly shilling for a line of frozen prepared foods from a company called Ipsa.

Through his work with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which he co-founded, Colicchio’s played an active role in mobilizing federal support for restaurants impacted by the pandemic. In that time, he’s worked closely with politicians like Chuck Schumer to bring awareness to the plight of the restaurant industry and used his platform to advocate policy changes that help struggling small businesses.

But his battle cries for independent restaurants have gone silent lately and curiously replaced with techno-babble designed to appeal to crypto investors and NFT collectors. Ahead of launching a business venture called CHFTY Pizzas with former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendlesohn, Colicchio’s been using his Twitter feed to convey (what he would like us to believe is) a budding interest in NFTs.

What’s unclear is who convinced Tom to sacrifice his reputation to stump for NFTs, and how much they’re paying him to join the crusade. Also, why would he be so willingly to slough off his reputation, built over years going back to his days at Gramercy Tavern to peddle potentially worthless crypto-paraphernalia? The simple answer is money. Colicchio will eventually abdicate his throne on Top Chef and bass-fish away his remaining years on the North Fork of Long Island somewhere. Is this NFT hustle his Ocean’s Eleven? One last big con before he hangs up his cleaver for good?

These days, PR and digital marketing are clever when it comes to concealing the commercial interests of their spokespeople, blurring the lines between endorsers and influencers. This makes it more difficult to detect whether someone is being paid to promote a product or paid to pretend they value the product organically to influence consumer behavior without the nuisance of a traditional advertisement. The latter requires a credible backstory to make it more potable. In this case, Colicchio was deliberate in announcing his NFT venture after weeks of calculated hash-tagging and tweeting about the potential of NFTs to avoid arousing any suspicion. The food media barely noticed until his silly crypto pizzas started popping out of the oven.

Even in the most flattering light, it’s impossible to see Colicchio’s interest in NFTs as anything other than a new revenue stream for Tom, Inc.. To be fair, that doesn’t make him any more evil than, say, the Winklevii, Gary Vaynerchuck, or Beeple either. He has a right put his name on whatever products he pleases, whether it’s a physical spatula or a spatula in the metaverse.

But skepticism is warranted about the staying power of NFTs given the sheer number of unicorn investments that have swooned and crashed in the Digital Age. Markets have become increasingly manic as euphoria overrides reason, exacerbated by rapidly advancing technology—the “flash crash,” Reddit trader mobs, meme trades, and the countless pump-and-dump schemes with dubious alt-coins like Dogecoin.

Early adopters of cryptocurrency have certainly been rewarded for their faith, but does anyone truly believe that Shiba Inu coins or Crypto Punk NFTs are a more stable long-term investment than shares of established tech companies like Amazon or Google? Bitcoin plummeted nearly $10,000 USD in one hour last weekend, and, despite its meteoric rise, it’s still one of the most fragile places to park your money.

The soaring value of crypto is driven more by FOMO than fundamentals and, like most other flimsy get-rich schemes, the harder they come, the harder they fall. The banker bros driving the boat always find a way to jump ship with bags full of money when the hull collapses while everyone else drowns.

Success in the crypto space is predicated on shoving coals into the blockchain fireplace to keep the flame blazing hot. Any signs of smolder can bring down the whole house of cards, potentially creating the biggest Black Swan event the financial world has ever seen. Most crypto bulls and NFT wonks understand this risk and work tirelessly to keep the hype train rolling. They have to, most of them are pot-committed.

There may be genuine merit in leveraging the blockchain for restaurant-related operations like protecting a chef’s intellectual property, ticketing events, cultivating unique culinary experiences, or even payment processing. But using the technology to convince people that digital pizzas are valuable is low-hanging fruit.

The pandemic has spurred deep introspection within the industry about how we should define a chef’s work. There are role models emerging everywhere—like Paola Velez who founded Bakers Against Racism, Edward Lee who started the Lee Initiative to empower BIPOC restaurant workers, and José Andres who’s traversed the globe with his World Central Kitchen feeding communities devastated by natural disasters. The collective soul searching has led to an industry-wide audit, with chefs and restaurateurs placing greater emphasis on fostering healthier workplaces, engendering diversity, and sustaining more ethical business practices.

At this precipice, the restaurant industry needs reliable ambassadors, not snake oil salesmen. Colicchio’s conduct, however benign, undermines the serious work of other chefs. It’s akin to sports heroes behaving in a way that’s “bad for the game.” This assessment is, of course, subjective, but we all have a right to call out chefs for doing things we feel reflect poorly on our industry. From my vantage point, hoodwinking people into buying pizza-themed NFTs is predatory. Based on the response so far, if this is the future of cheffing, a whole lot of people are telling Tom to pack his knives and go.

Aside from his leadership role with the IRC, Colicchio was just recently appointed to the incoming New York City mayor Eric Adams’s food policy transition team as a contributor. Is someone who spends his days convincing his nearly one million Twitter followers to invest in pizza cartoons really the best choice to be a food policy advisor in one of the largest cities in the world? A city where many of its residents can’t afford actual food and whose communities are often victimized by the irresponsible energy consumption that trafficking NFTs propagates?

Chefs are rarely consulted on food policy issues, so when they are we should expect them to give their undivided attention. At the very least, they need to be cognizant of how their personal business decisions reflect on the food and beverage industry as a whole. Of course, times are changing. Chefs must learn to evolve, too, without fear of implementing new technologies or embracing change that will lead the industry forward. But unless you’re floating around in the metaverse, Tom Colicchio dishing out slices of virtual pizza to his adoring fans is nothing more than empty calories.

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It’s Time To Take Bottled Water Off Restaurant Menus

In 2017, bottled water surpassed carbonated soft drinks to become the most popular beverage in the United States. While there are undeniably health benefits to more Americans choosing water over sugary sodas, the uptick in bottled water sales and marketing push toward selling pre-packaged water has also contributed to an explosion of disposable container waste. Despite having some of the cleanest municipal water systems in the world, 60% of the world’s bottled water consumption occurs in the United States, even though Americans only comprise 4.5% of the world’s total population.

Bottled water in restaurants has become somewhat of a status symbol, especially in fine dining. When I waited tables, I always dreaded asking guests for their water preference. In business settings where table-mates are unfamiliar with each other, no one feels comfortable answering for the group. Guests dining on an expense account—at least in a high-end restaurants—typically “splurge” for bottled water. You wouldn’t dare offend a client by ordering tap.

But more often than not, people are fine with regular water, and many tap drinkers are irritated by the solicitation. Nonetheless, management loves to sell the staff on the idea that establishing a guest’s water preference is an important step of service, even though most servers understand that it’s a sleazy upsell.

People justify drinking bottled water for many different reasons, as do those who prefer tap. But as global warming intensifies, the ones who choose to drink bottled are making that choice in a bubble. When that bubble finally bursts, if it hasn’t already, we all suffer for it. Charging eight dollars a bottle for San Pellegrino or Acqua Panna in a restaurant when it costs less than a dollar wholesale might be a nifty little trick, but it comes at a steep environmental cost.

Many fine dining restaurants—including several I’ve worked in—push bottled water aggressively, and they always offer imported brands. If someone is spending hundreds of dollars on a meal, it’s safe to assume they don’t need to be bothered about how many bottles of water are required to keep their glasses full, so the pour is often bottomless. Occasionally, restaurants will assign a fixed water charge per guest or even include bottled water in the price of one’s (outrageously expensive) meal. This results in trash bags filled with hundreds of empty glass bottles every night, pounds of unnecessary cardboard packaging waste, and incalculable pollution produced by transporting foreign water brands across continents. In theory, the bottles and their packaging are recyclable, but history shows that, despite our best intentions, many recyclable products end up in landfills anyway.

New water filtration technologies can purify table water using UV rays and industrial-strength charcoal filters to levels that weren’t possible decades ago. As the demand for environmentally-responsible solutions in the food and beverage industry increases, these purification systems have become more affordable, even for small restaurants. State and local governments could also easily establish subsidies or tax breaks to encourage, if not mandate, independent restaurant owners to install these systems, ideally in conjunction with tighter regulations on bottled water.

Bottled water in restaurants creates enormous waste
Water filtration systems are an eco-friendly alternative

The Smith, a mini-chain of casual, neighborhood bistros in New York City, offers a clever template for water service. Their staff greets every table with a full bottle of filtered still and sparkling water—sourced from the tap and served in reusable glass bottles. Doing so simplifies the water conversation. It also removes any pretense around water service by keeping the responsibility for the restaurant’s environmental choices in the owner’s hands. 

When smoking bans were instituted around the country in the early 2000s, bar and club owners insisted it would destroy their businesses. Of course, it didn’t. On the contrary, it simply forced people who were acting selfishly and endangering others to alter their behavior. Most people now appreciate being able to enjoy their dining and drinking experiences without the toxic stink of nicotine fumes.

Where plastic bags have been banned, it’s an inconvenience at first, but many people now bring reusable bags along with them on their shopping trips. As of late, many cities have outlawed plastic straws to mitigate their poisonous effect on marine life. To adjust, restaurants have either switched to compostable straws or stopped offering them altogether. All of these initiatives have proven, by and large, that drastically changing consumer habits requires drastic measures.

There will always be a contingent of people who thinks banning consumer products levies undue penalties on people who have a right to use their money to buy whatever they please. But the “capitalism defense” doesn’t hold water anymore, literally. The planet is flooding, storming, burning, and wilting—she is pulling out all stops to warn us to start treating her with more respect. Kicking back with a Topo Chico in the face of a desperate climate crisis is pure hubris.

Some may point out that restaurants also contribute pollution and waste by importing other products from distances like wine, spirits, and other specialty ingredients that are specific to certain parts of the world like caviar or truffles. While this is true, you cannot dispense wine from a faucet or grow truffles in a backyard garden. Bottled water is by far the easiest pollution-agent the industry can curtail quickly. No one needs to drink water shipped in from another country to enjoy their dinner. 

Over the past ten years, there’s been a movement toward serving more local products in restaurants. One could argue that there is no better local product to showcase in a restaurant than municipal drinking water. Many studies have shown that tap water is often cleaner and safer than most bottled options. Others show that the average person can’t detect the difference, despite marketing efforts that lead consumers to believe that bottled water tastes better and is safer to drink.

We can all agree, hopefully, that whenever possible, restaurants should make more responsible choices about how their businesses impact the environment. The world is changing, and restaurants can’t always give people what they want anymore. So whether people prefer to drink bottled water or not, taking it off the menu is the right thing to do. Restaurants are about accommodating people, but there are instances when accommodating some people comes at the expense of others. Forgoing bottled water is a very small sacrifice for those who prefer it—a proverbial drop in the bucket, as they say.

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