Jason Bell, Columbia ’13, has ignited a firestorm with his Spectator review of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio’s new restaurant, Colicchio & Sons. Colicchio even called New York to take the magazine to task for “reprinting reviews from college newspapers.” This weekend, we spoke to Bell exclusively about his passion for food — and food writing — and what he thinks of his critics.
IvyGate: Did you have any idea when you got to Columbia that you’d get involved in food criticism?
Jason Bell: Well, when I got to Columbia, I had no idea tht I was going to be involved with food writing at all. I was at an activities fair and signed up only to write on the Food section [of Spec] because I’d been involved in food sciences, and Science Olympiad. I always loved reading Michael Ruhlman, Gourmet, M.F.K. Fisher – who is like a much older food writer. That old-school food writing interested me in high school.
IG: Why did you assign such a plum review to yourself — do you have a staff under you? How’d the article come into being?
JB: I do have a staff under me, and I usually assign out – on the weekends, Arts has a section called Neighborhood Watch, and this, Colicchio And Sons, was supposed to run on the section for Chelsea and the Meatpacking District – but we moved it into this weekend to keep it relevant, and I wanted to take part in the dialogue among food writers in this city.
IG: Do you think, as a college freshman, you can possibly add to this conversation?
JB: I think that with the advent of internet-mediated food writing its become easier for critics like myself to take part in that dialogue, with the advent of Yelp and Chowhound. The old-guard critic who writes for New York magazine or the Times…. I wouldn’t say that I was directly engaging in dialogue with those critics, as the Columbia Spectator has a limited niche – it’s a neighborhood newspaper – but I think that it’s important for student voices to be heard. The student presence is a part of New York. Students, faculty members, staff members, and neighborhood residents have a shared general perspective that maybe the NY Times doesn’t.
IG: What differentiates this perspective from others, like those of professional critics?
JB: In terms of the Columbia student perspective, the main hallmark is budget. Students don’t have that much money to spend on meals, and when they do, they’re looking for the best possible value for their money. I approached it as a student going to a restaurant on a student budget. There’s been criticism on the internet that there weren’t three visits to the restaurant, but that want my methodological goal — to replicate a professional review. My criticism was meant to represent the student experience at this restaurant.
Also, students are participating in an academic environment constantly, so in a way my student perspective, more than other critics, mimics or parodies an academic voice. Which I don’t think a lot of people got – they though I was just being over the top or verbose. That may be the way I write when I write about Derrida, but I think it’s amusing to apply that academic voice to food criticism.
IG: How’d you manage to get a reservation and finance your visit?
JB: On OpenTable, if one is willing to devote effort to checking all the times, it’s not that tough to get a table in advance. I’d been planning this meal for some time. Spec has a limited budget per writer. My meal was subsidized on a low level.
How did I personally afford the meal? I would advise students – I personally don’t spend money on clothes or luxury items – so my budget goes towards experiencing food in the city – whether that’s at a halal cart or at Colicchio and Sons – it’s possible to go to these restaurants, even if it’s a rare occasion. I know that some people might say, ‘oh well, if you only go on rare occasions, how do you have the palate to criticize the restaurant?’ At a lot of restaurants like Jean-Georges they have a $26 lunch. If you’re willing to go to lunch when your family is in town…
IG: Do the commenters on your article — across various websites — scare you off writing in the future, at least about such a big name?
JB: It definitely doesn’t scare me off – I think the people commenting in my favor or against me have the same right to their opinion as I do mine. What I do take issue with is people dismissing me as simply a college student – they have no idea what my food background is. “How could this be possible? It’s Tom Collic.’s restaurant” isn’t an actual argument. “Oh, he’s young how could he have any idea what he’s talking about” is an ad hominem attack with no real merit.
IG: Have you been to Colicchio’s other restaurants?
JB: No, I havent been to Craft – he used to have Craftsteak – he has ‘wichcraft — I haven’t been to those.
IG: So did you have preconceptions at all?
JB: I try to stray away from reading prior criticism. All I got was Adam Platt didn’t like it, Sam Sifton did. There was a lot of controversy about the restaurant going in and that’s why I thought it’d be interesting to reviewm because there was such dissensus about the quality.
IG: What do you make of Colicchio’s response, in particular?
JB: I prepared a response and sent it to Grub Street [the New York food blog] – in that response, I say that Colicchio’s response that my article was nonsense and feeds into this enormous onslaught of elitism, really – I think one of the reasons people like to watch Top Chef, it democratizes food… and pushes people back. You’re saying, “I can talk about foie gras.” But Colicchio is sitting there at the judges’ table, and you’re at home eating a TV dinner. The format of the show is appealing because it is elitist, when I thought about it more, I wasn’t surprised that Colicchio responded this way. It’s comical because he’s a major player in the food world and right now I’m really not, it’s also comical because the reason the food at Colicchio & Sons is the way it is is that he’s a celebrity chef — he’s an elite – and that attitude suffuses the place.
IG: How do you mean?
JB: He’s a very talented chef — he worked with Thomas Keller, he was at the Quilted Giraffe. When he went into the Craftsteak space, he was trying to make his mark on the New York dining scene. It seemed to me – and I think other people – that he was out of his element. He was trying to create the element you get at Jean-Georges where it’s starched and old-money but preserve the attitude that he’s a friendly guy who’s on your TV. I don’t think that attempting to disguise the venture behind a smiling waitstaff that’s not formal or some rustic dishes. I don’t think it’s a way of doing away with the elitism that’s part of that institution.
IG: So where should students in New York spend their money?
JB: I really like the Modern at MoMA – it’s a Danny Meyer restaurant, and a lot of people like 11 Madison Park better, but I loved my experience. I really liked Sushi Yasuda – I’m a big proponent of classic New York food like Katz’s, Grey’s Papaya. The Modern is super-formal and cerebral; Sushi Yasuda is more of a Zen-like experience than places people have been to.
IG: What’s your plan for after you finish up at Columbia?
JB: I’m pretty interested in restaurant consulting and restaurant management – I don’t know if I see myself in a chef position, but I think I will see myself in some position, even in a food media aspect. The food media world is changing so fast, it’s hard to predict. Maybe things will settle down in the world of food media and I can figure out a place to settle.