[image-1]Tom Colicchio told me he was preparing a statement following the Twitter blowback from the Top Chef: Charleston Boone Hall episode we first reported on Dec. 5. After taking heat on Twitter from viewers who believed the cooking contest didn’t treat the history of the plantation and its use of slavery with enough sensitivity, Colicchio said in an email that he would have a statement on Dec. 7. So I waited. But when I emailed him the next day asking for it I was told, “We may have a misunderstanding. I am not writing a response to your piece. I’m working on a general statement about the episode.” A month later, no statement has yet to be published, however, today on Esquire’s website the Top Chef judge addressed the controversy.
“You filmed the current season of Top Chef in Charleston, which was home to large slave markets in the 1800s. Were slavery and race inevitable issues to wade into?” writer Alyson Sheppard asked Colicchio. “Most people are forgetting we deal with these issues every season,” he responded. He went on,
“In the California season, we married 40 gay couples. That was really emotional. The Supreme Court was still debating whether or not people were going to have that right. We decided to take it on and we felt we did the right thing.
What was interesting was that some people thought we did a pretty good job of handling [filming on a plantation], while others were angry because they thought we were using the location for entertainment. People weren’t upset that we were there, but that we were there as a cooking show. Well, [Boone Hall Plantation] has also been the site of the Charleston oyster festival for the past 34 years, and we were doing an oyster roast competition. That’s why we were there. I know from going there and having these conversations that they’re tough to have.”
Suggesting that he thought maybe some of the backlash came from African American Chef Gerald Sombright being in the Sudden Death Cook-Off on a plantation, Colicchio added, “I don’t know what the reaction would have been if there were two white chefs. But I told [someone who asked about the episode], it’s not like we realized a black chef was on the bottom and we picked a plantation. C’mon. Watch the rest of the season; we still deal with it.”
Whether the show, in fact, does do that remains to be seen, but Colicchio went on to say that he’d like to see the bigger conversation pivot to the problem of white chefs co-opting traditional black Southern cuisine.
“The idea that food should be divorced of any cultural or historical context is kind of what I was trying to respond to as well. There is place for food and cooking in history and culture. Maybe if you’re not cognizant of some of these issues that are already being discussed, and you watch this food reality show, you think this is out of left field. Well, it’s really not. Maybe we’re just closer to it, and maybe our producers are closer to it.
Read the full interview over at Esquire.com. The next Top Chef: Charleston episode airs Thurs. Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on Bravo.