On March 25, Jason Bell—Columbia University freshman, gastronome-in-training, and editor of the _Columbia Spectator_’s “Food & Drink” section—published a scathing review of Colicchio & Sons, the newest Tom Colicchio (of Gramercy Tavern and _Top Chef_ judging fame) eatery. Although _The New York Times_ had, a week before, awarded the restaurant an “excellent” three stars, Bell had choice criticisms for both the atmosphere (“Hovering waiters serve…a simultaneously over- and underdressed crowd seemingly confused about whether this is a fi ne dining restaurant gesturing at casualness or a casual bistro playing dress-up”) and for the food (“overpriced, grotesque,” “laughably predictable,” “a textural disaster”)—most notably, the morels (“Colicchio’s morels only got a brief rinse in the kitchen, leaving crunchy particles lurking to surprise unsuspecting diners”) and the dessert (“Colicchio would be better off slapping down an Eggo waffl e and throwing in the towel”). Between then and now, _New York Magazine_’s “Grub Street” picked up on his review, Tom Colicchio responded with an _argumentum ad hominem_ (via Twitter, no less), and the almost-scandal received attention from national media such as IvyGate, _The Huffington Post_, and, most notably, the _Nassau Weekly_.
Below is the interview I scored with Bell (full disclosure: we went to the same high school, and I scored said exclusive interview by sending him an instant message); even though it occurred over the phone, I could almost picture the serious but thoughtful face, freckled and bespectacled, that recently hated (and hated on) Colicchio’s “grotesque” dishes.
_Nassau Weekly_: [In your review,] you mentioned sampling a variety of things— such as chorizo, pork belly, octopus, bacon, gnocchi—how did you manage to try everything? How much of each item could you really eat?
Jason Bell: The time that I went, I didn’t try all of those items. I ordered off of the _prix fixe_ menu. In the article I think that I comment on the conceptual direction of a couple of different dishes—for instance, I didn’t specifically try the dish with the octopus, the chorizo, that stuff…At the time that I went it was a three-course _prix fixe_, and…I know that it’s gone back to _a la carte_ because he switched it back right after Sam Sifton reviewed it [for _The New York Times_].
NW: Speaking of the dish with the chorizo, pork belly, and octopus, what made it, as your review called it, “laughably predictable?”
JB: Well, when you think about the different types of proteins that have become really popular—especially on the New York food scene in the past couple of years—pork belly is defi nitely at the very top of the list. Probably fi ve years ago if you walked into the average restaurant in Brooklyn or, you know, kind of a small farm-to-table restaurant in Manhattan, you would never see pork belly. But it’s really skyrocketed in popularity. And then, similarly, chorizo is part of not only the importation of Spanish food trends and flavors into American cooking, but also a movement of more charcuterie and different types of forcemeat product —that’s also become extraordinarily popular. And in terms of octopus, again—the notion of pairing octopus and potatoes and grilling [the] octopus is just all over the map today in New York. So…if you ask someone if you could combine the three most predictable proteins that would have to be on a restaurant menu in New York, one possible response would be octopus, pork belly, and chorizo.
NW: Coming from St. Louis, as I did, how did you become so familiar with the New York food scene?
JB: My aunt lives in New York, so I had the opportunity over the last couple of years to visit New York a couple of times and eat at a lot of different restaurants. And this year, actually, I’ve been spending a lot of time going to different neighborhoods, eating at a lot of different places. I also read a lot about the New York food scene and the national/international food communities as well. I think it’s really important to stay up on the general direction of blogs regarding New York food and what different magazines like _Bon Appetit_ and _Saveur_ are saying about the New York and the American food scenes. And also forums like eGullet and Chowhound—just the general chatter in the populace about what people are seeing on an individual level in the food world.
NW: What got you interested in food criticism in general?
JB: In high school, I was really involved with food science and Science Olympiad, and I was also really interested in food writing, specifically _Gourmet_ under Ruth Reichl and a lot of Michael Ruhlman’s stuff, The _Food of France_ by Waverly Root, and more of the old school food writing tradition. I was just always really interested in food writing as kind of a literary form as well, so when I got to Columbia, one of my professors was working on kind of a literary food writing project, and I also stumbled into writing for the food section at _Spec_, and it kind of cascaded and snowballed into me becoming the “Food & Drink” editor—in kind of a random/haphazard way, I guess.
NW: Did the _Spectator_ pay for your meal?
JB: It’s subsidized on a low level. The entire meal is not paid for, but part of it is. Generally, the “A&E” [Arts & Entertainment] sections each get a small subsidy; the food section within A&E gets a small amount of money since we never accept free meals. Generally, our viewers have to pay their own way, though we do provide them with a small stipend.
NW: So what are you doing this summer—is it going to have anything to do with food?
JB: Yeah, this summer I’m going to be working at a restaurant in New York for a little while as a _stage_—an unpaid intern. And I believe that when I go back to St. Louis, I’m going to be working in a restaurant as well.
NW: What’s your favorite food?
JB: That’s a tough one. My favorite food—I really like hazelnuts.
NW: Hazelnuts? That’s a raw food!
JB: Oh, you mean, like, dish? I really like pork tenderloin, too. Pork tenderloin stuffed with figs is really good.
NW: What kind of Jew are you?
JB: Not a good Jew, apparently. I don’t keep josher at all.
NW: Are you keeping Passover?
JB: No. I ate some mazo, though.
NW: I’m also wondering how students at Columbia reacted to your review and the subsequent attention you got from national media.
JB: Well, I think just as in the national media, where responses were pretty polarized— either it was “Team Colicchio” or “Team Jason”—I think similarly, at Columbia, there was a group of people who thought that my review was embodying the stereotypical Columbia perspective on New York and this pretentious academic mindset. And then there was a group of people who thought that I was standing up for student journalism and the authenticity and importance of student journalism in the New York food community.
NW: Were they more or less mature than Colicchio, who discounted your opinion simply because you’re in college and who responded via Twitter?
JB: I think that part of the problem is that, on the internet, it’s hard to tell who’s a Columbia student when they’re engaging in…these different types of discourse. So someone can get onto GrubStreet and leave a comment that’s like, “I think that all Columbia students are X,” but there’s no way of knowing if they’re a Columbia student or ever were a Columbia student. So I think it’s hard to make broad generalizations about whether or not the Columbia response was mature or not.
From the people that I talked to it seemed that their responses were more realistic and grounded in fact, maybe, than Colicchio’s response. I think that Colicchio’s response was particularly immature because it almost came across as whining, maybe, or as very dismissive in an arrogant way. And I’m not sure whether Columbia was immature like _that_, per se.
NW: How do you like Columbia, and what are you studying?
JB: I’m studying English and political science. I like it a lot—I really enjoy the core [curriculum]. A lot of Columbia students are divided on “core good” and “core bad,” but I’m probably more on the “core good” side. I think it’s interesting having the entire freshman class take one particular course and then everyone having this shared foundation upon which to base the rest of their academic careers. And it’s also really great being in the city—I feel like I’ve been able to take advantage of the city in a way [that] at a lot of other schools, you wouldn’t be able to do at all.
NW: Do you prefer _Top Chef_ or _Iron Chef_?
JB: I prefer _Iron Chef_, the original Japanese version, to _Top Chef_. A lot. I mean, the original Japanese Iron Chef was amazing, basically—just really campy, but also really infused with this sense of the importance of food knowledge and food criticism. And I think that the American _Iron Chef_ over the past year or two has been doing a much better job of focusing on the information, the food information that underscores the chefs’ cooking styles. They’ve tried to move away, I think, from imitating the camp in an American way to more making it kind of an educational sporting an event.
NW: _Top Model_ or _Iron Chef_?
JB: I don’t think I’ve ever seen _Top Model_, so I couldn’t really make this judgment.
NW: [_Laughs_.] Thanks so much, Jason.
JB: Thanks, Thúy [Lan].