Refrigeration: Chef Tom Colicchio on Farm-to-Table and What's in Between

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1930 DuPont manufactures Freon, sparking the adoption of residential and commercial refrigeration.

Refrigerated containers—starting with railcars, then trucks, and then taking it a step further to air carriers—allow us to enjoy a more global cuisine. We get to eat mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest and tuna from Asia. We’re in the middle of white truffle season right now, and they’d be terrible if we couldn’t get them from Italy or Croatia.

But here’s the downside: It moves us away from local food systems. This is obviously awful for our carbon footprint. And even though we’re shipping stuff and it gets refrigerated, fruits and vegetables are typically picked when they’re not ripe, then gassed with chemicals to stay supple. Everything is very uniform. None of those big red tomatoes are going to get beat up in their perfectly sized box. We also expect things that are out of season to be available all the time. So people’s standards have dropped completely—they think they don’t like strawberries because they’re these giant, tasteless cotton ball-like things most of the year.

The farm-to-table movement that’s become popular in the past two decades is an attempt to fix this. But it’s ridiculous. Everything starts on a farm and ends on a table. What happens in between is what’s crucial; refrigeration and the convenience of having any food when we wanted it stripped the idea of eating seasonally. And local food gets fetishized. Diver scallops are on every menu, but no one’s actually diving for scallops. Local peas? Bullshit. No, they’re not. There was a study done a couple of months ago here in New York that determined that something like 80 percent of the food out there nationally is mislabeled, even on restaurant menus.

The general public is still interested in taking something out of the freezer and popping it into the microwave, but there are certain things chefs can take the lead on. We’re all after flavor, something that tastes delicious. I have a pretty good-size garden, and there is absolutely nothing like taking a green bean off the plant and eating it immediately. It tastes like sugar. Two hours later, it doesn’t. Trying to cut back the time, the distance between plant and plate—that’s what’s important.

Of course, relying less on refrigeration is going to cost more. The only way we can support that is if we can tell that story to our customers so they pay more. You’ve also got to get the markets to come along to the idea. But too often, we’re preaching to the converted.

Back in the days of the icebox—remember The Honeymooners?—it used to be that stuff was going ripe in there. The idea of an intermezzo course, some sorbet between dishes at a nice restaurant, exists because the fish would be so rank, the chef would have to get the smell out of your mouth. Or the chef would have to cook cod with mace, nutmeg, allspice, and other strong flavors. Refrigeration fixed this. But it killed fresh food in the process. —As told to Kurt Soller

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