Tom Colicchio hasn't looked at food prices in a long time. "Wow, pasta is more expensive than I thought it was," he says, scanning the shelves of the Ralph's supermarket on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Colicchio, the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef, hires people to buy food for his Craft, CraftSteak and 'wichcraft restaurants across the country. Plus, he's rich.
So he's a little freaked out trying to come up with--at my editor's request--a recession-gourmet meal for four people for around $10. And Colicchio is not mistaken: the average retail price of a 5-lb. (2.3 kg) bag of flour has jumped 34% from last July, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. The costs of other staples like eggs and cheddar cheese have also gone way up. And since Americans have been spending about 10% of their income on food for the past 25 years or so, rising prices do not mean people are eating less--they're just buying cheaper stuff. "We're seeing less meat and more pizza, sandwiches, Italian pasta and casserole-type dishes," says Harry Balzer, who tracks food trends for the NPD Group, a market-research firm. "The real change that occurred in the last bout of inflation was that one of the cheapest meats became more popular: chicken."
Colicchio has the same instincts as most consumers. In fact, when I asked a bunch of famous chefs to come up with a family meal for around $10, almost all of them gave me recipes for chicken or pasta. I had expected them to load up on organ meats or weird cuts people only eat in other countries. But Colicchio is in deep contemplation over a London broil steak for $6.75. Ham is too expensive, as are asparagus, fresh fish and even (when I bring them to him giggling) cow's feet. Instead, Colicchio considers first a beef stew and then some chicken drumsticks, which he'd stuff with bread crumbs. "This is where people make mistakes," he says, looking at the poultry section. "People are going to grab chicken breasts because it's easy. A breast and a half is $8. This whole chicken is $6.50. You can use the bones for soup." He also rejects any packaged items. "The key is staying away from all processed foods. Even beans. A bag of dry beans is cheaper than a can of beans." Because Colicchio volunteers with Share Our Strength, a charity that fights childhood hunger, he knows how hard it is for families to get by on a low food budget. "You can do this, but it's tough," he says. "Look how much time we're spending. If you're a working mom, you don't have time to look around like this. And you have to know how to cook and grow your own herbs."
After half an hour, he chooses a pork loin that he'll cook along with spaghetti in a sauce of fennel, eggplant, zucchini, onion and a small store-brand can of peeled whole tomatoes. "I'd rather have a nice Italian Cento brand, but it's going in a sauce, so I don't think it needs to be great," he says of the tomatoes. This pasta is something he'd make at home, where he often combines spaghetti with broccoli, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese or, more often, with bacon, cabbage and cannellini beans. I ask him why he didn't consider a rice dish, and he looks at me like I've never met an Italian. "I don't like rice," he says.
Though Colicchio has quickly become an expert at using Ralph's vegetable scale, when we go to the register, the tab is more than $12. We put back one of the zucchini, but that cuts off only 50¢. Eric, our register guy, lets us scan a Ralph's Club card, and we're down to $11.88. Eric is a man who can feel the pain of a superstar chef on a magazine's expense account trying to pull off an arbitrary economic experiment.
We head to my house, since Colicchio figures he'll be too tempted to cheat at Craft by stealing from the pantry. He snips some basil from my garden, takes some Parmesan from my fridge and spends half an hour doing what he calls cooking and what I call making me realize how lame I am. I didn't know I am supposed to sharpen my knives every time I use them. Or that I should use so much oil. Or clean as I go along. He made fun of me for wanting to time things and for buying prepeeled garlic. (I also had whole bulbs, which he used.) He washed his hands after he sneezed, which I suppose I should start to do too.
The food turns out great, and it actually feeds five for lunch: Colicchio, me, my wife, the photographer and his assistant. And we down it with a $2 bottle of Charles Shaw, which is actually just fine. I'm going to make it through these tough economic times. Because my job leaves me more than enough time for shopping and growing herbs.
PASTA: $1.34 FENNEL: $1.47 ONIONS: $0.51 OTHER VEGGIES: $4.07 PORK LOIN: $4.49 MEAL: $11.88