On "Top Chef" they played master and student (well, judge and contestant, but you get the drift) and this week in Washington "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio and "Top Chef: All Stars" runner-up Mike Isabella resumed those roles - this time with a policy angle.
Colicchio, Isabella and board members from Food Policy Action gathered at Isabella's restaurant Graffiato Tuesday to release the group's second annual Congressional Scorecard, which looks at how members of Congress vote on food issues.
"Voters need to hold elected officials accountable so they don't cut funds for important food policy programs," Isabella said, after he got off to a rocky start.
"I do reality TV, but reality TV cooking -- so I get a little stressed out," Isabella said of addressing the group of mostly media about something more wonkish.
Colicchio, who was responsible for getting Isabella involved and has become a food policy fixture, played it much cooler.
"I don't think that this should be viewed as a way to sort of knock people over the head, though we will at times use it for that," he said of the scores. "But really this is a way to let people know we're taking notice."
The Congressional Scorecard began in 2012. This year, Food Policy Action scored six Senate votes and 13 House votes, rating members of Congress from zero to 100. The higher the score the better, with "better" aligning with those who are in favor of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.
Once again, and not surprisingly, Democrats did better. Of the 73 in the House and 14 in the Senate who were deemed "Good Food Champions" -- those with a perfect voting record -- all but one were Democrats.
That being said, there were a handful of Republicans who performed better than their Democratic counterparts, too.
"The scorecard provides pretty compelling evidence that food policy doesn't have to be a partisan issue," explained Food Policy Action's board chair Ken Cook.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was the one GOP lawmaker with a perfect score. Besides Murkowski, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, scored a 76 and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., got a 50. The remainder of the Senate GOP scored a 33 or below, with 10 earning a zero. On the House side, Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Christopher Smith, R-N.J., did the best out of the Republicans, both earning a 69.
Overall, 138 members of Congress scored better this year, while 254 scored worse.
"I would be hard pressed to name a period in which food has been as politicized and political as it has been over the past 18 months or so," Cook said, tying in the worse scores to partisan votes that happened this year, like cutting almost $40 billion funding SNAP.
While the numbers tell a less nuanced story, Colicchio said he is seeing some progress from his efforts to hit Capitol Hill almost monthly.
"I spoke to [Rep. Jeff] Fortenberry's staff from Nebraska and he voted -- I'm not saying because of what I did -- he voted against the 40 billion cut," Colicchio said of the Republican congressman who voted "nay" in September's big vote to cut SNAP.
Besides simply scoring Congress and making constituents aware, Colicchio said he's also been outlining economic reasons why Republicans might want to change their votes on SNAP. One such reason is that money from food stamps can go directly into the pockets of local farmers.
"It's really, I think, bad economic policy to cut SNAP," the "Top Chef" judge told Whispers. "So that's another way to look at this -- forget my knee jerk liberal need to want to feed people who are needy, but let's look at the economic benefits that should appeal to the right."
And if members continue to vote in a way that displeases the tough "Top Chef" judge, well, that's what the scorecard is for.
"I'm encouraged because I know that since its release we've gotten a lot of calls from members who are concerned," Colicchio said. "So it's clearly picking up some traction and people are starting to focus on it."