An Interview With Ted Allen
Nectar Lounge at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek was host to the Christmas-ey dessert party, Sweet Dreams, this weekend. The event featured a huge spread of sugary cakes, candies, flash-frozen ice cream, and dessert sushi, which you can check out by viewing our slide show. But it also featured celebrity host, Ted Allen, who was there promoting his new cookbook, The Food You Want to Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes. In between stuffing our faces with sweets, New Times got a chance to sit down with the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy alum, and asked him about his take on everything from his new book to his role as a judge on Iron Chef America to the food revolution.
Ted Allen on...
...his new cookbook: The first thing Ted said when we were introduced was "Just so you know, I did write my book," responding directly to a question I had posed on Friday whether or not he had penned it himself. (So many of these cookbooks are ghost written.) "I did have help, though, because when I did it Queer Eye was at its peak and Bravo was torturing us to do episodes. I think we did 40 that year, and it takes about a week to do each one. So I had a recipe tester named Stephanie Linus (sic) who helped me with the recipes, because if the recipes don't work, you're really screwed. And people find out. I get e-mail from a lot of people telling me everything is working."
Not all his criticism is positive though: "Recently I did read one blog from a woman who said that a recipe [of mine] didn't come out. But she admitted right in the blog entry that she had swapped out three crucial ingredients. And she still said, 'Strike two, Ted Allen.' I was like, 'What are you talking about strike two?' I don't even know what strike one was! Screw you; you left out the eggs lady, and you admitted it!"
...the serious foodie versus the casual foodie: I asked Ted about the trend for cookbooks to focus on simple cooking, despite the fact that food literacy is really higher than it has ever been. "Well, I like to talk about cooking with real ingredients, natural food, organic stuff, real herbs, no prepacked foods, and my cookbook reflects that. That doesn't mean that [cooking] has to be difficult. It requires you learn some techniques, and an interest in cooking. But I think vast majority of the market needs and wants simple recipes. And this is why you see such an enormous growth in that area, even among my fellow Food Network people. Rachel Ray is giving 30 Minute Meals, which I think is fantastic. Sometimes she does it a little cutesier than I would, but there's a reason why she resonates with so many millions of people."
He continued, "I always thought my audience was somewhere in between. The Bravo audience is a very sophisticated group of people who, for the most part, have the luxury of cooking as a hobby. And that is a luxury, to have that much time and disposable income. Most people can't do that. But I still thought because our show was called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and we were speaking to guys who didn't know anything about food, that my cookbook should be reasonably simple. And I think it is."
As a result of this trend towards the simple, though, many 'hardcore' foodies tend to last back against the personalities that preach to the masses. But Ted thinks there's plenty of options out there for folks who don't want things so simple: "You could go buy Grant Achatz's cookbook, Alinea, and try to cook out of that if you think you can handle it. It just came out, and it's staggeringly inexpensive for what it is. Grant Achatz is one of the most important young chefs in the country. He serves you like 26 courses of the most impossibly complicated food you've ever seen in your life. You could make fun of it, even, if you want to. Some people say, 'I don't know whether to eat it or hang it on the wall.' But nobody complains about Mozart or Rembrandt. And I think you have every possible combination of chefs out there. You have Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, who are the Rembrandts of our time in the culinary world, and you have Rachel Ray, who is reaching a much more regular audience. And I definitely fall closer to Rachel Ray! But I appreciate all of it. Anything that propels people into the kitchen is cool."
...his part in the continuing food revolution: Ted Allen's role on Queer Eye as their food and wine expert really cemented food as an important aspect of being a complete person. On the show, the fab five were essential remaking people, and food was a big aspect of that. I asked him about what it was like to be one of the faces that brought food into the spotlight for so many people. "Even before the food revolution that happened courtesy of Martha Stewart and Emeril and Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, dining has always been the biggest form of entertainment. Even in a country that used to have no good food - and I mean ours. Back in my days at Esquire, where I still do some work, I believed and they believed that knowing something about food and wine is an important part of being a sophisticated guy. Women like it. Or men, depending on what your trip is. But the message I was always trying to give our straight guys was, being able to handle yourself in a restaurant, or better yet, being able to cook for the object of your affection, is an enormously generous and romantic and cool thing to do."
At just 43, Ted is still very much a child of the food revolution. He recalls a moment that first opened his eyes to the wonders of food: "I've always loved to cook, but I grew up in Indiana, and my parents and I never did anything fancy. I got a job at Chicago Magazine in 1993, and like a lot of city magazines at the time, that was sort of the restaurant bible for the city. I got sent out on menu tastings a lot, and Chicago is a really good restaurant town. So I sort of fell in love with the culture of the people who make food. Chefs are really fun people, sometimes too much fun. But I also got exposed to food from all over the world. I had my big culinary epiphany at the Ritz Carlton dining room, which, even though it's a hotel, had a really amazing chef named Sara Stecker (sic). It was the first time I had ever had dessert paired with wine. It was a chocolate cake of some type and it was paired with a white dessert wine. And light bulbs just went off. I thought white wine was Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. And that's when I realized the way that wine could amplify the dining experience. I got into so much that I became a junior critic at the magazine, which paved the way for everything for me."
...his role as an Iron Chef and Top Chef judge: A long way from his Chicago roots, Ted now has one of the best jobs in the world: Tasting the food of Iron Chefs and Top Chefs from around the world. "I really love doing the judging work on both shows. Unfortunately it's been taken away from me, because I now have two shows on Food Network, Chopped, which premiers in February, and Food Detectives, which we're shooting our second season for. Food Network will not let me judge Iron Chef anymore because I have two shows on the network, and they don't want it to be perceived that I would have warm, gushy feelings towards my fellow Food Network people, and that I would not give the challengers a fair shake. They really take that very seriously. Anytime anything comes up were there's even the appearance of a question in integrity, the Network gets really hot an bothered and they crack down, understandably. You have to be able to trust that game shows like that are not rigged. There are actual laws about that stuff that apply to Iron Chef America, Top Chef, and Jeopardy, and that will apply to my new show Chopped, which is also a competition. I've judged somewhere between 50 or 60 Iron Chefs and the decision is always left in the hands of the judges. So I do respect Food Network for taking my favorite job away from me, but I also fought them on it!"
Throughout his many appearances as a judge on the two chefs, Ted Allen always towed the line between light heartedness and being a very serious critic, sort of like the judges panel's comic relief: "I think that's what they brought me in for in the first place. It's difficult to find people who know something about food, who can articulate it quickly, and who are funny. Which is why you'll see Iron Chef bringing in someone like the rap star, Bonecrusher. If you haven't seen the episode, he's an extremely large man. He's from Atlanta. It was great, because I think it was me and [Jeffrey] Steingarten, which are three very unlikely bedfellows. It makes for some interesting conversations."
Ted also explained the logistics of serving on the show, which are sort of sped up through editing: "The way it works is, the chefs have exactly 60 minutes to cook just as you see unfolding. A coin gets flipped to see who serves first, which is important because a lot of food won't hold during the 45 minutes you have to serve. You're not alowed to recook anything. They're allowed to keep things warm, and that's all. So a big part of the strategy is cooking food, say a piece of beef, to the right point where it will hold for 45 minutes or longer. And when you're a good chef you know how to do that. It tests a whole other set of skills."
Ted took a few minutes to reminisce about his meals on the show: "I have to say, after all those battles, I had almost nothing that wasn't incredibly good. There were a lot of great dishes, and it's hard to remember them all. But I think my favorite that I can remember was Battle Parmigiano. Mario [Batali] took an entire wheel of Parmigiano cheese and hollowed it into a bowl. He made a pasta carbonara, and tossed it in the bowl, where it melted the cheese a little and pulled up the flavor. Just the sheer decadence of it, I mean a wheel of Parmigiano is worth about a thousand dollars. It's the king of all cheeses. I love the theater of it, I love the flavor of it, obviously Mario Batali makes great pasta... I think that was my favorite one of all."
...his South Florida dining plans: "The irony of my work now is when I'm travelling to do an appearance or shooting a show, I usually don't get to eat anything good at all. Mainly just because of the hours. I've been to Fort Lauderdale before, but I would probably go to Michelle Bernstein's place. Table 8 is another place that I like here."
-- John Linn