From foodie to Food Network star

Ted Allen talks about his rise to fame, his newest show and how he makes easy work of Thanksgiving entertaining

Q: You started your career as a print journalist. How did you wind up on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a food and wine connoisseur?
A: I started as a copy editor at a newspaper in the middle of nowhere in Indiana and landed in Chicago where I got my first real newspaper job. Then I got a job at Chicago magazine where I was the front of the book editor and feature writer. Just as with so many city magazines, food and restaurants are a huge part of the culture so I found myself getting sent out to interview chefs when they unveiled new seasonal menus and just kind of fell in love with it all.

I was always into cooking but in our family we really weren’t into fancy food. At Chicago magazine I got exposed to pairing food with wine, going to finer restaurants and I tasted the food of some amazing Chicago chefs. When I got to know a little more about food it also sort of dovetailed with when my friends and I all turned about 30 and some of us got good jobs and some of us had kids and we weren’t hanging around in bars every night. Instead we started entertaining at home and cooking for one another. Between that and the magazine work, I got interested in it enough to become a restaurant critic. I got this job along with my other job and just had a ball doing it.

Then after that I worked for Esquire for a while and did some more food stuff. Then Queer Eye came along. At that point I had been at Esquire for about six years. My editor had gotten fired so I didn’t have as strong of an advocate at the magazine any more and I was getting a little bit bored so I thought I would go to the audition.

I was always auditioning for the food and wine guy job. I don’t know a lot about fashion…actually I know a bit about fashion but you’d never know it from my outfits.

I got the job on Queer Eye, weirdly. Even more weirdly the show made it on to the air. And weirder above all, the show was really popular. And one thing led to another.

When Queer Eye was really big, Food Network asked me to be a guest judge on Iron Chef just once during the first season. I did it, I loved it, and apparently they liked what I was doing because they started bringing me back. At the same time, in the same year, Top Chef asked me to do the same thing. There is so much good luck in all of this. I got the Queer Eye job out of five or six hundred people who auditioned for the show. I still can’t believe it happened. I was even more lucky when, after Queer Eye ran its course, I remained very visible on Bravo and the Food Network at the same time during the two years or so it took me to find another show to do. Obviously I wanted another show, but a lot of people want TV shows and they’re very hard to get. I’m not an obvious candidate for very many kinds of shows. I’m not a 23-year-old beautiful woman. I’m not trained as an actor. I’m not a singer or a dancer.

Q: From your work at Esquire to your time on Queer Eye you’ve clearly had lot of experience schooling men on etiquette. What are some of the most atrocious faux pas that needed addressing?
A: Queer Eye was always, really at its heart, about helping the guy get the girl and also validating women’s deep-seated knowledge that every man is a project. What wasn’t being said was that every gay man is also a project in one way or another.

Obviously a lot of men need help in the style department and there was never anybody out there doing it. Dad wasn’t telling you how clothes should fit you, unless he was Italian, in which case he might have. American culture, until the last few years, and we played a little part in this I think, did not look very kindly upon a guy asking another guy “Hey dude, how do these jeans look on me?” That just really wasn’t done. I think its done a lot more now, and some of it was done directly in response to Queer Eye. Probably the biggest faux pas that American, and I would guess Canadian, men commit with clothes is that they buy clothes that are too big. You’ll see guys walking down the street wearing khakis and Tommy Hilfiger dress shirts that are designed to fit a 300-pound man.

Q: What about food faux pas?
A: I’m always surprised when I meet people who always want to eat the same thing, who aren’t curious about different types of food, and who don’t make an effort to try different types of food. That’s one of the most fascinating things in the world to me.

Q: At Chatelaine we’re extremely interested in food. Do you have any tips for throwing a great dinner party?
A: It’s a good idea to keep some stuff in the pantry that you can pull out at a moment’s notice if somebody shows up. Obviously it’s better to have fresh everything, but it’s kind of nice to have some frozen deveined tail-on shrimp and a good quality cocktail sauce on hand. You can rinse them under cold water and they thaw immediately and you have shrimp cocktail, which everybody loves including kids. Make sure you have plenty of crackers and hard cheeses, which keep a long time. And keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge.

Always have one or two dishes that can be served at room temperature. And that can be prepared ahead of time. Prepare as much ahead of time as you can so you’re not panicking and having a lousy time while the rest of your friends are hanging out. By the way, if you’re panicking while they’re there, they’re not going to be having as good of a time.

Q: Have you ever had a get-together or dinner party that turned out to be a bit of a disaster?
A: Yes. Before I knew how to cook very well I was going to cook beef tenderloin filets for my friend Liz. I thought I would give them a little marinade because beef tenderloin doesn’t have much flavour – there’s no marbling in it. Unfortunately I marinated it in something acidic – I think it was a balsamic vinaigrette or something – for hours and hours. If you marinate beef tenderloin for hours in something acidic, when you cook it, it has the texture of approximately mashed potatoes. Not good. My friend Liz is the best dinner guest you’ll ever have because she eats every single thing on the plate. I watch her because I’m fascinated by this. She cleans her plate every time and she will tell you that everything was spectacular. Another point when you’re having people over for dinner is never apologize for the food you’re serving because it makes people feel awkward and it forces them to say “No, that beef tenderloin was delicious” when it wasn’t – which is of course what Liz did for like a month. Finally I pinned her down and I said “Liz, for the love of God, will you just acknowledge that I ruined the steak?”

I actually am a good cook. Because I’m not a chef I need to be careful about being too self-deprecating because I’m going to get columnists and bloggers saying “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I do know a lot about food. I don’t know as much as Jeffrey Steingarten – few people do. But I’m working on it.

Q: Do you have any tips for entertaining during Thanksgiving?
A: I actually have a recipe on for a deconstructed turkey. I came up with that idea because Thanksgiving and the holidays are the time of year when almost everybody’s cooking, even the people who don’t know how to, and there’s nothing that creates more anxiety for people than roasting a gigantic turkey. For the deconstructed turkey you go and buy a turkey breast and turkey legs, separately. There are several advantages to this: it thaws faster, it cooks faster, it’s already partly carved for you because it’s in pieces and you can get as many or as few pieces of dark meat or white meat as you want. Also, the problem with roasting a turkey or a chicken is that not all parts cook at the same speed. This way you can cook them separately to get everything to the right temperature at the same time. The only downside is that you don’t have the big beautiful bird on the platter.

In terms of wine: People forget that turkey is a game bird and I know most people go with white wine with poultry but turkey has more flavour than chicken and can definitely support drinking a light red like a pinot noir or a grenache; I think it’s a better pairing. There’s nothing wrong with serving white wine though I’d go with a fairly big white wine – chardonnay could make sense. There are a lot of buttery dishes served at Thanksgiving and California chardonnays tend to have a buttery quality. Or Alsatian whites like a pinot gris – that would also be nice if you want something a little sweeter.
When you’re trying to pick a wine for Thanksgiving it’s incredibly hard because everybody always has like nine different things on the table ranging from cranberry sauce to stuffing to turkey, so my suggestion is to have a few different wines.

Q: Can you explain the premise of your new show Chopped?
A: To my everlasting amusement, I’m a game show host now. Chopped is basically a culinary game show. We do have a different twist from other cooking competition shows though, which is that every week we have a different cast of four chefs. They’re not celebrity chefs, they’re the kind of chefs who are behind the stoves in the restaurants of Toronto and New York and Detroit and they’re the people who are actually making the food that you eat. Some of them are high-level haute cuisine executive chef types. And then we’ve had people from very humble-seeming workaday lunch counter-type restaurants. We’ve found that that mix makes for the best show.

We start with four chefs. We have three rounds: appetizer, entrée and dessert. For each round the chefs get a basket of mystery ingredients and here’s the key that makes this contest so hard – the basket has multiple ingredients – three or four ingredients that don’t necessarily go together in an obvious way. The chefs have a staggeringly short period of time to figure out how to make them go together in a harmonious way. I don’t know if people really realize how incredibly hard that is. Iron Chef America is hard…it’s very hard. But on Iron Chef America you get one secret ingredient and you can do whatever you want with it. A good chef, if you give him a mango or a piece of Kobe beef, he’s going to have something in his playbook. But if you give him a piece of Kobe beef and a mango and shrimp and Pabst Blue Ribbon and tell him they have to work together in one harmonious dish it’s ridiculously hard. And that’s entertaining. The winner of the show goes home with $10,000 and the next week there’s a new group of chefs.

There’s been a continued surge in people’s interest in the fascinating world of food – from people who want to learn how to cook new things to people who don’t cook at all. That’s where a show like Chopped comes in. We have lots of viewers who don’t cook. We turn food into a basketball game. But at the same time, if you’re obsessed with food the way I am, you learn so much.

I love it because I get to stand there, for 12 hours a day, next to these amazing chefs from New York City. If I have a question about food I can ask them. Even watching the shows I’ve learned so much and been exposed to so much it’s really a privilege and the viewers have that too.

Q: Would you be happy to stay working in TV?
A: Absolutely. I read an interview with Jay Leno where he said that if you’re able to stay on television for seven years, you’ll be on television your whole career. I’m in year six, so I hope he was right. I’ve got one more year to go.

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