Ted Allen on Chopped, His New Cookbook and 'Pretentious Foodie Bulls*it'
There's a hole in the sidewalk in front of Ted Allen's Brooklyn townhouse as I arrive for our interview. A cluster of city workers are gathered around it, looking concerned. A gasline
has burst. The Food Network host steps outside and a female worker greets him, "Hi, Teddy. I'm sorry but I don't think you're gonna get your tree back." Allen is let down, but the workers are quick to console him by suggesting alternatives. Maybe a shrub? A rosebush? The workers are eager to help him out because he exudes niceness, both on TV (Allen was on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and currently hosts the Food Network's cooking competition show Chopped) and in person. If there were an award for Mr. Nice Guy, Allen would win it. But he'll have to settle for a James Beard Award instead. Allen has been nominated for best Media Personality/Host and his show, Chopped, is a contender in the Television Program category. We sat down and talked TV, food, fashion and his upcoming cookbook, In My Kitchen.
Congratulations on the Beard nominations! If you could come up with a new category
for the awards, what would it be?
Thanks! How about for charcuterie? Or what about a category for new artisanal food
products? I think that could be awesome with Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta and McClure's
Pickles and there's this great mayonnaise company in Brooklyn.
Speaking of ingredients, I love the 'mystery basket' aspect of Chopped, in which the contestants cook with mystery ingredients. How much input do you have into those baskets?
There is a committee at Food Network that picks the ingredients. Once in a while, myself or
the judges might object to an ingredient and then ask that it be removed or swapped out.
Because sometimes we've had baskets that just looked so impossible that we pleaded for
mercy to have something changed. Not that often, though.
Do you ever feel bad about what you give the contestants in the basket?
I feel terrible all the time. We had Rocky Mountain oysters [bull calf testicles] the other day.
But that's the show. It's not about making it easy on them.
What would you do if you got pink slime as an ingredient in the mystery basket?
I would demand it be removed. That's disgusting. It's horrifying. You have to treat it with
ammonia to make it safe to serve? That's not my idea of good food.
I was so surprised to find myself crying when I watched the school lunch ladies
compete on "Chopped." What was it like to film?
The moment those women walked in and we started talking to them, it hit us all how
profoundly disrespected those people are. We all remember bad food from school and we
blamed them for it. But the reality is that they're underpaid, they have no budgets and many of them don't have much training. They're restricted by all these laws and regulations and for the most part are handed 50-gallon drums full of frozen product and are expected to serve it. And we realized that they love children and some even go as far to spend their own money to send poor kids home with food in backpacks. It was a profound and moving day. I have done a lot of TV with emotional wallop in it and the Queer Eye guys would tear up all the time. I had never shed a tear on television until the Lunch Ladies episode.
Is there a reason why you don't plug the judges' restaurants on the show?
We are starting to now. That has driven me insane from the very beginning of the show.
The thinking was that Food Network doesn't do product placement and they didn't want
the show to seem like a commercial. Our writer had to write these torturous, meaningless
descriptors of them. Pasta perfectionist, Scott Conant! The Bistro Baron, Marc Murphy!
Rock 'n Roll Chef Chris Santos! I bitched about it for the first two years. And finally I put
my foot down and said that these people deserve to have their restaurants plugged. It only
makes "Chopped" look better when you say that your judge is the creator of Scarpetta,
for God's sake. All of these people have written cookbooks. They have shows. They have
multiple restaurants. I finally just broke down and pleaded, and now we're doing it.
I loved you in the Onion video Pretentious Foodie Bullshit. What inspired that amazing satire video?
The Onion News Network asked me to come on and do a segment with them. I was so
delighted. It was a chance for me to do something where I wasn't so stiff and uptight, the
way I look on Chopped. I probably should not have said the word 'gaywad,' though, but it
was in the script and I didn't want to be that guy changing the script.
Is there a trend going on right now that you feel is real pretentious foodie bullshit?
I have no problem with modernist techniques as long as they're a means to an end and not
just silliness. I've been to a couple of very, very expensive, fancy, precious restaurants that
are all about this theatricality and doing things like putting food on the tip of a twelve inch-
long needle and blowing smoke at it and lighting fires around it. But it's kind of like porn,
you know? It's kind of hard to define it but I know pretentious foodie bullshit when I see it.
What was your reaction to Simon Doonan's take on gay food versus straight food in
the New York Times and PAPER?
Well, he is such a creative visionary genius and such a funny, witty guy. I love Simon but I
don't really think there is such a thing as gay food. I used to get that question when I was
on Queer Eye. If you wanted to be silly you could say, 'Yeah, gay food is quiche, Tic Tacs,
M&M's, Marlboro Lights...and the Supermodel guy.' He's just being silly. He's having a good
time with it. More power to him.
Is the way your clothing is styled on Chopped close to your own style?
Yes, very. And it's affected my own personal style since I don't have time to go shopping so I
keep some of those clothes and I rock the Converse All-Stars.
But this season I noticed that you are not wearing sneakers so much.
The producers go through phases where I must always be in a necktie and suit. I would
prefer jeans and a jacket myself. I'm much more comfy in jeans and sneakers. Actually,
Converse All-Stars themselves are not very comfortable at all. But the look is fun. Right now
the producers are very much in a suit phase. I'm in a tie almost every episode and I'm all
right with that. As long as the collar doesn't squeeze my ever-fattening neck.
So what do you like to wear when you're cooking at home?
Pretty much this -- jeans and a sweatshirt or T-shirt. I never wear an apron. I don't like how
aprons look. I've got like 20 chef's jackets that people have given me from various festivals
but I never wear them. I feel kind of silly, like I'm wearing a period costume.
I know you have a cookbook coming out May 1. What did you think of that recent
Julia Moskin story in the Times, about the whole cookbook ghostwriter
Scandal! That was an interesting story. I wrote my book in its entirety. And I also developed
all of the recipes, with a few exceptions. My partner Barry [Rice, an interior designer] did
most of the desserts and I did enlist some help to develop a few of the recipes because I
just ran up against my deadline. Moskin's story had some valid points. One thing about that
story that pissed me off, though, was that they showed a picture of April Bloomfield's book, the cover of which says 'by April Bloomfield with JJ Goode.' That's not a ghostwriter. That's a co-author. Ghosts are invisible; you can't see 'em. So I thought that was an unfair inclusion. April didn't use a ghostwriter in that case. She used someone to help her. To think that there's
anything wrong with a very busy chef hiring somebody to help with writing.... First of all,
as Bobby Flay said in that story, he's not a writer. And not only that, he's a professional
chef who owns multiple restaurants and is super busy. It's the height of naÃ¯vete if people
think that somebody like that doesn't need help. Sure, the chefs should be nice to you. They
shouldn't belittle you. They shouldn't throw veal chops at you. And they should credit you
the way you agreed upon being credited. But to feel resentful -- and there was this definite
tone of resentment to that whole story -- to feel resentful toward star chefs like Emeril
Lagasse or Martha Stewart, about them hiring you and paying you to develop recipes under
their direction is ludicrous. It certainly got people talking. I don't think it's going to help
Julia Moskin get a lot more book deals.
Your background is in journalism. Did it feel good for you to write again?
Yes. I love writing. But I feel that I have an opportunity right now to do this television
business. I think you could write when you're 80. I have one friend who's a columnist at the
Sun Times who complained that I was wasting my life in reality television and depriving the
world of my brilliant voice..... Look, there are so many people bloviating on-line and in
books and in articles. I'm not saying that I have nothing to say; I have something to say. But
I think I'm being perfectly productive right now.
What else can Ted Allen fans look forward to besides the cookbook?
I'll be on a book tour. And believe it or not, the 10th anniversary of Queer Eye is July 23rd.
I don't know if Bravo would go for it but I would love to do a reunion episode. Just one. Of
course, we would have to find the ultimate straight guy. And I'm not sure who that might
In My Kitchen is out May 1st via Random House.
Photo by Peter Ross.