For many of us, Ted Allen has been a consistent presence on our television screens for over a decade, first as the food and wine expert among the “fab five” cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and then as a judge or host of our favorite food shows, including Top Chef, Chopped and, most recently, All-Star Academy. But who is that nice man with the ready smile? Food Republic contributor Tom Roston wondered, and got the opportunity to go long for a Kindle Singles Interview. They got personal and covered many corners of food culture until the sun went down in Allen’s gorgeous — or what he calls “stupid” — Brooklyn home.
Here’s a glimpse of what happens when the Food Network star stops being polite in an exclusive excerpt that covers their discussion about Chopped, the show in which chefs must cook up dishes from baskets with four mystery ingredients. To read the entire interview, download it to your Kindle for 99 cents.
What was it like for you when you first heard about the show, the basket and the weird ingredients?
Well, for the first year or so, I wished that there was never anything in the basket that was gross or processed. I still don’t want to see eyeballs, which we’ve done.
Testicles. Many times. It’s really hard for us to keep a straight face. We’re like 12-year-olds whenever balls are in the basket.
“Balls in the basket.” And then there was “spotted dick.”
I came to realize that, first, that’s what makes it funny for the audience. The second thing, which made me decide I was okay with it, is that chefs never complain about it. The chefs don’t whine about being handed a really horrible basket with processed junk. Even leftover soda pop with melted ice. Chefs are so competitive. And whining is not tolerated in professional kitchens. And your job, dammit, is to make something delicious out of whatever I hand you. They have a kind of bravado that embraces that and says, “Oh, you think I can’t cook with this? Screw you, I can cook with anything.” And that is what matters. That’s what makes them cool. That’s what makes me love them. That’s one thing that chefs have in common with people in production and reporters. Taking no for an answer is not an option. I came to terms with how I felt about the sacrilege of putting Kool-Aid in a basket and handing it to a trained chef who normally works with beautiful things.
What they are doing is they’re surrendering. And they’re control freaks. Just like directors. They’re surrendering everything. They’re surrendering all the choices of ingredients, they’re putting themselves out there, making themselves vulnerable for everyone to laugh if they screw up. And they’re still willing to do it, and we’ve had twelve hundred, thirteen hundred of them at this point. More and more are still signing up every day. The point is that if it doesn’t bother them, it shouldn’t bother me. I do fight sometimes — and so do the judges — if there’s a collection of ingredients that we just think is too sadistic.
Or too tacky. Or one that might reflect poorly on our judges who own restaurants. There was once, we were doing a special where we had comedians on, and somebody thought it would be funny to put a lollipop in the basket that was shaped like a toilet. I said, “Absolutely not.” [Chef and Chopped judge] Geoffrey [Zakarian] said, “Absolutely not.” We’re not going to discuss whether there’s enough toilet flavor in the dish. To make matters worse, the toilet was not empty.
There was something in there?
A depiction of something inside the toilet.
Was it brown?
It was. It’s funny. I hate to be the person slowing down the show, especially first thing in the morning with a last-minute complaint like that, but I don’t have time to review all those things before we go in. And so the amusing thing was somebody in the staff took wet paper towels and tried to remove that item from inside the toilet bowl. I was just like … And I have so much respect for our team and I’m not at all some kind of ego-driven, diva person, but when I saw that, I was like, “You know what? I’ve got all damned day for you to get that thing out of that basket because we’re not starting until that thing is out of that basket.” I rarely do anything like that. But I can prevent the show from occurring because I’m in every shot. So if you make me mad enough…
Have there been several incidents like that, or was there just one?
That was a rare example. Everyone is just trying to do a good job. They’re just trying to get fun in the proceedings. I don’t blame anybody for trying that. That was just, for my sensibilities, just a little too gross.
Not just gross; it was tacky.
It was tacky.
I imagine it was a sensibility that you don’t think reflects the show.
No, and ultimately, I don’t think it reflects Food Network’s vibe. I think we were right to take it out.
Have you volunteered ideas for items to go in the basket?
No. They actually put a lot of work into figuring that out. They plan the baskets for a whole season, so that’s three baskets a day, times four ingredients, times thirty-nine episodes; and all the baskets have a riddle inside them. It’s hard work. And finding things we haven’t already used is harder and harder. I don’t want to be involved in that. I have enough problems just learning my lines. There’s a group of people run by the culinary department of Food Network who hashes that out.
You never go to a restaurant and say, “Oh, this would be a great ingredient to put on Chopped?” I do.
I might pop them an email once in a while, but they work all the time doing that.
How do you see your role on the show? Are you more in the judges’ camp or in the chefs’ camp?
I’m definitely more in the judges’ camp. My natural inclination, if I meet a group of chefs, is I want to converse with them. I will say, “Thanks for being here. How are you? Good luck.” I’d love to chat and learn about their lives, but the producers don’t want to create a familiarity between us. They want them to be on edge and focused on cooking. And there should be tension. There should be stakes here. This should matter. I think that my job is to learn the lines and belt them out. I think that’s one of the things I’m good at. I don’t think I have the job because of my raw sexual animal magnetism. One of the few regrets I have about the show is that, as you alluded before, I do have to play the straight man. I think I’m fairly loose in real life. We all joke around, the judges and myself, it’s filthy. Filthy.
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