Most people don't realize but Ted Allen
, best known as the host of the wildly popular cooking challenge show "Chopped
" on Food Network
, began his career as a journalist with a masters degree from New York University. As a food critic at Chicago
magazine, under the direction of Editor Richard Babcock, Ted fell in love with chefs and the art of cooking. He transferred that passion for food to his own kitchen where he enjoys the few moments of spare time his busy schedule allows these days cooking for friends with his longtime partner Barry Rice. Now the winner of not one but two James Beard Foundation
Awards - one for Television Program (Studio) and Media Personality/Host - for his work on "Chopped," which he says is "enormously indisputable validation," he is on his way to the Hamptons this weekend to host the 21st annual James Beard
Foundation summer gala, Chefs & Champagne
, at Wolffer Estate Vineyards
Producers Linda Lea and Vivian Sorenson celebrate the James Beard Foundation Award win. (Photo: Ken Goodman)
As friendly and easy in 'real life' as he seems on television, my conversation with Allen, who I must refer to with familiarity as Ted going forward since we enjoyed a conversation about our shared passion for food rather than an clinical exchange of questions between reporter and subject, was a pleasure. His enthusiasm about food and chefs he admires was contagious and left me rushing to the market looking for inspiration for my evening meal. Taking a page or two from his book, "In My Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, 2012), I whipped up a tomato and strawberry bruschetta (p. 13) and grilled flank steak (p. 108), both were delicious with a glass of local wine.
"I have to say, thanks in no small measure to the James Beard Foundation, my summer is going awesomely!" was how my conversation with Ted began. "Susan Ungaro
, who is the president of James Beard Foundation, is such a friend and has allowed me to present at the awards for the past five or six years and I've been so happy for that. To get to rub shoulders with the best chefs in the country, wow! It's the Oscars of the food world! [Winning a JBF award] is a dream that most chefs will never realize. I certainly never thought that I'd win one." With a self-deprecating sense of humor that makes him so charming he went on to remark, "It's a lot easier to get lucky getting a job on a TV show that someone else thought of then win a James Beard Award."
Ted started his TV career as the knowledgeable 'food guy' on pop cultural reality phenomenon, "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy
" in 2002 which enjoyed the white hot glare of fame for a solid two years. But don't call it a reality show around Ted who explains with a laugh, "There's really no 'reality' in having five gay men descend upon a sloppy straight man and give him a TV, and a haircut, and whiten his teeth, and teach him how to make a soufflé. That's really not reality." He got the job when, "About 500 people auditioned for Queer Eye and lucky for me most of the people who interviewed for the food category didn't love food."
Ted and the cast of "Queer Eye" won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004. (Photo: Getty Images)
While on "Queer Eye" Ted was asked to be a guest judge on "Iron Chef America
" and then "Top Chef
," both shows at the time were in their infant stages and trying to gain traction in the growing food show market. It was during these stints as a judge that the world fell under the spell of Ted's love for food. His ability to translate to the public the techniques and lingo used by the chefs that seem daunting to the uninitiated made food accessible. "I try very hard to explain food in a way that everyone can understand as opposed to trying to show off how brilliant I am or something and apparently that's not easy for people to do." For example, "Like on 'Chopped' a chef judge will say, 'Oh, I see he's making a gastrique.' And I feel compelled to say, 'So basically he's making a sweet and sour sauce.' As soon as I say that I'm opening the door for the audience instead of closing the door on the audience. And it's valuable. We're here to teach people and inspire them to love food."
A self-described "food lover," when the conversation turns to "Chopped" and the chefs he admires Ted gave me a little more background on his professional career, "I didn't go to culinary school or get trained as a chef although I did work at the fry counter of a Ponderosa when I was sixteen so that doesn't count. There are so many chefs I admire." He calls many of these chef's friends including, "Anthony Bourdain
, Wylie Dufresne, and Eric Ripert
. I know all these people now and it is such a thrill and a privilege to know these people. My God, they are the best cooks in New York!"
Ted Allen and Barry Rice. (Photo: Ben Fink)
I mentioned many TV chefs and personalities over the course of our chat including Ina Garten
, Julia Child
, Martha Stewart
, and Alton Brown
- four TV chefs each with their own style and sensibility. "When I think about Martha Stewart I think I've learned more from her than anyone else," replied Ted. "We [Barry and I] were fans of her original TV show and then we were fans of 'Whatever Martha' by her daughter. Here's the thing, people accuse Martha Stewart of being too perfect and intimidating some people but I'm not sure I see it that way. When I watch Martha Stewart I see her instructing me how to cook...and I think if pressed Martha Stewart's message is 'you can do it, but not as well as I can.' I'm OK with that and it's cool. I love Martha!" And the others? "Ina and Alton are more door opening than Martha, she indeed is a perfectionist. I have never met Ina and I really hope she comes to [Chefs & Champagne on July 21] because I really want to meet her. She makes food that is classically rooted but usually simple and doable but very elegant. That's so valuable to a home cook."
"Julia Child was the original cookbook author," remarked Ted as we spoke about "In My Kitchen" and the premise of "Chopped." "There you had a woman who translated classic French cooking to America. Not sure if people really wanted to know but it really grew. She was a woman who would drop a chicken on the floor and then say, [in a spot-on Julia Child mimic he continued]
'It's OK, just rinse it off.' You can't do that on 'Chopped' but you can at home."
At home Ted is most happy in the kitchen with Barry, who created the desserts for the book, and surrounded by friends, "When we have a Sunday with nothing to do that's where we go, we always go to the kitchen. We get some great friends and some great stuff together and we drink a bunch of wine and hang out and cook. I wanted the book to capture that idea."
"There are so many cookbooks out there right now trying to get you out of the kitchen," he went on to say. "Well, I love being in the kitchen. Why do we have this attitude that the only cookbooks we need are for Tuesday night after soccer practice or before ballet lessons? I reject the idea that the only way to feed your family quickly is McDonalds or some crap out of the box. It's not true!"
"The point is the recipes are in the book because I love cooking them and they all contain some little epiphany about food that changed my cooking life." The goal of the book is, "To encourage more people to think about cooking itself as fun, because it is when you know what you're doing. Maybe some people hate it but I just don't think they've cooked with the right people."
Ted with "Chopped" judges Geofrey Zakarian, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Chris Santos. (Courtesy Photo)
And just who are those right people? When pressed, Ted answered me regarding what he would put in the "Ultimate Basket" and selected the chefs he'd like to see battle it out on "Chopped" if given the chance. "I'm very much a fanboy. I don't think of 'Chopped' as a reality show, I think of it as a game show which makes me the Alex Trebek of cable food networks and I'll take that...Here's the difference between me and TV producer, I want to see the chefs make something amazingly delicious. I'm less interested in freaking people out with 'Fear Factor' ingredients like Rocky Mountain Oysters and Doritos. Rather I'm interested in seeing chefs become magicians making something wonderful. I'd want Michael Symon
, Marcus Samuelsson
, Alexandra Guarnaschelli
, and Mark Murphy or some similarly amazing group of talent. I'd give them rack of pork, parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes, and spicy chilies. And I'd say, 'go for it, whadda ya got?' Take a Berkshire pork chop and some spicy chilies and give it to an Italian and come on, so good."
Ted Allen - looking for something tasty at the market. (Photo: Ben Fink)
My new friend Ted, we're friends at that point in the interview, does not have a place in the Hamptons to call his own, rather he enjoys grilling in his Brooklyn backyard and visiting Hamptons friends like "Chopped" executive producer Linda Lea, who has a place in East Hampton, and chef Mark Murphy, who has a home on the water in Bridgehampton. "Anytime you're at Mark's it's a party. We were there a couple weeks ago and it was three hours before dinner and 20 people were coming. Mark said, 'All I've got to do is grill the steak, and make kabobs and the ceviche, and make the vinaigrette for the asparagus and scallion salad, and make this and make that.' I love to cook but I am not a professional chef and when you have friends that are when you cook with them at home it's really so much fun. There's so much magic, just effortlessly."
The Hamptons gastronomic gala, where Ted plans to wear a brown and white seersucker suit, comes in the middle of a cross-country book tour for his newest cookbook, "In My Kitchen." After flipping through the pages filled with delicious dishes and photos of Ted and his friends one can't help but agree that this is a book for people who love cooking. I for one would love to be a guest at one of his dinner parties, to sit on a stool and watch the masters
at work. I'd even help do the dishes if it meant I could be part of the experience.
Nicole, an award-winning journalist, is Executive Editor & Publisher of Hamptons.com where she focuses on celebrity interviews, fine living and design, social events, fashion and beauty. She lives on the North Fork with her husband, their two daughters, and Bernese Mountain dog, Cooper. www.hamptons.com