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Interview with Ted Allen: Chopped, Queer Eye, and Garden of Eve

This Friday, September 14th the Howard Brown Health Center will be having their annual Garden of Eve Gala at the River East Center. The host for the VIP reception is Ted Allen, well-known author, chef and host of the Food Network’s show “Chopped.” Ted Allen, quite frankly, was a surprise to me…a pleasant one. Although I’ve only watched a handful of episodes of “Chopped,” I was an avid fan of “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy.”

It was the first and THE only reality TV show that I’ve ever watched regularly. Back then I remember feeling so proud to have a TV show featuring gay men. Talented, creative, witty, professional gay men, whose job it was to help a willing straight man get his shtuff together. Not only that, it also provided an opportunity for the average American to become ever so slightly more familiar with the “gays” in the comfort and/or secrecy of their own home. I loved that show. My point is, however, that Ted Allen gave me the impression that out of the Fab 5 he was the most reserved.  Not arrogant by any means, just not touchy-feely, happy-go-lucky, LMAO-funny.

Appearances in this case were very deceiving. Ted Allen, I found, is a genuine, down to earth, funny and passionate man. In the 40 or so minutes that I had the pleasure of conversing with him he spoke about a variety of subjects including memories of his time living here in Chicago with humor, compassion, modesty and an overwhelming sense of curiosity. If you’re a foodie like I am, you’ll get why by the end of his conversation about tomatoes I was salivating and craving fresh, home-made food that I MADE with my own hands and kitchen utensils. Since I had next to nothing in the fridge at the time, I settled for running down the street to the best Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. Ted Allen is an inspiration to me for his accomplishments, his talents, his generosity and his ability to remain approachable and plain ol’ Midwestern friendly!

Alma: First of all thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Also, I’m serving as a co-chair for Howard Brown’s Garden of Eve event, so I’d like to thank you for hosting this year’s VIP reception as well.

Ted:Well it’s an honor. You know, I have a little bit of a history with Howard Brown. Thanks for having me. My first reaction was, “why do you want a guy to host this event?”

At a time when you see one of the 2 major political parties enacting the platform in that yesterday, I think it’s an urgent time to be thinking about women’s health care to say nothing about LGBTQ rights. (It’s) the most anti-gay right platform ever written by any political party and what they want to do to women’s rights and women’s health care is outrageous. So it lends a special urgency to Garden of Eve this year. (It’s) a really good time to turn out and to dig deep.

A: I really appreciate you saying that. Actually that touches upon a few questions that I have. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to start with your beginnings. You’re originally from the Midwest. How do you think that’s played into your career and your attitude towards success?

T: In Chicago and NY I was always surrounded by people from all over the place. I seem to have an oddly large number of people from Texas working on the TV shows that I’ve done. Well, I mean, my mother raised me well. I’m polite. Usually. But I also think that New Yorkers are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We’re just in a hurry. It’s not that we’re rude. It’s that we don’t screw around.

A: Your career didn’t start in the culinary arts. It was in journalism. You’ve written books on many topics other than food and cooking. How did that come into being, your culinary career, and did you have it in mind in terms of a career?

T: Not really. I had always loved to cook but I wasn’t really cooking anything especially exotic or tricky when I was first working in Chicago. But all the way back to my very first job at Lerner newspapers, my partner Barry invented something called the “Famished Four” where myself and 2 of our other friends would go review restaurants and each of us would write part of the review. But it wasn’t until I got the job at Chicago Magazine that I got really into food; food being a very big part of the culture at Chicago Magazine. They are the most respected restaurant reviews in Chicago. I found myself getting sent out to interview chefs and write stories about new restaurants and I eventually auditioned to join the team of restaurant critics. I just sort of fell in love with chefs and restaurant culture, that world of generosity and celebration. It’s a pretty special world.

A: You’ve traveled around the world. How do you feel Chicago rates in regards to its diversity in its culinary options and the level of food that’s served here?

T: Oh world class! Chicago is one of the greatest restaurant towns in the country and has been an innovator for a long time. Look at Charlie Trotter. People forget that Charlie Trotter is the first American chef to make popular the tasting menu where you eat a series of small beautiful bejeweled little creations a la the French style and that, now at the highest echelons of fine dining, is the standard. Charlie Trotter trained a generation of chefs. He created single-handedly the first giant lush lavish coffee table cookbook. When that came out people thought he was crazy. It was a $50 book full of recipes that nobody could cook. Gorgeous but impossible. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t the point that you were going to go home and be Charlie Trotter. The point was to understand the legacy and level of insanity that he would go to to get flavor and to innovate.

A: …and to show his passion for food as an art form.

T: Yeah, an incredible sense of curiosity and creativity and the only bad thing about it was it was so expensive but so is a Picasso. What are you gonna do?

A: Right, right. Ted there are quite a number of us at the L Stop that are foodies and big fans of your show “Chopped.” By the way, congratulations on your recent James Beard award for the show. Consequently, I was sent a few interesting questions:

Who gets to choose the mystery basket ingredient and how is it done?

T: There’s a committee at Food Network that works with our production company. They want to come up with combinations of foods that …Uh, some people may think that those mystery baskets are random and they are not. The committee will not send out a basket unless they see a solution in it. So, let’s say they give you tomatillos, flat bread and silken tofu. They think you should figure out that what they want is a play on goat cheese and tomato soup. The chances of you actually figuring that out are very slim. It’s a lot of pressure.

A: I can imagine! What’s the biggest curve ball ingredient you’ve seen on “Chopped?”

T: Well, I don’t know that I can really point to one because if you think about lamb testicles, which are known as Rocky Mountain oysters, or rattle snake. Actually the ones that seemed to give people the most trouble are either the candies like Gummy Bears, Red Hots and stuff like that, other kinds of low quality processed foods like non-dairy whipped topping which is one of the most disgusting things ever invented. I mean the name of it “non-dairy whipped topping.” It’s whipped cream with no dairy in it. What are you talking about? Some kind of weird emulsification of oil and sugar. Why don’t you just buy cream and whip it. It’s super easy. You can do it with your eyes closed.

A: Talking about that and the American diet…there’s so much junk food and artificial ingredients. Do you think that all these culinary reality shows have helped at all in opening the eyes of the average American to eat right and the importance of good, fresh, real food?

T: I think it’s very inspiring and I think people learn a lot. Now I’ll admit “Chopped” requires people to cook with weird combinations of food. They often have ingredients that are jokey or silly like Red Hots or Doritos that’s not good for you and/or not a whole food. I used to object to that because I thought it wasn’t respectful enough of chefs. But I kind of figured out pretty quickly two things. One is that chefs love to be challenged and are not gonna whine about that. Their typical reaction is “Oh you want me to cook with lamb balls and Doritos? No problem.” The other thing is that obviously those jokey ingredients are one of the things the fans just love the most. When you see a snooty French chef that’s being forced to cook with Oreos…that’s funny. People love it. I do think that, the competitive aspect aside, I think you learn a lot watching a show like “Chopped.” I sure do. I’ve learned a ton about how to properly cook pasta, about how important it is to have acidity in your food. I learn so much from our judges. Last summer I had a BBQ for the “Chopped” judges at my house and Geoffrey Zakarian made a dish with heirloom tomatoes and peaches together. I would never have thought of that. It’s a wonderful combination.

A: It sounds like a great combination. You’re automatically flowing into some of the questions that I have. One of the other questions that was submitted is that you must have many celebrity chefs as friends, what would a casual BBQ at the Allen/Rice home look like?

T: When I’m doing it, it’s pretty straight forward. I might have a little twist here and there. That dish that Geoffrey made inspired me. I have a recipe in my new cookbook for bruschetta that’s made with half diced tomatoes and all the standard stuff that you’d put in but it’s half tomatoes and half strawberries. Another excellent combination…they’re both fruits, they’re both red, they’re both juicy and sweet and they go together beautifully. I love to serve that to people without telling them what it is. You bite into it and it’s sort of familiar and sort of surprising all at once. I’ve become a much better cook in the past couple years with all these chefs around me. I love it when vegetarians come over it gives me a focus. It gives me a challenge. Vegan is a little tough for me but I’m willing to try.

Stephanie Izard

A: Who’s your culinary hero? Or someone who really wow’s you?

T: There are so many. I’m super lucky because in my line of work I get to meet most of them. I would say Mark Ellman and Michael Pollan are heroes. I could sit here and rattle off the names of famous chefs for an hour, of people who I look up to…so many in Chicago. Stephanie Izard [of Girl & the Goat], I mean her restaurant is amazing. I do see more and more women chefs coming along and it was so exciting when Stephanie Izard won “Top Chef.” I got to judge that in Puerto Rico. She’s a real talent.

A: Another question from a fan. What’s the best kitchen find of the year or a gadget you could never do without?

T: I do love kitchen tools. I think right now I might say my Vitamix blender, which is great because it’s made in America. It’s also made in Cleveland. They’re not cheap but I love professional grade tools because they’re powerful and they last longer. The Vitamix blender is so strong, that when you mix smoothies in it and you put blackberries or raspberries it pulverizes those tiny little seeds that get into your teeth. You can also fill the blender with ice, then pour cold water up to the level of the ice and turn the blender on for about one second and you instantly have snow cone ice. It’s so strong. I don’t think you can do that with an ordinary blender.

A: No I’m sure you can’t. And, you know what? I think my parents have one of those.

T: Oh you should steal it from them!

A: I know I covet it! Believe me!

T: So your parents like to make tropical rum drinks, huh?

A: Well, we’re Mexican so margaritas are on the top of the list.

T: Yeah but no Mexican is gonna make a frozen margarita, are they?

A: No, but you know what, it’s such a popular drink that when my parents have parties, there are people that actually ask my dad for that. So he’s prepared!

T: They’re good once in a while. The gay boys certainly like them. They sell a hell of a lot of those at Sidetrack.

A: Yes, this is true!

Aaron Sanchez

T: Well, since you come from a Mexican American background. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “Chopped” but one of my favorite chefs is Aaron Sanchez. I only roll my “r’s” for him. He’s taught me an enormous amount about cooking. Not just Mexican. He’s got me doing my rice in the oven now because his restaurant does that. It’s kind of fool proof. You bring the water to a boil. You add your olive oil and salt or butter. You throw the rice in and then put the lid on and you finish it in the oven at 375. For white rice it’s about 18 minutes and it’s great because none of it burns on the bottom of the pan. The oven keeps the temperature regulated perfectly. I love it. It changed my life.

A: Yeah, in my past I had a partner who is Cuban and her mother taught me to make white rice that way.

T: It wasn’t Achy Obejas was it?

A: No, no although Achy Obejas is a friend of mine.

T: You know when you said that the person was Cuban that’s the first person that came to mind. Yeah Achy is cool. I haven’t seen her in a long time.

A: She’s another person in our community that I truly admire.

T: I had a date with one of her roommates about a million years ago.

A: Ted, here’s one last interesting question from a fan. Seeing that Election day is approaching, what dish would you prepare to best describe or just present to President Obama and what dish would you prepare to represent Romney?

T: Well I’m not cooking for Romney. That guy is an empty suit. He’s a selfish flip-flopping person. I agree with the President. He has no core. He just wants to create more tax breaks for himself and his buddies and doesn’t care about the real problems in our country. I think the President has done a magnificent job against incredible odds. I’m working hard to support him in what little way I can. I’d love to cook for the President and I’d love to do it right now because it’s tomato season. If I’m ever called upon to cook for somebody important, someone particularly important like that, my instinct would be to go with something fairly simple. This is a man who can eat the finest food whenever he wants. I know some of the restaurants that he’s been to. I know he loves Spiaggia in Chicago. Right now, I’d probably do something with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese and basil and really great olive oil. When it’s tomato season, I love to take tomatoes and cut them up, sprinkle Kosher salt on them and let it draw the juices out of the tomato for 15 minutes or so and then allow that to be the base of a pasta sauce. It could be just an uncooked pasta sauce, you know, or some other kind of salad that you can add things to. It’s just so vivid and bright and yummy. I’ve spoken to some of the white house chefs here and there over the years. I know that the Obama family likes pretty straight forward. But I think I’d start off with a really, really vivid Caprese salad and celebrate summer. I think the First Lady might appreciate that with her love of veggies. Maybe I’ll get the chance someday.

A: I’ll keep fingers crossed that you do, Ted. I know you made my mouth water! Some say that “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” was a breakthrough in television programming. How do you feel about that and your time on it?

T: Oh it was a blast and I’m still in touch with those guys. I’ll always be friends with those guys. We went through a pretty trippy experience together. You know, we didn’t think of ourselves as doing anything particularly important. I mean we were doing fashion makeovers and home makeovers and I was introducing people to food and wine. But it turned out that in our best episodes which were usually when we had a guy who was freaked out by all these fags swarming in and then warmed up to us and realized that we were deeply sincere about wanting to improve his life. That’s when it became somewhat profound. The other thing is that we were the first show to have 5 openly gay people playing themselves in a show and I think the result of that was in part, you know our audience was overwhelmingly straight and suddenly you have people in Des Moines, Iowa and Schenectady and Memphis welcoming us into their living rooms which in turn…we got hundreds and hundreds of letters from gay kids who told us that that helped in their journey. It made it a little easier for them to come out to their parents and to see that gay people could be successful. Now there were some people who thought that we showed that gay people could be successful in stereotypical fields. You know what? There are a lot of gay people in fashion. There are a lot of gay people in restaurants and there are a lot of gay decorators. That’s not something that any of us owes anybody an apology for. So, we played on those stereo types. We played with them. But we weren’t playing characters. We were ourselves. We’re all, for better or worse, actually like that.

A: Has there been a mention of a Fab 5 reunion?

T: I mentioned it to Bravo because the funny thing is that we made 99 episodes of “Queer Eye”. Normally, you want to make 100. That used to be the magic number for syndication which would mean the owners of the show, not the cast, would get rich selling it to other markets. It’s available on Netflix. So, we’re kind of getting discovered by a new generation. Anyway, we made 99 episodes and next July 2013 will be the 10th anniversary of our debut. So what I said to Bravo was we should make one more. We should have one reunion show where we find some pre-disaster of a straight guy and we turn him around on a gold-plated Denali and really just blow it out. I talk to Bravo about it and they like the idea. I don’t know whether they’ll do it or not.

A: I hope they do! I’d definitely watch the show. You know you still have a lot of “Queer Eye” fans.

T: You know ever since Bravo cut the Netflix deal, I’ve gotten people popping up on my Facebook page saying “Hey I just discovered your old show. Bring it back.” You know, it’s funny.

A: Talking about media presence, how do you feel about the progress of the LGBTQ community, with more queer characters, more LGBTQ topics on TV shows, more celebrities coming out, etc.? And how do you see yourself as part of helping to promote acceptance through your visibility?

T: Well I’m just lucky to be here and to have this job. I’m grateful to Food Network for being so welcoming to LGBT people. There are a lot of LGBT people in the executive suite at Food Network, as well as on camera and behind cameras and in kitchens. It’s funny it seems like we’re at a point where the population is overwhelmingly turning to be with us, especially younger people. And that’s just making the right wing nuts more and more desperate to pass laws and especially taking gay marriage to ballot referendums which is such an awful thing. You don’t let mob rule decide civil rights. Well unless you do, which has happened in 37 states and it’s appalling. And it’s gotta be stopped. But then you know it’s still encouraging. That’s what it must feel like to be a young African American gay youth to see this President stand up for us in ways that are risky. I mean the President refused to defend the DOMA on his own judgment that it’s unconstitutional. That’s dangerous. That’s a very risky thing for a president to do. It takes a lot of courage. And I’m deeply grateful for it. And then what do you get? You get John Boehner spending tax payer dollars to hire outside lawyers to defend that unconstitutional law for them. I should stay positive. I think it’s great to see Neil Patrick Harris speak of Ellen’s 15th anniversary. Any of us that get to be open and be in the entertainment business…that needs to be possible. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants and we’re super lucky. It’s good for everybody. Look, yesterday Ann Romney tells people that “Modern Family” is her favorite show. Even Ann Romney is saying that. But why is she saying that? Well she’s probably saying that because they’re trying to humanize themselves and make themselves out to be normal, non-extreme people. Well, you know what? You’re the people behind that platform that wants to ban abortion even in the case of rape or incest, that wants to bring back “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” that wants to tie DOMA and the constitution so screw you about watching “Modern Family.”

A: Yeah, that means nothing.

T: That means absolutely nothing. It’s a real sign of weakness to try and play that card. So, you know how it is. You know how it’s always been with our movement. It’s two steps forward and one step back.

A: Yes, well as long as there are steps forward….

T: So long as we go forward…

A: Ted, you’re hosting the VIP reception at the Garden Of Eve. I’m sure you’ve participated in many events like that. Out of all the issues, and I know there are many, but what LGBTQ issues are you most passionate about? What really strikes a chord with you?

T: The thing that we’ve been after all along. Marriage equality popped up and has become something. I mean demanding the right to have a monogamous marriage is a pretty conservative idea isn’t it? I think it’s a winner because I think even conservatives can understand it, at least some of them. I think lesbian visibility is important. I work in a business where we struggle to get women chefs into our competition because the fact is that the chef business is overwhelmingly male to this day….probably 9 men for every 1 woman. I love seeing women represented in our great restaurants and on our show and on our network. Gay youth… I was privileged to MC the Point Foundation Gala this year in New York. It’s so inspiring. In fact, that’s probably nearest and dearest to my heart…to see a group that’s funded by fortunate people who have made money in their careers and who are able to give back. Even in this day and age, gay kids are told by so many forces in the culture that they’re worthless, that they’re going to hell, that they’re degenerates and disgusting and the suicides are such a painful thing to see happen around us. Then the Point Foundation comes along and says, “No, actually you’re awesome and you’re going to Harvard. And you’re beautiful and you’re wonderful and you’re smart. You’ve worked so hard. We’re going to give you this chance.” I find that incredibly inspiring, really cool.

A: Yes, that’s our future right there.

T: Yes of course it is.

A: Thank you so much Ted. Is there anything you’d like to share with us in terms of what you’ve got going on in the future, any plans?

T: Well right now I’m basically on vacation. I’m doing gardening and working on the house and doing all the stuff that gets put on the back burner when we’re shooting. I’m mainly excited about my new cookbook which came out in May called “In My Kitchen.” I’m excited to come back and do something with Howard Brown which when I was coming out in my 20’s is where I used to go for free HIV testing. I used to go to Horizons for my coming out group. I made some good friends. The next thing is we go back to the studio and start shooting “Chopped” again shortly after Thanksgiving.

A: Congratulations on all your accomplishments. I have to say that it’s been a pleasure and an honor to speak with you. You just seem so down to earth and real and passionate about many things. That’s very refreshing. It’s been quite an enlightening interview. So I thank you for your time. I’m looking forward to meeting you at the Garden of Eve.

T: Thanks, I appreciate your interest and your short questions.

Event Details

Garden of Eve
Friday, September 14, 2012
6pm-12am
River East Art Center
435 E. Illinois St.

CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS!!!

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About Alma

A Chicago original of Mexican decent, Alma has been part of the Chicago’s LGBTQ community longer than she’d like to admit. She’s been maneuvering through its diverse social circles, networking relentlessly in an attempt to satisfy her need to understand and get to know the people that make up our amazing and unique community. Her path began as a social butterfly whose interests were solely to meet and entertain friends. Now her desire is to channel her strengths, talents and passion into ways she can be of service for the Chicago LGBTQ community that she so loves and respects.

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