Ted Allen, Host of Chopped, Explains Why We Should Dine Out for Life
by Alina Oswald
“What’s for dinner?” The ever-recurring and often tedious question we ask ourselves (or are being asked) almost every single day may finally get a favorable answer, at least for one day. Imagine this: It’s Thursday night, a weeknight, and you don’t have to prepare dinner. Instead, you go out to eat, and maybe even bring your friends and family along. And you feel good about it, because you go Dining Out for Life.
On Thursday, April 24, you and your loved ones can do just that. You can dine out for a good cause—that is raise money to fight HIV and AIDS, as part of the Dining Out for Life fundraising event.
Dining Out for Life started in 1991, thanks to a volunteer at ActionAIDS Philadelphia. The idea behind it is quite simple: “Dine Out, Fight AIDS.” All you have to do to support the cause is go out on the last Thursday of April, and eat at one of the Dining Out for Life participating restaurants. In turn, the restaurants donate part of the day’s proceeds to DOFL participating AIDS service organizations.
While the fundraiser takes place each year on the last Thursday of April, some participating restaurants pick their own dates, sometimes outside the month of April. In a quote about the choice of the official date for this event, Michael Byrne, Treasurer of the Dining Out for Life Board of Directors and Director of Development of ActionAIDS, states: “Many moons ago, we searched for a national date, and that was what came out of that meeting. It was discussed, debated, and deliberated for years before we finally found a date. I know it certainly saved agencies Snow Insurance coverage, which is not cheap!” Byrne adds, “The first year brought in about $20,000. We came a long way since then!”
Dining Out for Life is now reaching cities across the U.S. and Canada, including Albany, New York; Asheville, North Carolina; Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Victoria, British Columbia, and more than 3,000 participating restaurants, raising in the vicinity of $3–4 million in funds.
For the eight years, the fundraiser has been sponsored by Subaru of America, and attracted celebrities who became spokespeople for the event. Celebrities like Mondo Guerra [A&U, January 2013], winner of Project Runway All-Stars; SAG Award nominee actress Pam Grier [A&U, April 2013]; Daisy Martinez of the Food Network’s ¡Viva Daisy!; and Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s award-winning show Chopped.
On January 28, Allen graciously spent the day making phone calls and conducting interviews to help spread the word about his six-year involvement with the fundraiser, and this year’s Dining Out for Life event. Besides hosting Chopped, Ted Allen is the author of several books, including his latest In My Kitchen: 100 Recipes and Discoveries for Passionate Cooks (Clarkson-Potter), a contributor to publications like Esquire, Bon Appétit, Epicurious, and Food Network magazine, a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef and Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and food and wine specialist on the Bravo series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Yes, that Ted Allen called me to talk about something he’s passionate about—encouraging people to go Dining Out for Life, and also to get tested for HIV and know their status. I have to say that the experience of chatting with none other than Ted Allen was extraordinary. The conversation—informal, honest, and unscripted.
Alina Oswald: In a Food Network interview you mentioned that you’d like to cook for President Obama. I was wondering what would you prepare for the President?
Ted Allen: I have a friend who cooks in the White House on the staff. He told me that the president and his family like pretty simple food—like a roasted chicken. [The President] likes burgers. He knows fine cooking, of course, goes to fine restaurants, but at home, I think they like very traditional American cooking. My thought has always been…I’m not a professional chef, so if I’m going to cook for somebody important, I’m not going to do something fluffy [or] fancy. [I’ll] try to do something straightforward, delicious, and flavorful. So, I think I might probably do a porchetta, which is roasted pork with a bunch of herbs, olive oil, and garlic. It’s simply delicious, and satisfying, something that I definitely know how to cook. I don’t want to burn the food. [He laughs.] So far, he’s never asked, but if he ever asked, I would definitely cook for the President.
Tonight the President will deliver the State of the Union Address. What would you like to hear him say regarding HIV/AIDS?
I’d love to see him pass the ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] so that people cannot be fired for being LGBT, as they can in so much of our country. But we shall see.
In terms of HIV and AIDS, I think he’s done a pretty fine job, and, in fact, that was something that even President Bush [W.] was actually dead-on about, certainly in developing countries. But, you know, HIV/AIDS remains a serious problem here, [in the States]. It’s not necessarily the immediate death sentence that it was in 1987, but still….New infections are up among young men. Women of color are powerfully affected by HIV and AIDS. It still costs millions upon millions [of dollars] in our country. So, this is still a fundraising effort that is definitely needed.
You’ve been an active spokesperson for Dining Out for Life for six years now. Every year, in just one night, the event helps raise money for the AIDS cause, engaging individuals and businesses. What’s the forecast for this year’s fundraising efforts?
[It’s interesting] because the first year [Dining Out for Life] was only in Philly, and now it’s in at least sixty cities all over the country [and Canada], [in] more than 3,000 restaurants, a year ago. [For this year] I do know that they are hoping to reach the goal of $4 million. By the way, all that money stays in your own community.
New York City, in my neck of the woods, is not participating in the Dining Out for Life event.
New York City has not been a part of this fundraiser, because, being sort of Ground Zero for the AIDS epidemic, New York has so many HIV and AIDS service organizations. It was decided that this city didn’t need another one. There’re so many organizations doing the work here (like God’s Love We Deliver), not to mention the government and state organizations, that the need is so much higher in Youngstown, Ohio, or even Chicago, Illinois. But New York City, I think they got it covered.
What would you encourage people to do relative to AIDS awareness and/or fundraising, beyond dining out on April 24?
One thing that’s coming to life these days is the renewed importance of being tested. If a person is sexually active, and is not monogamous, it’s more important than ever to know whether [that person is] infected. So, something to think about is: if you are, [or] if it’s possible that you could have been exposed [to HIV], if you had sex that was not safe, you should get tested; for a large variety of reasons, not the least which is the treatments. [Because] it’s not just about your own health. It’s about that, too, but the treatments, today, not only do they keep [you] the infected person healthy; they also dramatically reduce how infectious you are. So that other people that you have contact with are less likely to get infected, themselves.
I would think testing and awareness [are important.] Preventive medicine [is always better] than reactive medicine. Don’t you think?
It’s the same kind of message that Magic Johnson is trying to get out regarding the Affordable Care Act. When you are young, you think that nothing bad will ever happen to you. But you need to be prepared, in case you do get infected, in case, you know, you do get, God forbid, hit by a bus. It’s [all] part of being a responsible part of the society—to protect yourself, to have insurance, and try to be safe.
I’m an old man now, so I’m going to talk like that, [he laughs], and I do have insurance. But it’s hard to get to somebody who’s eighteen or twenty or twenty-two, [because] when you are eighteen or twenty or twenty-two, you don’t think about things like that.
I noticed that one can register as a Dining Out for Life Ambassador on the fundraiser’s Web site. What exactly is a Dining Out For Life Ambassador?
[Part of the ambassadors’ role is to] recruit new restaurants for the cause. On the evening before the event, they go to all the [participating] restaurants, and distribute literature, encourage diners to know about the [participating] charities, [and] encourage people to get tested for HIV. Generally, spread information about the disease, and about the cause.
Where will you be celebrating Dining Out for Life day this year?
In the past I’ve gone down to Philadelphia, which is the city where this organization is headquarted, and where it started. This year, unfortunately, I’ll be in a studio shooting Chopped. So, I won’t get to go out to dinner, and party. I would probably be eating catered TV lunch, and by the time it’s dinnertime, I’d be at home, rocking back and forth, rubbing my feet. [He laughs.]
If it were up to me, I would go to Philadelphia, to one of Jose Garces’s restaurants. Jose is one of our Iron Chefs and he’s a past spokesperson for Dining Out for Life. Great guy! He’s got several restaurants in Philadelphia that are great. Probably I’d go for drinks and appetizers in one restaurant, and entrée and dessert in another one.
With so much on your plate, you still dedicate your time to charities across the country. Why did you decide to become a spokesperson for Dining Out for Life?
I’m just trying to get the word out. To me, Dining Out for Life is such a win, win, win, such an appealing fundraiser. It helps restaurants. It helps create jobs, support local businesses, chefs, and people who are creating with food. Obviously, it helps people with HIV, and the organizations that help them. And it encourages friends to get together with friends, and celebrate over a meal. All of these things are incredible.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.