When Ted Allen and I spoke via telephone on April 15, the first thing we talked about was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and how we’re coping with living under shelter-in-place orders.
“I find we’re cooking a lot and washing a lot of dishes, and ordering a lot of take-out and delivery, like everyone else,” he said. “At least, I hope everyone is ordering a lot of take-out or delivery! I’m worried about the restaurant industry right now. They need our help more than ever.” He pointed out that supporting neighborhood restaurants makes for a more secure neighborhood. “People need to hear that a thriving restaurant benefits everyone. The money stays in the neighborhood and provides many people with a livelihood.” With restaurants’ doors shuttered to in-house business, supporting those restaurants means buying gift cards online, ordering take-out, or calling for delivery. “And TIP WELL!” Ted admonishes.
Mr. Allen’s voice was familiar as soon as he answered the phone. Like millions of us, I’ve heard his voice on television for nearly two decades, from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003 through forty-four seasons and hundreds of episodes of the cooking competition reality series, Chopped. Born in 1965, Ted earned a BA in psychology at Purdue University and an MA in journalism at NYU. After moving to Chicago, he began work as a reporter for the Lerner Newspapers chain of weeklies, where he got his first taste of being a food critic as part of a four-person team of reporters who reviewed restaurants. (The team included the entertainment editor Barry Rice, now Ted’s husband.) He continued writing about food and wine as a Senior Editor at Chicago Magazine. Although he has had no formal culinary training, “I learned a lot about techniques and ingredients writing the restaurant reviews,” he said. “We reviewed only the restaurants that we really liked. I figured I wasn’t in the business of closing down some restaurant with a bad review. I enjoyed it. And really it formed the foundation for what I do now—analyzing food and talking about it. It still fascinates me.”
Along with his other writing, Ted became a contributing editor at Esquire Magazine, writing features, food pieces, and profiles of culinary personalities; he also co-authored the magazine’s “Things a Man Should Know” series (about style, marriage, sex, and “Handshakes, White Lies and Which Fork Goes Where”). And he is the author of two best-selling cookbooks, The Food You Want To Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes and In My Kitchen: 100 Recipes and Discoveries for Passionate Cooks. But Ted is most widely known for his television career, including his role as host of the Food Network’s highly-rated Chopped, where four chef contestants compete in three cooking rounds: appetizer, main course, and dessert.
After numerous appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef and on several Food Network shows, including Iron Chef America and Food Detectives, Ted landed his current gig as host of Chopped, which debuted in January 2009. Both the show and Ted, as host, received a coveted James Beard Foundation Award in 2012. Along the way, Ted has tasted his share of, shall we say, exotic dishes. “Once on Iron Chef America,” he said, “one of the chefs served me pigeon brains ‘on the half shell.’ The ‘shell’ was part of the pigeon’s skull——I don’t even like to think about it! I’m not much of a brain eater, so that was definitely an interesting meal.” On Chopped, with its picnic baskets full of “mystery ingredients” that the chefs must work with, there has been “no shortage of strange ingredients,” Ted said. His favorite ingredient on the show is “the whole chicken in a can, not so much because I love the food, but because I love the sound it makes when it plops out of the can.”
Asked if there is anything he absolutely will not eat, Ted said, “Not really. My tastes have changed over the years, though. I’ve gotten a lot less picky about what I eat. For instance, when I was a child, I hated beans. Just hated them. But a friend sent me some heirloom beans some time ago. And I’ve learned to love beans, I love cooking them, I love beans of all kinds. I like foods that take a long time to cook. Which is odd because “low and slow” is the exact opposite of the cooking on Chopped, which is closely timed.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “it struck me the other day that cooking at home now, with all of us sheltering in place, is a lot like cooking with the ‘mystery ingredients’ on the show. I can just see someone going into their pantry or opening the refrigerator and asking, ‘Hmmm, what can I make with beer, frozen spinach, yogurt, and canned lima beans?’ It should be fun, like a family game.”
Ted did admit, though, that, like me, he has never eaten beef tongue.
Main Course Round
This year is Ted’s fifteenth year of acting as a spokesperson for Dining Out for Life hosted by Subaru, a fundraiser for local AIDS service organizations and other healthcare service providers. He is joined as celebrity spokespersons by Mondo Guerra [A&U, January 2013], designer/HIV activist/Project Runway All-Stars winner, and Pam Grier [A&U, April 2013], co-star on the ABC series Bless This Mess. The premise of the one-day event is simplicity itself: “Dine Out, End HIV.” Diners simply go out for lunch or dinner at one of the participating restaurants, and the restaurant donates a percentage of the dinner tab to local AIDS-related charities. Funds raised through a city’s Dining Out For Life event stay in that region to provide HIV care, prevention, education, testing, counseling, and other essential services to people living with or impacted by HIV/AIDS. DOFL began in Philadelphia in 1991 and since has become an invaluable source of income for AIDS services throughout North America. In 2019 alone, DOFL raised more than $4.2-million from 4,100+ volunteers and 300,000+ diners at nearly 3,000 restaurants in sixty cities in the U.S. and Canada, benefiting more than 50 local HIV community-based service organizations for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“Getting involved with Dining Out for Life was an easy decision for me. The set-up is so elegant, so terrifically efficient. I mean, in one day we can raise over four million dollars, all of which stays in the communities where it’s raised.” In New York City, DOFL raises funds for the Alliance for Positive Change, which helps New Yorkers living with HIV and other chronic health conditions get the medical care, peer support, and housing assistance they need to achieve health, happiness, and stability. Each year, the Alliance supports more than 5,200 low-income New York Metropolitan Area residents with chronic illnesses. In San Francisco, the DOFL beneficiary is the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which promotes health, wellness, and social justice for communities most impacted by HIV, through sexual health and substance use services, advocacy, and community partnerships. (To find participating restaurants in your city or close-by, and the local organizations benefitting from DOFL, log on to https://www.diningoutforlife.com/.)
“As the face of AIDS has changed over the years, it’s important that we keep awareness of the disease alive,” Ted said. Since he was born in 1965, Ted was still a teen when AIDS first hit our community. “When I came out, we were already well versed in safer sex practices and how to avoid HIV, so I was pretty lucky in that respect——I’ve remained negative. I have a few friends who are living with HIV, one of whom is in his sixties, and thankfully, they’re all still healthy. I know this is amazing,” he said, “but I’ve never lost any close friends to AIDS. I know that sounds odd, but again, I’ve been very lucky that way.”
Unfortunately, like many fundraising and community events, DOFL has had to make drastic changes to their mode of operation due to the current pandemic-related shelter-in-place orders, prohibiting gathering together. Like those many events, several DOFL partners have had to postpone their local event, while some have had to go “virtual.” For instance, this approach was successful in April for DOFL in San Francisco, which became “Dining IN For Life.”
New York City’s DOFL event was initially postponed to July 30, 2020; however, given the continued uncertainty about whether shelter-in-place restrictions will be lifted this summer, New York DOFL has also morphed into “Dining IN for Life.” The Alliance for Positive Change encourages patrons to order take-out or delivery from those restaurants, and encourages everyone to set an extra plate that day in honor of individuals and families affected by the coronavirus. Participants are also encouraged to donate directly to the Alliance.
In light of this change, Ted told A&U, “Since we’re all staying home, this is the time to order from restaurants that are delivering—and to tip extra, in cash, to the brave people doing those deliveries. We’re looking at this as an opportunity to try restaurants we haven’t tried before, and to order a little extra to save for the next day’s eating.”
The folks at Dining Out for Life urge you to:
• Visit your community’s page on www.diningoutforlife.com to see if the licensed organization has postponed its Dining Out For Life event, and if so, note the new date for your community’s event.
• Reach out to the HIV/AIDS Service Organization that produces Dining Out For Life in your community to see how you can help them help the people they serve during the COVID-19 pandemic.
• If the shelter-in-place order is still in effect in your community, you can still support the restaurants that are Dining Out For Life participants by purchasing gift certificates or ordering takeout meals or delivery when possible. And, again, as Ted reminded us, “TIP WELL!”
Like all of us who are chafing at the bit to get out among friends again, Ted has been thinking about the first thing he wants to do once the lockdown is over. “What I’d love to do is convene a bunch of friends around a big round table at one of my friends’ restaurants and live it up. Looking forward to that day!”
Most of us first met Ted Allen in 2003 when he became a cast member of the Bravo television series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as the show’s food and wine specialist. Each episode of Queer Eye featured a team of gay professionals in the fields of fashion, personal grooming, interior design, entertaining, and culture (collectively known as the “Fab Five”) performing a makeover for a straight man, updating his wardrobe, redecorating his home, and offering advice on grooming, lifestyle, and food. Although the show met with immediate critical and audience acclaim, Ted had misgivings about using the word “queer” in the title. “When the producers first approached me about Queer Eye, I tried to convince them to change the word ‘queer.’ When I was growing up, ‘queer’ was a word the bullies threw at us, it was hurtful. But I gradually realized I was wrong, that we could reclaim the word ‘queer’ and take some of the sting out of it.”
“The best thing about the show’s name was doing an interview on the Today Show and watching Matt Lauer struggling to wrap his straight mouth around the word ‘queer’!”
And he is rightfully proud of his work on Queer Eye and the impact it had. “It was the first television show with a totally OUT cast; it was the first television show that showed LGBTQ people as real people——not pathetic or tragic, but real people with skills and talents they could share. I’m very proud of that.” As the food and wine guru in the group, Ted’s role was to teach that week’s straight guy how to prepare a meal for two. Sometimes, well… “I’ll never forget our very first make-over. It was with this guy in Great Neck, New York. We were filming in July or August, and it was just boiling hot outside. I decided to teach him how to cook lentils. Now, lentils need to be cooked long and slow——which is probably not the best idea for a novice cook during a heatwave!”
“We entered some really scary apartments doing the show,” Ted revealed. On one make-over, as the Fab Five were ransacking the straight guy’s closet and drawers, Ted found several packages of extra-small condoms in the back of a nightstand drawer. “I didn’t want to embarrass the guy, so I just shoved the condoms back in the drawer. But not Filicia! Tom [the “Design Doctor” in the group] found the condoms and started throwing them around the bedroom, howling and laughing the whole time!” One cannot help wondering if the condom incident occurred before or after the series won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004.
Although Queer Eye for the Straight Guy aired its final episodes in 2007, the series was revived with a new Fab Five in 2018 on Netflix and opened to positive reviews. “When the producers called and told me that they were rebooting Queer Eye, my first thought was, ‘Please don’t ask us to do this again! We are all very happily otherwise engaged!’ But I do like the new version of the show, and I like all of the new ‘Fab Five.’ I’ve fed all five of them, by the way.”
Like any good foodie, of course I asked Ted if he has any favorite restaurants in New York City. “Oh, gosh! There are so many!” he said. Narrowing it down to just his neighborhood, Ted named Roman’s and Dino, both on Dekalb Avenue, and “a great French restaurant called Gentleman Farmer,” on Rivington Street. Of course, in these days of sheltering-in-place, we cannot gather at any of these restaurants.
Maybe we should all drop by Ted’s place and sample his lentils!
Lead photo in marquee by Dave Jackson.
For more information about Dining Out For Life, visit www.diningoutforlife.com and follow them on social media @DineOut4Life. For Dining Out For Life–NYC: facebook.com/diningoutnyc; twitter.com/diningout_nyc; instagram.com/diningout_nyc.
Chopped is broadcast on the Food Network every Tuesday at 9:00 p.m.
Hank Trout interviewed Billie Cooper for the April cover story.