Ted Ahead

From 'Esquire' to 'Queer Eye' to Food Network, Ted Allen has juggled a variety of careers -- and he loves them all

Ted Allen
Ted Allen

When it comes to cooking, it’s not as hard as it looks.

Take Ted Allen’s pan-roasted salmon with tomato vinaigrette on a bed of arugula: Flavorful, exciting and with great visual appeal, it’s deceptively simple and quick to put together (check out Allen’s book The Food You Want to Eat to try it yourself).

”That’s fast food for me,” says Allen, though he admits it does require some same-day shopping for the fish. ”It’s not quite as easy as buying a Quarter Pounder. But it won’t kill you.”

When it comes to television, however, cooking is generally harder than it looks. At least if it’s done right.

Allen is in the last stages of readying his new Food Network show, Food Detectives, set to premiere Tuesday, July 29. Although familiar to gay and straight audiences alike as the food guy on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and as a judge on Top Chef and Iron Chef America, this marks Allen’s first time flying solo in a non-reality cable show.

”When you do reality TV you kind of just blab and blab and blab — you create hundreds of hours of tape and then it’s all in the hands of the editors to decide how to make a story out of that,” he says. ”And sometimes they use stuff that you’re proud of, and sometimes they use a picture of you with underwear on your head.”

While that implies Food Detectives will be free of undergarments — on camera, at least — it will have its own quirky sense of humor. But don’t think you won’t learn something as Allen and his band of Popular Science magazine experts explore the truth (or lack thereof) behind such culinary lore as drinking beer to cool down from a hot jalapeno.

”I think it’s important that you learn stuff from these shows,” he says. ”Even in Iron Chef and Top Chef, you take away useful information. I want our show to do that as well, in addition to being entertaining.”

It’s been quite a career trajectory for a self-described dorky suburban kid from Indiana: from a copy editor at a mid-sized daily paper, to award-winning journalist writing for Esquire, to Queer Eye, to Food Detectives. And his desire to ”do it all” keeps Ted Allen ahead of the game.

Ted Allen

METRO WEEKLY: When I got the press release for Food Detectives, it was different than what I would have expected — if I would have had to guess what kind of show you would do, this wouldn’t have been it. How did it come about to do this particular show?

TED ALLEN: I’m actually glad to hear you say that, because that’s one of the things that has me the most excited about it. This is something different from anything I’ve done before. It’s not a reality show. The science angle is kind of fun for me — I actually have a master’s degree in science and environmental journalism. Now for the first time I’m kind of using it, which is cool.

And hosting a show is completely different from showing up and judging the work of other people, which is really fun and a hell of a lot easier than actually learning lines and being in most of the shots. There are some long days and it’s hard work, but I think I’m getting to show a different side of myself and hopefully find some humor. A lot of humor actually. As funny as I’ve always thought Queer Eye was, I had my moments here and there. But when you’re in a shot with Carson Kressley and Thom Filicia, as fast as their humor is, my sense of humor is a lot more dry and I need a little more time to develop the humor. It’s kind of hard to do when Thom Filicia’s being hilarious right in front of me. [Food Detectives] is a very different set up for me.

MW: The tone of Food Detectives sounds similar to another show on Food Network, Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Do you feel like you’re in that same territory?

ALLEN: Alton is a great friend, and if you were to draw a Venn diagram of Alton’s work and my work, we would definitely intersect on science and food. The difference is Alton focuses on teaching you how to cook things and the science behind that, whereas we don’t cook anything, and we’ve taken a more pop-cultural approach to stories and myths. So we’re probably kind of like a cross between Good Eats and Mythbusters. Our early episodes are a little closer to Good Eats than we want them to be, so we’re probably going to try to veer a little bit more towards the Mythbusters idea.

MW: Given your background as a journalist, when Queer Eye ended, did you see yourself moving so deeply into television, especially food television?

ALLEN: Well, it was certainly something that I was hoping to do. Queer Eye opened doors for all of us. But it’s never a sure thing and I’m really fortunate the way it’s turned out. I’ve actually been in every season of Iron Chef America and Top Chef, and I’ve increased the number of appearances every year on both of those shows. From a career point of view, that’s been fantastic because it’s kept me visible on two separate networks, which is a very difficult thing [because] most networks won’t even let you do that. [But] Food Network and Bravo seemed to be able to co-exist and tolerate that.

The thing is, a lot of people want a TV show. Wanting one and getting one — or getting one quickly — doesn’t necessarily happen automatically. I’ve been talking to Food Network for a couple of years about finding the right fit, finding the right format. That gave me the time, the luxury of waiting until we found the right thing. And that’s why I’m really happy about it.

MW: Did you ever entertain the idea of doing a straightforward cooking show?

ALLEN: I’ve thought about it and I wouldn’t say no, but there are a lot of people doing cooking shows and doing them really well. I think I’m good at cooking, but I don’t know that I have more to offer than Mario Batali.

If I could steal anybody’s career, it would probably either be Ira Glass [This American Life] or Anthony Bourdain [No Reservations]. If I could make the ideal show, which came out of my own personal experience, it would be something that has a lot of food, maybe a little travel, and some journalism. Tony [Bourdain] wasn’t a journalist but I think he’s become one, where he actually goes into a city and talks about what it’s really like there, warts and all.

MW: He’s a really good writer as well.

ALLEN: He’s such a good writer it makes me want to puke. [Laughs.] He’s such a delightful guy. I’d read his books and I read his blog, and I asked him, ”Tony, your writing is so beautiful and so hilarious and so irreverent, would you please at least tell me that it’s sort of difficult for you?” And he just shrugged.

So not only does he have this dream job and he’s great looking and everybody respects him and loves him, and he can get away with anything he wants to, but he claims that it’s easy for him. Son of a bitch.

MW: Yeah, we hate people like that.

ALLEN: We hate people like that.

MW: But we keep reading them. I can see why you’d want to steal his career. But I’m not sure you’d want to be eating the pickled snakes in vinegar and stuff that he does on his show.

ALLEN: You know, I’m not a picky eater, but when it comes to stuff like snake or stomach or pigs feet — which I’ve had, don’t like ‘em — I’m not a big fan of eating provocative stuff just for its own sake. I want it to taste great. So Tony can have his pickled snakes and chimpanzee bladders and I’m going to stick with pork shoulder.

MW: On Top Chef or Iron Chef, have you ever been served something that you really had to force yourself to eat?

ALLEN: Oh, yeah. But I do force myself to eat it because I consider that the job. On a pretty recent episode of Iron Chef, a chef served a whole bunch of different parts of a squab, including the head, which had been sawed perfectly in half, so the little half brain was sitting there. And I ate it because I felt it was my job to eat it. Not wild about brain. I know it’s really arbitrary how we decide that it’s okay to eat a leg muscle but not an esophagus. Well, actually it’s not arbitrary because a leg muscle tastes a lot better, I’m going to guess.

MW: You mentioned that networks don’t usually like having people cross back and forth. With the new show, are you still going to be involved with things like Top Chef on Bravo?

ALLEN: Top Chef has invited me back — what remains to be seen for me is whether the production schedules are going to conflict.

Even when Queer Eye was shooting and I just had no time to do anything else, I was able to squeeze in a little bit of Iron Chef and a little bit of Top Chef here and there. I want to do everything. I want to write articles for Esquire. I want to do all of it. I don’t want to say no to any of these opportunities. I have to say, I have not figured out a way to clone myself yet. I’m so slammed right now that this is the first day off I’ve had in weeks and it’s also the last.

MW: Do you find tension between your TV career and your writing career?

ALLEN: There would be if I were truly trying to do them both. I feel like that there are definitely things about magazines that I miss. I don’t have time to do as much writing right now as I did when I made my whole career out of it. I did magazine work for 14 or 15 years, and then this weird TV opportunity came along. I feel like I should still be able to write if I want to go back to it in a bigger way. I should still be able to write when I’m 50, whereas you might not be able to get on television then. So it just make sense to me to strike while the iron is hot.

None of us on Queer Eye ever expected for that show to do as well as it did. It’s not like I need some kind of blockbuster hit or a bunch of attention from people to be happy, but TV is really fun. It’s very hard work, which I don’t think people realize, but you reach a hell of a lot of people. It’s completely different from magazine work, but it still has its beginnings in good writing. I find myself tinkering and honing every single paragraph of the script. So I’m actually still writing, it just doesn’t have a byline next to it.

MW: Having had a serious career as a writer and then moving into a lighter type of show like Queer Eye, have you had problems with people not taking you seriously because of the second career?

ALLEN: Um, yeah. [Laughs.] I would say in particular my editor-in-chief at Esquire, David Granger, who is a very smart man and serious journalist, and somebody I always wanted so badly to impress with intrepid reporting and beautifully stylish writing. And now I’m doing all of these frivolous, fluffy, fun, silly cable shows. But on the other hand, I doubt that if he were in my shoes he would do anything different. It’s been a really rare opportunity.

I was 37 years old when I started Queer Eye and I’d never been in a school play, let alone aspired to be on television. Now I have an Emmy on my shelf, for God’s sake. Even though it’s just cable — it’s not like it’s massive pop-cultural domination — it’s still pretty damn fun to have an audience like that and be able to do fun stuff with them. While it might not seem profound to make somebody giggle, I think being able to produce humor, being able to make people laugh, is as profound to me as winning a national magazine award or putting a crook behind bars with an exposé. Humor is one of the most important things in the world for me, and being able to do that in a TV show — I’m not embarrassed about doing that for a living. And if I want to go back and write an exposé that puts a crook behind bars, I think I could still do that.

MW: How do you see the change in the landscape for gay and lesbian journalists, particularly in the mainstream media?

ALLEN: As a long-time member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, I think we can give NLGJA a little bit of credit. I think the overall changes in the culture don’t hurt. But I remember when the nickname for the feature section at a newspaper was ”fags and hags” — it was all gay men and women. You didn’t see so many openly gay people covering the political beat or the business beat. I’d like to hope that that culture has changed a lot in journalism.

Ted Allen

MW: What got you into journalism in the first place?

ALLEN: Actually, I resisted it. When I was in high school and college, people always told me that my writing was good, but I resisted doing it for a living because I was afraid that you couldn’t possibly make any money at it. I tried some other things like psychology and I even dabbled in an MBA program for about three minutes. So I decided to kind of go back to a skill that I’d always gotten good reviews on. I took a job as a copy editor at a small Gannett daily in Lafayette, Ind., and just immediately fell in love with it — with the excitement and the quirky, smart, dorky people who work in journalism. It just felt like home, it felt like a great fit.

MW: Working in Indiana, or elsewhere, have you ever dealt with any overt or subtle anti-gay attitudes or discomfort with you for being who you are?

ALLEN: Not in Indiana, because I didn’t figure myself out until really late. I think I know the reason for that: When I grew up there were absolutely no out gay kids. When you grow up in an environment that’s that straight and that unaccepting of gays and lesbians, as it was at the time, you don’t have any role models. You don’t have anybody. We talk about how important role models are for gay kids and I know it’s the truth because I lived it. If you don’t see other people that you identify with succeeding and doing interesting things and having a good life, it’s really hard to even imagine yourself having a good life.

I definitely had feelings, but I never once consciously considered the possibility that I was gay until I was a sophomore in college. And when that thought popped into my head I said, ”Oh, shit.” I did not want to deal with it and I didn’t. I didn’t have any experiences. I remember sort of trying to put myself into a situation where maybe somebody would drag me off to their cave. It didn’t happen.

It wasn’t until I lived in Chicago and I was like 24 years old. I fell in with this great group of friends, most of whom were not gay, one of whom was. He was just like me: Midwestern, suburban, dork. He was openly gay, lived with his boyfriend, had a happy life. The only gays I ever saw as a kid growing up were the leathermen marching in the San Francisco parades. I think those guys are great, I don’t mean to disparage them at all, but that definitely is not my scene, and I definitely didn’t relate to that as an Indiana teenager. To see my dorky friend Roger in his Dockers khakis going to work as a real-estate appraiser and having a really hot boyfriend and a whole bunch of friends and a happy life — that role-model situation is what made it possible for me to come out.

MW: Do you hear from younger viewers who see you on television?

ALLEN: Absolutely. Especially for Queer Eye. We got thousands of letters and e-mails from kids who would say that the popularity of the show and the acceptance of the show — the fact that their own parents liked the show — made it possible for them to talk about themselves and come out. I’ve heard that story a million times and I can never hear it enough. It all comes back to being out. How many people has Ellen DeGeneres inspired because she’s hilarious, she’s a fantastic comedian, she’s incredibly successful and she’s a lesbian. I don’t think there were a lot of young lesbian girls dreaming about being a daytime talk show host before her.

MW: Back to food, what would be the biggest piece of advice you could give people who are curious about learning more about or trying to cook more on their own?

ALLEN: A lot of people think that as soon as they start cooking and start having people over for dinner parties, they have to do things that are fancy and formal and show-offy. That’s a mistake. While I’m all for being ambitious and trying to do really complicated stuff, what most of us really want is flavor. A pot of chili makes me really happy. Trying to be pretentious is something that trips people up.

MW: When you go over to other people’s places, are people ever afraid to cook for you?

ALLEN: Yes, absolutely. My mother’s afraid to cook for me. She knows whether or not I was a serious cook growing up, so it’s funny — I watch her cooking for me and she’s nervous. Which is a shame. But I know why.

When [my partner Barry and I] lived in Chelsea, we lived right across the street from Bobby Flay. [We] ran into Bobby and his wife, and we had just finished the kitchen, so Barry said, ”Why don’t you come up and see our new kitchen?” So they came up and saw the kitchen and we were standing there talking and then Barry says, ”Hey, Bobby, why don’t you and Stephanie come over for dinner sometime?”

And I’m like, what? I don’t want to cook for Bobby Flay! Especially since I’ve been critiquing his work for years on Iron Chef and sometimes causing him to lose. Fortunately, it never happened, thank God.

In all seriousness, if Bobby Flay wanted to come over for dinner I would be delighted. You know what I would cook? Probably chili, or pulled pork. I would make something absolutely foolproof and flavorful. There is nothing I can cook that Bobby hasn’t tasted somewhere. So, I would just do honest, simple food — he probably would like that better.

Ted Allen’s Food Detectives premieres Tuesday, July 29, at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. Visit www.foodnetwork.com/food/show_ta on the Web.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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