Ted Allen is living every foodie’s dream. For the past several years, he’s been wined and dined as a judge for Bravo’s Top Chef and Food Network’s Iron Chef America. He also sipped and savored his way through the Emmy Award-winning Queer Eye. He’s currently the host of Chopped and Food Detectives on the Food Network and a contributing editor for Esquire magazine. And when he’s not investigating moldy cheese or putting bacon toffee to the test, you’ll see him campaigning as spokesperson on behalf of Dining Out for Life, the annual, one-day fund-raiser to benefit the fight against AIDS.
LN: Tell us about Dining Out for Life.
TA: Everybody understands it’s a terrible time for charities, but at the same time the demand at food banks is higher. The restaurant industry has really been hurting in this economy as well. This is really a way to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against AIDS. Plus, you’re supporting the wonderful restaurant industry that already gives back so much.
LN: Why do you feel so strongly about this cause?
TA: You follow your heart. My partner, Barry Rice, and I are involved in a few philanthropic organizations that are near and dear to my heart. So many of my brothers and sisters in the gay community are devastated by AIDS. The people I admire most are the activists, the ones who marched in the streets in the ‘80s and founded support organizations. But not everyone can do that. Maybe you have children or a full-time job. But if you can afford to go to a restaurant, you can do it. Just choose one of the restaurants on the list. It’s that simple! Last year, we raised $3.9 million nationally in one day. How can you argue with that?
LN: So how does one become a food and wine connoisseur?
TA: It sounds like an overly simplistic answer, but I eat a lot. That’s the first requirement. You also need the curiosity and bravery to try new things. For example, there are people who drink only White Zinfandel and swear by it. What they don’t realize is that the variety in wine is absolutely endless. They’d probably really enjoy Gewurztraminer, if they gave it a try. It’s also true with fine dining. None of us lives long enough to taste all that’s out there.
LN: How does it feel to be a Food Network star?
TA: People are really nice, they want to share recipes with you, and some of them e-mail to ask where to eat. It’s an exciting and fun job.
LN: How did you get involved with IRON CHEF?
TA: The very first season of Iron Chef America happened right at the time that Queer Eye was just blowing up. We were in L.A. on The Tonight Show when Iron Chef asked me to be a guest judge for one episode. The next season, they had me back. By the time we got to seasons four and five, I was doing half the shows.
LN: What has been your most memorable food battle as A judge?
TA: It seems we’re faced with a hard decision every time. And when we’re not, it’s because somebody served a cockroach in the salad. We love it when that happens, because for once, it’ll be an easy call. One of the best ever was the ‘Battle Parmigiano Reggiano’ between Mario Batali and Andrew Carmellini. If you take two Italian chefs of that caliber and give them the king of all cheeses, they really put the pedal to the metal. One of the things Mario served was a Paglia E Fieno pasta dish served in a hollowed-out Parmigiano wheel worth about $1,000! It was extremely theatrical.
LN: Is the food as good as it looks on TV?
TA: The vast majority is absolutely delicious. These are chefs at the top of their game, and they’re there to dazzle you. The dishes that fail, and those are pretty rare, it’s because the chef was trying something outrageous, like putting clams in ice cream. We’ll give you points for difficulty and ambition, but chances are, it won’t taste that great.
LN: Do the chefs really make all that food in an hour?
TA: Once the battle starts, they don’t stop for anything, they have exactly an hour. What people may not realize is that it takes about five hours to shoot an episode of Iron Chef. All the other parts of the show, like the judging and commentary by Alton Brown and Kevin Brauch, are shot separately.
LN: Is the ‘secret’ ingredient really a secret?
TA: Yes. They build a temporary wall around it, and are really careful not to let anybody see what’s there. But I think they must tell the chefs it’s going to be one of five possibilities. You can tell the chefs get nervous, even the Iron Chefs themselves, except for Batali; he never looks nervous.
LN: What keeps you busy these days?
TA: I’m doing Chopped and Food Detectives on Food Network. With the exception of the holidays, I’ve had almost no time off and oh, I’m also renovating an old brownstone in Brooklyn.