Rachel Nash Perlow
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
TED ALLEN is a busy man. Between the tight production schedule in New York for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where he is the resident food & wine expert, innumerable media appearances including jetting to the West Coast to appear on The Tonight Show or being interviewed by Barbara Walters (ABC, Wednesday 12/17, “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2003”), and trying to maintain relationships in his hometown of Chicago, he barely has time to pay attention to the mundane tasks of life.
“Six months ago, I was just [known as] a writer for Esquire, typing up in my little garret on the far north side of Chicago, and no one had any idea who I was,” Allen explains.
Fortunately, The Daily Gullet was able to catch Ted by phone at his new Greenwich Village loft during a rare free morning.
Q: You have been dealing with a lot in the last six months. You’re suddenly famous and dealing with the media, is there one question that everyone asks?
A: Well, I don’t mind if people ask the same questions, that’s part of the thrill. Because the show is popular, people do recognize us on the streets. Usually, it’s “were you friends before the show?” If you think about it, it would be pretty bizarre if five friends who specialize in these five subject areas, happened to run into a producer who says, “I’d like to make a TV show with you guys!” In actuality, there was casting for the show and it was pretty difficult.
Q: You were a feature writer focusing on men’s issues for Esquire magazine. How were you pegged as the Food & Wine guy for the Fab 5?
A: I went in saying I wanted to be the food guy. I’ve done a little bit of food stuff for Esquire, but John Mariani is the main point guy in that department there, so I was never going to challenge him for that role. However, I was a restaurant critic at Chicago magazine before I worked at Esquire, and I’ve been a really enthusiastic home cook for a long time. It’s just something I’m passionate about.
Chicago magazine has been the restaurant bible in that town for a long time. It’s got a really strong reputation for its restaurant coverage. Long before the newspapers did any restaurant coverage, Chicago was a place you could turn to for serious, really objective reviews. Dennis Ray Wheaton is the chief critic, he also writes for the New York Times on mid-west restaurants, and they take it really seriously. I started out by going with Dennis on reviews, which is so fun. The great mystery to me is how restaurant critics think they can get away with doing their job without anybody noticing who they are. I mean, who else in restaurant is passing their plates around and making sure that everybody tastes it?
I first got into food with my mother, just Southern cooking, really bad for you food (just delicious!) because I’m the first Yankee in my family, and everyone else was from the South. But it wasn’t until I got to Chicago magazine that I got interested in more sophisticated cooking and different kinds of cuisines. I think that curiosity happened on these reviews where I was just a guest of the reviewer, because it introduced me to new cuisines and to the idea of cooking as a mechanism for studying other cultures and understanding other parts of the world. I very quickly came to love the freedom to ask questions about it. I often irritate my partner because I want to talk to the waiter about what’s going on: “What is this? What wine should I pair it with?” And he’s like, “Will you shut up and just eat!”
Q: I suppose then you would categorize your comfort foods to be Southern foods?
A: Yeah, I love the comfort stuff, but then again, there’s some really fascinating stuff out there. I cook everything. I love Mediterranean cooking, I love Asian cooking. I do lots of Japanese noodles. Sesame oil is probably my favorite condiment, period.
Q: Then what do you not cook at home, what do you have to have at a restaurant?
A: I’m afraid of pastry! I don’t think it’s lost on the people on eGullet who are aware that it’s very much a left brain/right brain thing, whether you are a pastry chef or a regular cook. Baking is problematic for me because I usually drink a lot of wine when I cook! I like to have friends in the kitchen and make a big mess and use every pot in the kitchen.
I just moved from a very, very, small studio on the Upper West Side, which I’d been living in since Queer Eye started. I moved into a larger apartment in the Village and I actually have the possibility of having people over for dinner again, so I’m very excited.
Q: Would you tell me about your apartment’s kitchen?
A: The kitchen in great! I’m in a loft and the kitchen is in the very center of the apartment. The whole place revolves around it. It’s got a lot of counter space. It’s a U-shaped kitchen which overlooks the living room. It has a gigantic Caloric range from the ’70s, with four burners and a grill in the center, that’s the good part. The bad part is that the dishwasher and refrigerator are also from the ’70s.
Q: Have you cooked in it yet?
A: (laughs) I’ve only cooked some Wolfgang Puck Soup. I literally moved in here a week ago. But I want to cook. It was so much fun to be home [in Chicago] for Thanksgiving because there’s nothing I would rather be doing than sitting on a stool at my counter chopping up onions and throwing them into olive oil, and I finally got to do that again. [See “What did Ted Allen make for Thanksgiving?” below]
Q: How long had you been away?
A: Chicago is where I supposedly live, but because of the show, I’m here [in New York] at least ninety percent of the time. Our schedule is really demanding.
Q: So is the move permanent?
A: Permanent is not quite the right word, semi-permanent would be better. I’ve leased the apartment; my partner is going to come out here. But we’re keeping our house in Chicago because real estate is a really good investment and also because it is just crammed with full of stuff! All that stuff would never all fit into an apartment in New York City. You get a lot more space for your money in Chicago than you do here. But this place is great. It’s exciting. I’m looking at the Hudson River right now, I’ve got a great view.
Q: Are you going to have Thom redecorate your loft?
A: I’d love to have some help from Thom. My place in Chicago is a 105 year old house, but I really like contemporary spaces too, so it’s refreshing and fun to be in a space where you can do contemporary things. I’m not sure if I have the budget for Thom, but I could do the cheap stuff, like his “paint on architecture.” You could do a lot of fun stuff like that in a place like this, because I have 15 foot ceilings and right now it’s all just white.
Q: How has your evolving approach to food affected your role on Queer Eye?
A: It’s very important to me that people who are actual chefs and other professionals in the culinary world, understand that I’m not, and have never held myself out as being, like a CIA trained chef. I really have a great deal of humility in that department, and a great deal of respect for people who spend their lives learning how to make these amazing preparations. What I bring to the table is a huge enthusiasm and love for this stuff.
But you also have to remember that a lot of the guys we’re working with here are at such a basic level. Some of these guys have never even been to a restaurant that has white tablecloths and forks. In comparison, eGullet members have an extremely high level of culinary expertise that’s definitely going to exceed mine, most of our viewers, and especially our straight guys. What I’m trying to do is to meet these guys at their level and elevate it just a little bit. I want to instill a bit of enthusiasm in them to want to know more about food or wine. Just to take one step up. Obviously, I can’t take a guy to culinary school in three days, and most of them wouldn’t be interested in that.
An example of this was Adam Zalta’s story. The Zalta’s keep a kosher house, and what is the most iconic Jewish dish ever invented? Chopped liver, of course. I thought that being the case, how could I bring a bit of foodie class and style to the situation? What could possibly be better than foie gras? A foie gras mousse! Because what could be funnier than seeing a non-cook try to manipulate a pastry bag? And indeed it was fun, and Adam tried very hard and did a great job, and he’s kept it up. [See how Adam and some of the other Straight Guys have been doing on “A Very Queer Eye Holiday” special on Tuesday, 12/16] So, I stand by my decision to go with foie-gras. I think logically it made a lot of sense. The only problem was that Karen Zalta doesn’t like chopped liver, which is why she had that look on her face!
Q: Sometimes your segment has been the one where the guys have looked clueless. How do you feel about that?
A: This is one of the things about my category on Queer Eye that I want to change. You may have noticed, all of the other four guys are giving the straight guy tools to succeed. They’re getting him great outfits and setting up his apartment, and then my category for some reason evolved into the category where the guy was challenged. “You’ve never done this before. Now, take a shower, make a chocolate souffle, and have everything else done in an hour or else you’re going to look like a fool!” That is not what we intended to do, it’s just something that happened. So I stepped back and realized, “why is everybody else setting him up to be the hero and I’m making his life difficult?” This is why I’ve tried to do more success oriented segments like bringing in a caterer.
Q: How much input does each of you have in your segment? Do the producers come up with the ideas or do you come up with your own ideas? Are you given free range?
A: We drive the segments. In fact, for the first twelve episodes, before we got renewed, we had a much smaller staff and budget and we were the producers of our segments. I was up at two in the morning testing creme brulee recipes, and then coming to set up the next day. It was really hard. But now we have researchers helping us, we have two production teams instead of one. So, one team is working on shooting an episode with us, while the other is preparing the next guy. The way it works is, once they settle on a story guy, they interview his family and friends, they interview him, and they produce a dossier, a document for us that tells us what he’s about. We have a couple of meetings to figure out the goal of the story. Is he going to throw a dinner party, propose, have a picnic, etc.? We need to know about that before hand.
Q: Ted, on-screen Queer Eye is very fast paced — it looks and flows as if it’s all happening sequentially. But how long does the “full treatment” actually take, once you guys get directly involved? I’m assuming it takes more than one day?
A: Yeah, it does, it’s TV Magic. It takes about three days to shoot the “Fab 5” portion of the shooting. Then there’s a fourth day of shooting where we do the reveal, that’s the one that we watch via closed circuit from our loft.
Q: So, are you wearing the same clothes for those three days?
A: Let’s just say we have a very good relationship with our dry cleaner and buy Febreze in five-gallon drums! It’s not so much a problem in December, but man, in August, wow! (laughter) Seriously, it’s not fun wearing the same clothes three days in a row. By the end of the episode they get really wrinkly and stretched out. We’re very sick of them by the end.
Q: Can’t you get more than one of each outfit?
A: The clothes are part of Carson’s domain. For each episode the five of us are all wearing clothes by the same designer. It’s a different designer for each episode, but for each one we’re all wearing their clothes. And generally we’re borrowing samples, so we have to give them back. The designers are quite used to the clothes coming back abused. They’re the new clothes coming out for the upcoming season, which is why we don’t get to keep them. Which sometimes makes me sad, but sometimes I’m perfectly comfortable with. However, I really wanted to keep my trench coat with rock and roll zippers all over it, and I’m the conservative one!
Q: How has the fame changed your life? Do you think being on TV has made you a sex symbol? And, if so, are you a sex symbol for men or for women?
A: That’s probably a question better answered by other people. I did have a wonderful quote, someone described me as the “thinking woman’s sex symbol,” which is by way of me being the old guy. I know that the single guys on the cast (which is everybody but me), hmm, well a lot more people flirt with you when you’re on TV. That, we’ve all discovered.
Q: Have women been telling you that they wish you weren’t gay?
A: Someone sent me a posting from a forum someplace recently where someone was expressing interest in me and said something like, “gee it’s a shame he’s gay, I wonder if he’d be interested in a nineteen year old Asian woman?” And I thought, “well you know, yeah, it’s skewing sort of young and the wrong gender, but other than that, why not?” (laughter)
Q: Do you guys hang out outside the show or do you see enough of each other at work?
A: We definitely hang out outside the show. Probably less now than at the beginning, just because the schedule is so intense that after about six months, you realize you’ve been neglecting other aspects of your life, like the light bill! We get along really well. But things have gotten so serious, and we have so many other things to do, for example we had to postpone production of a show last week so we could do some press. Jay Leno asked us to do the The Tonight Show again, and you just can’t pass up an opportunity like that. But of course, anytime we fly to Los Angeles to do The Tonight Show, it’s going to cut into the production a little.
[See “Ted Allen on Jay Leno,” below]
Q: Are the other members of the Fab 5 as passionate about food as you are?
A: Thom Filicia is very passionate about food. Thom ate almost all of that foie gras when we were finished with that show. “This foie gras is delicious!” [doing an impeccable impression of Thom with a full mouth.] Thom is one of those wonderful people to cook for because he absolutely loves it, just loves it. He loves to eat and drink and he’d be a great guest at any dinner party.
Q: Getting back to the content of your segments, do you ever feel pressured to use the sponsor products?
A: Well, we don’t take money from people and then show the product. It has to be a product that we like anyway, and that’s true for all five of us, which is one of the really nice things about the way we make the show. Nobody comes to me and says, “you have to feature Jell-o in this segment.”
The way it evolves is, we come up with the content, for example an upcoming story involving champagne. I wanted to do a segment where we talk about the fact that there are lots of different styles of champagne, that it’s a food wine that can be paired with both savory and sweet. Because I wanted to do that lesson, I thought it would be good to go with one producer. In this case I went with Mumm, because they have a broad range of styles in one house. I thought it made a nice clean story that way. I just happened to know that because I’ve been to Mumm and toured their caves and bottling facility on a press thing, and I also knew they just released a new demi-sec, and I thought it made a good story. In hindsight, I realize that’s going to look like a product placement situation, and it really wasn’t because it was my call.
Q: I’m reminded of the proposal episode where at the end they have a nightcap of Disaronno Amaretto. And Disaronno is one of your major sponsors, so I was curious how that worked. Was that a similar situation or just one of your early sponsors so you wanted to use it?
A: Uh, Disaronno I think was the first major advertiser. They were a really visible presence on the show from the very beginning and I keep thinking, “good for them!” Because they had no idea that we were going to be a hit. So they supported us when nobody knew who we were and it’s really working for them.
I heard a story recently about one of the motley groups that I didn’t expect to like the show. A friend of a friend has an aunty who lives in southern Illinois, she’s in her 60’s, and it’s totally conservative middle-America. She has a group of ladies her age that get together every Tuesday to watch Queer Eye. And then I found out, not only do they watch the show, they drink Disaronno during it! I mean isn’t that crazy? They get together and drink liqueur. Hey, more power to them!
I mean nobody’d ever even used the word Disaronno before, everyone called it amaretto. Now all of a sudden everybody calls it Disaronno. They must be thrilled over there, they’re getting great brand recognition from all of this. So, I don’t have a problem with that because Disaronno is a terrific product. It is a delicious amaretto, and if you’ve ever had the generic amaretto, it’s horrible. It has no richness, it’s pale in color, it’s sugary, [Disaronno] really is a delicious, complex, digestif, and it’s a good ingredient for cocktails. So, just like Carson is dressing people in Roberto Cavalli, it’s perfectly cool with me if we have a couple of brands in the show. I mean, you need to know these brands if you’re going to buy them. If I just called it amaretto, people might not buy the same brand I’m using and won’t have as good a result. As we all know, it’s all about great ingredients.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is a form of service journalism. To be successful, I think it has to be a combination of a good story, it has to be funny, and it also needs to be packed with useful information. Honest to god, I had a trick-or-treater come up to my door on Halloween, recognize me and then say, “six ounces, ten minutes, 400 degrees!” He’s like twelve years old and telling me how to cook a fish fillet! Isn’t that amazing? I love it! The people who watch the show, it’s unbelievable.
Q: You’ve had the opportunity to interview some amazingly talented chefs, like Charlie Trotter. Are there any stories you could share that might not have made it into print?
A: Charlie Trotter was very funny, contrary to what some people might think, although that was a long time ago. He’s opening a new place at Columbus Circle in New York. I had a really good time with Martha Stewart, who also is somebody I really admire a lot. I’ve learned a lot from her and I think all of America has, about attention to detail and using fresh ingredients and making things beautiful and special. She’s probably a tough woman to work for, but you know, a lot of talented people are.
But, probably my favorite food interview was with Mario Batali, because I have never met anybody who was more instantly media savvy and more helpful than he was. About five years before Queer Eye, Esquire used to have this feature called “How to be a better man,” so I went to Babbo and I wanted Mario Batali to tell me ten things that an ordinary home cook could do to elevate their cooking. And these ten things could be a great ingredient, a technique, a pan, a tool, an herb (and by the way the hot ingredient these days seems to be yuzu, that Japanese lemon, delicious). So, I walk into the kitchen at Babbo with Mario Batali and we were done in like fifteen minutes. I mean that guy is so sharp, and so on, and so kind and funny, I just loved him to death. He just knocked it out of the park.
I asked him for ten things, I think he gave me fifteen. I’ll give you a great example. I loved it also because Mario is not pretentious, and he’s all about demystifying as well, and at his restaurant he serves really rustic food, but very finely done. One of his tips was, if you’re on a budget and you love wine, you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy a fancy wine refrigerator. Take that small fridge you used in your dorm room in college and adjust it up to about 50 degrees and stick that in the corner of your pantry. In college, you have it at its coldest setting to chill your cheap beer down, so you can avoid tasting it. Just set it to a warmer setting for your wine. Everybody has one of those fridges sitting in their storage area, at least when you’re younger and just out of school. I just love the democratic feeling of that, he’s great. This is not going to surprise anyone, because we all know Mario Batali because he lives in our living rooms in those funny orange clogs. That’s what I want to do when Queer Eye is over. Just follow Mario Batali around, I’ll eat his leftovers or be his royal taster.
Q: So what’s coming up for you in the future?
A: Oh, did I tell you I have a cookbook? I have a cookbook deal. I’m just getting started on developing the recipes, I have to find the right person to do that with. But I’m publishing a cookbook with Clarkson Potter, which is a beautiful publisher. They publish Mario, Martha Stewart, the Balthazar cookbook. These are all beautiful books. I’m going through Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook right now, which has four color plates and two silk ribbons in it. I want a ribbon! I want a ribbon in my cookbook. It’s so classy, I love it!
Q: What are you going to focus on in your book? Is it going to be a Queer Eye book?
A: No, Queer Eye has a book coming out before mine, in the Spring of 2004, in which each of us has a section and we do a brief overview of our subject area. My cookbook will not come out until Spring 2005, but I want it to be not unlike the show itself, I want it to be very accessible, but comprehensive and simple at the same time and, I guess the word we use in magazines, aspirational. For people who aspire to do something a little more interesting. It’ll have some twists to it.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to the eGullet membership?
A: Just thank you very much for watching the show and please be kind! If I have committed any culinary atrocities, please forgive me. Know that I approach this with the utmost humility. I know there are a lot of people who are much better cooks than I am. I just want to meet those people and learn from them and enjoy it. I am much more interested in the process than results. I probably shouldn’t be, but I haven’t poisoned anybody yet. I just love doing it. I am much more concerned with having the opportunity to do it than I am with how it turns out. This is probably a semi-healthy attitude. I mean I want people to enjoy their dinner, but I just love the process so much.
Thank you, Ted. When your book comes out, we’ll have to have you come back and do an eGullet Q&A. Maybe you could give away a few copies?
A: I’d love to. Hopefully by then I’ll have a little more time.
Ted Allen on Jay Leno
Ted, who recently guested on The Tonight Show with his Queer Eye cohorts, had some choice comments on the experience, as well as the show’s host. . .
Jay Leno is not a guy who likes change. He eats the same food every day. He wears jeans and a denim shirt every day. Literally. He is so not a foodie — he’s the anti-foodie. So that’s why, the first time we did Leno, I had to do something really mainstream for him, which is why I chose the roast beef sandwiches.
Funny story: what I did for him was a very simple canape. It was just a slice of bread, a brush of olive oil, a piece of very thinly sliced beef, a curl of parmesan cheese, a leaf of arugula, and a dollop of a sauce. Now the sauce was a horseradish sauce, which is a fabulous, traditional accompaniment to roast beef. Then I found out just before the show that Jay Leno hates horseradish!
So they said, “whatever you do, don’t tell him it’s horseradish!”
There was no time to change it. So, I’m on TV, attempting to cook live (well, at least it felt live to me), and I’m putting the sauce on the thing, and Jay said, “what’s in the sauce?” So I glossed over it, saying it was a kind of mayonnaise sauce, and he seemed to like it OK.
He’s probably the classic, all-American, regular straight guy. Who, like your dad, wanted nothing but roast beef and potatoes and was never going to eat anything spicy or ethnic or weird. That’s Jay. Great guy. And you can be a great guy without being a foodie. Jay is definitely a meat and potatoes kind of guy. But I think he liked the sauce, it was really good. It was very mild and mostly mayonnaise. But if you’re somebody who likes bland food, this did have a little kick to it.
I don’t think he ever did find out it was horseradish. I should go back and look at the tape and see if he made the same face that Karen Zalta made when she bit into the foie gras! He did go on about the arugula though, he was suspicious of that. To a guy like that, arugula sounds fancy. I should have said, “it’s just lettuce, Jay.”
You know the great irony is that people think you have to have money to enjoy fine food, which is a shame. But even people who do have the resources aren’t necessarily interested. In order to appreciate this kind of stuff, you have to have an open mind. And people still are really intimidated by fine food. It’s something that I love about eGullet and there are a lot of forces in the culture right now that are trying to demystify food and wine and I think it’s great, because more people should enjoy it.
What did Ted Allen make for Thanksgiving?
Our interview with Ted was conducted shortly after Thanksgiving, and quite naturally we were curious about what the Queer Eye “Food Guy” made for the holiday. . .
We did a very traditional turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, and a fantastic gratin that’s on Epicurious.com that has only three ingredients and I love it, just russet potatoes, gruyere and creme fraiche [Click for the recipe: Potato Gratin from Bon Appétit, November 2002]. Unless you count salt & pepper, in which case that’s five ingredients. And, I added some rosemary that the recipe didn’t call for. It’s an eye opener for me, because aren’t the best dishes always the simplest ones?
My whole problem is that all of my favorite things at Thanksgiving are the starches, and everyone is trying to go low-carb this year, even a green vegetable has carbs in it. I don’t understand this carb thing! I found a recipe that was just shredded Brussels sprouts with maple glazed pecans [Click for the recipe: Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Maple Hickory Nuts from Gourmet, November 2003]. It didn’t sound that amazing at first, I just did it because I needed to have something green, and it turned out to be really an amazing recipe. Brussels sprouts are kind of homely, but I actually really like them.
They were both new recipes for me. You know, I almost never make the same thing twice. Well, I do always make a turkey and I always make stuffing, and while I don’t vary the stuffing that much, it may be slightly different. I mean it’s different every time you make it based on what you have on hand, throw nuts into it, whatever. I don’t measure that carefully, all I care about is that it has to be a sagey stuffing.
For wine, we had a Rhone, bought from a store in Chicago called Fox & Obel. It’s a new and interesting family-owned gourmet store with a great wine department. It was a Rhone Domain La Garrigue Cuvee Speciale Vacqueyras, which is a grenache-syrah blend. It was terrific with the turkey.
The funny thing about Thanksgiving, or any huge meal, is that you spend 12 hours shopping for it and then chopping and cooking and braising and blanching. Then it takes 20 minutes to eat it and everybody sort of sits around in a food coma, and then it takes four hours to clean it up. Why do we do this?!