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Ted Allen talks Dining Out for Life, 'Chopped' and 'Queer Eye'
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2018-04-18

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Ted Allen was originally introduced to the country when he was one of the original quintet in Bravo network's television program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ran 2003-07.

After appearing on Top Chef as a judge, Allen ( who still has ties to the Windy City, years after writing for Chicago magazine and living here throughout the 1990s ) became—and still is—host of the popular Food Network shows Chopped and Chopped Junior. He is also one of the spokespeople of the annual event Dining Out for Life ( taking place Thursday, April 26 ), which returns to Chicago after a three-year absence to benefit local HIV/AIDS organizations.

Windy City Times: Do you remember what restaurants you used to go to while you lived in Chicago?

Ted Allen: Yeah, I sure do. Initially, I lived on Belmont and Broadway [in Lake View], right above a bar called Reflections. There was a diner in the same building; first, it was called Ricky's and then it was called Nicky's. It might be a Chipotle now.

Like everyone else, I used to go to Leona's. When I worked for Chicago magazine, because of the dining coverage, I got to go to place's like Thai restaurant Arun's and Charlie Trotter's a couple times. There was a nice Italian place called Bella Vista; it was by Belmont and Sheffield. I also like all the Rick [Bayless] spots, like Topolobampo—that's been open for 20 years. I remember R.J. Grunt's.

Chicago is the first city that really exposed me to really fine dining, mainly because of the Chicago magazine connection. Every job I've had has been necessary for the next job—and that magazine taught me a lot. Having never been a chef, I needed some kind of education for what I do now.

I still have very strong ties to Chicago. I have a group of friends that I'm still pretty tight with. My partner is actually in business with one of those friends, and we own a couple buildings in Andersonville—just little three-flats. That cements our connection to the city permanently. So Chicago is playing a material role in my retirement. [Both laugh.]

WCT: And this is your 10th year as spokesperson for Dining Out for Life?

TA: At least. It might be my 11th.

The great thing is that Dining Out for Life, even though it's in [more than 40] cities, had not been in New York City until this year. So they have a few restaurants in New York involved this year, and I will actually get to dine out myself. Back in the day, the way I could do it is if I happened to be in Philly or another city. It raises an extraordinary amount of money in one day.

I'm presenting at the James Beard Awards on May 7 in Chicago. The theme this year is "Rise," as in "rise to the occasion." ( An example is Chef Jose Andres going to Puerto Rico after the hurrican, when our federal government couldn't be bothered to do its job in that department. ) So, just today, I was writing language and answering questions about how I feel about the culinary world's contribution to the community—and what I wrote was something I've said for years: "Whenver you're trying to raise money for charity, restaurants are the first place you go to, whether they're offering free dinners or free wine." Chefs take it for granted that [charity] is their duty, and it says a lot about the culinary culture.

WCT: Something you just said blew my mind—that this is New York City's first year for Dining Out for Life.

TA: Yeah. I don't know the official reason. Ironically enough, the city of New York—being ground zero for HIV/AIDS, when the first epidemic struck and when it was white, gay male disease—already had competition for fundraising dollars when [Dining Out for LIfe started].

WCT: And it was gone from Chicago for three years.

TA: As a matter of fact, when Bella Vista existed, Dining Out for Life was my reason for going there. I was spending more money on dinner than I should've spent, at least 20 years ago.

WCT: Congrats on Chopped, by the way. How many episodes have been filmed—about 500?

TA: It's been about 675, including Chopped Junior. We're very likely to make it to 10 years; we're at about nine.

WCT: On the show, do you ever hear food combinations and think, "There's no way they can make something edible out of this?" I saw one episode in which two of the ingredients for an appetizer were stone-crab claws and vanilla cake frosting.

TA: Ah! Well, when it comes to Chopped, there's usually a way to utilize all four ingredients; you just have to pick how prominent a role those ingredients play in a dish. Crab does have a natural affinity for vanilla, which makes other things taste sweeter than they really are. The problem is the sugar in the frosting, so you could address the sweetness with lemon juice or champagne.

That's the thing about being the chefs. You can practice, and get a perspective on how short 20 minutes [can be] and how fast you need to move—that way you can figure out how ambitious to be, although you have to temper that with incredible constraints. With those ingredients, you have a problem to solve—and think creatively while having blazing lights in your face.

WCT: If I saw those ingredients, I might have to tap out.

TA: And that's the difference between editors and chefs. [Interviewer laughs.] To be a chef, you have to have a healthy ego; it's an interesting mix of creativity and confidence.

I just read that an English chef Heston Blumenthal just discovered that caviar has a remarkably yummy affinity for white chocolate—which sounds like a Chopped basket. But if you think about it, there's that salty-sweet combination.

WCT: I have to ask about the new Queer Eye, of course. Was it surreal meeting the new guys?

TA: Well, not only that, but the cutest one, Antoni [Porowski], worked for me for three years.

It's surreal, but it's also validating to see it come back—and the casting was done by the same people who created it in the first place. Anthony told me he wanted to go for it, but he's also cooked for me and my partner, and he's passionate about furniture as well. Back then, the people didn't just hire cute hunks—and they didn't this time, either. They really wanted people who knew what they were doing and who would listen and be sensitive. And you see that. It's a powerful experience who's down on his luck to have five pretty accomplished people come in and help them this way.

It's nice to have happiness and love, as opposed to all that anger and bullshit we get from Washington with that ... occupant of the White House who has no business being there. The new show is well-cast and -produced, but it makes me feel good about that first show that was done so long ago.

WCT: Who are three of your favorite chefs?

TA: Wow ... there are so many. I can at least tell you about some who are significant to me. One is from Chicago, and her name is Sarah Stegner, who I belive has her own restaurant now [Prairie Grass Cafe]; but when I was there, she was the chef at the Ritz-Carlton dining room.

There's also Tom Colicchio, who I used to work with when I was judging Top Chef back in the day. I don't like criticism of chefs that's filled with sarcasm; you have to remember that you could make or break people's livelihoods. Criticism should be done in a professional and serious way—and Tom taught me that.

I could rattle off hundreds of other chefs I admire, like Michael Anthony, at Gramercy Tavern; or Rick Bayless, who accomplished something extraordinary in his career by widening people's understanding of Mexican food.

Several dozen restaurants are taking part in this year's Dining Out for Life. See www.diningoutforlife.com/chicago.


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