Queer Eye’s Ted Allen Knows How to Cook
Ted Allen was in town last week, on a break from filming Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and promoting his new book, “The Food You Want To Eat.” Teddy caught up with Ted at Zuni Café, where they discusses polenta, politics, the philosophy of food and sharp Japanese knives…
Ted and I get comfortable at our sunlit window table, upstairs at Zuni as he recalls one of his more exotic interview assignments. “He went on to do all sorts of naughty things with Heidi Fleiss getting into all sorts of trouble. I went down for the interview at his house in the Hollywood Hills and he came down from upstairs in nothing but his boxer briefs and he was supposed to be behaving. I think he had stopped drinking or something.”
Writing remains a great passion for Ted and his new book, The Food You Want To Eat, is disappearing like hot cakes from the shelves of bookstores nationwide. Like the man, the most striking feature of the book is its accessibility and lack of pretension. On that subject Ted has a lot to say. “Most people are incredibly intimidated by, particularly, wine. The wine industry has been scaring the hell out of people for centuries and done a terrific job of alienating the vast majority of us. I think the same applies to restaurants. People feel the restaurant wants to sell them the most expensive bottle of wine, that the food is going to be fussy and/or that they won’t get enough of it. It’s a narrow-mindedness of cuisine that causes people to miss out.”
A crying baby momentarily shatters Ted’s razor sharp attention and he quips “You’re gonna hate that baby when you play this tape back. Fortunately, my voice carries, but so does his.”
Born in Ohio and raised in Indianapolis, Ted did not have a Dolls House or an Easybake oven, but he did cook with Mom. Home cooking was just that: lots of “fried chicken and green beans, cooked until you no longer need teeth to eat them.” It wasn’t until he moved to Chicago and became the editor of Chicago Magazine that his culinary career really took off. “I would occasionally accompany the dining critics on their covert reviews when we would have tape-recorders under our napkins, order everything off the menu and pass it all around. I started doing restaurant criticism myself and thought if I was going to be so critical of other people’s cooking, I ought to learn a little bit about it myself.”
We pause to make our food selection and Ted orders a single Olympia oyster and then the Caesar Salad followed by the Hangar Steak (medium rare).
Ted has a younger sister “who took the burden of child producing off me a few years ago” but is now beginning to understand the joys of having abusive brothers. Ted grins with obvious affection for his Queer Eye siblings. “It’s really quite fun. We like to lock people into things and out of things, tie ropes around people and duct tape. Tom does it most of all, perpetuating the cycle of abuse that he doubtless experienced at the hands of his brothers, but it’s fun, a lot of fun.”
In addition to his newly found brothers, Tom has a partner, Barry. The two have been together for 12-and-a-half years, and met at a meeting of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association in Chicago. They live together in Chelsea (where else?) on Manhattan Island.
“Actually, it kind of bothers me,” admits Ted. “We used to live in the West Village and loved it—it’s so quaint and beautiful—but we wanted more space and we just couldn’t find anything large enough that we could afford in the West Village. The only things that I had to give up were that I have no fireplace and no place to barbecue, which is very painful for a cook.”
A momentary spasm of pain clouds Ted’s sunny countenance. Ted has a great fondness for barbecues, and his book contains a litany for true believers in the essential elements of preparation, type of charcoal to use, as well as what to place upon the altar. “You just don’t get the flavor with gas,” he explains with genuine sense of loss.
Tailgating is not Ted’s style at all, so how does he cope? “We have some friends in Brooklyn, with a patio,” he confides, his smile returning, “plus we have lots of other nice things going on.”
Barry has just finished renovating the kitchen and Ted is looking forward to finishing the book tour, Christmas in London, and then spending some time at home before shooting begins for the next series of Queer Eye on Jan. 17.
Ted has also just discovered some great knives from a Japanese company called Shun. “They have wooden handles and are as sharp as hell, but you can’t put them in the dishwasher, which is a shame. Apart from a decent oven and stove top, all you really need in the kitchen are a great set of knives and a really good skillet,” he concludes.
Does Barry cook too? “He didn’t use to cook much at all because I always wanted to do it. He’s more of a baker so he does the cookies and pies. We have a couple of friends who are food stylists who have crappy apartments and bad kitchens so they love to come over and play in our kitchen, make pies, it’s great fun.”
In Defense of Marriage
We remember the food in front of us. Ted crunches his salad, I thoughtfully stir my winter-squash soup and somehow we get talking about gay marriage. “We certainly had a very exciting year in 2003 when things were looking good for lesbians and gays in our country then all this ridiculous defense of marriage crap comes up…it…it…[Ted becomes animated]…let’s just say history will not look kindly on those people.
“For me it’s such a huge disconnect. When I’m touring around with my book I get crowds of people come to see me in places that are hardly considered progressive. They come to see me, they like Queer Eye, and then they turn around and cast these ballot initiatives that characterize our relationships as meaningless. That’s one more message for American gay kids that they are worthless, one more message that suggests that they might as well go ahead and continue killing themselves. This country’s really confused and misled. It’s difficult just not to go ballistic about it.”
So, apart from being homemaker, writer and chef is Ted an activist too? “In an indirect way. I think that the most important kind of activism that a gay person can do is to be out of the closet. What we do on Queer Eye is in many ways superficial when it comes to hair and clothing and decorating your apartment, but we are five openly gay men who are playing ourselves. We’ve had the chance to be ourselves on television, reach a lot of straight American living rooms and be embraced there. I think that helps.”
Changing minds in “a sneaky way” admits Ted. “If I was allowed to say the things I really feel about the defense of marriage on television, it would be infinitely less effective than as we did in the wedding episode, last night. We give these little tips at the end of the show and mine was about the toast—keep it brief, make it funny, but not too risqué because you don’t want Aunt Helen to freak out and have a zippy ending. I raised my glass and said, ‘Here’s to Adam & Steve, one of these days.’ I think that sounded just the right note for us. It’s a direct reference to the perversion of the Bible, which these fanatical faux-Christian zealots, who are really politicians exploiting a great religion to keep rich assholes in office…”
Ted catches his breath and laughs, “you see that’s how I really sound. Not very effective.” He continues with a wicked glint in his eye, “When does the average marriage end? After five years? I mean, really, straight people need to have marriage defended from themselves. It is discouraging and infuriating but I suppose we have to be sanguine about it, at least they’re not locking us up anymore or burning us at the stake—that would ruin your whole day.”
All Things Italian
Ted bites heartily into his hangar steak and I spoon a mouthful of sweet polenta each of us savoring, it seems, some momentary pain relief from the sense of frustration that Ted has articulated.
Ted asks me how my polenta with mascarpone is. “Delicious” I reply and we get to talking about Ted’s love of all things Italian. The book contains a host of useful tips on the varieties of pasta, which go better with sauces and which with oils as well as a bunch of taste-bud busting recipes.
Barry is an interior designer and their living room features many mid-century Italian furnishings including a sofa by Scarpa, “quite hideous, but I love it. It’s this sort of black leather, puffy, mushroomy thing, held together by chrome bits, its very comfortable but quite an acquired taste. It looks sort of like a cigar that got squished.” Ted chuckles.
Obviously, the sofa triggers many happy memories of good friends round for great dinners. “I love the approach to food in Italy because so many of their classic dishes are very simple and it’s really about fabulous ingredients and eating seasonally with things that are fresh. Something I would like to see us get away from in the US is the idea that we should always be able to buy a melon 12 months out of the year or always have access to tomatoes—tomatoes are terrible except in August and September, so why would you buy one in February—they taste like Styrofoam.” Ted has been to Tuscany where he stayed with a group of friends in a Villa and was assigned the grocery shopping. “We don’t speak Italian and so navigating this grocery store in a small rural town in Tuscany was so much fun. It was like being in a museum and being functionally illiterate.”
We continue to bemoan the American insistence on year-round availability and begin to dig deeper into the produce section. In the chapter on vegetables in his book, Ted mentions ‘uninspired vegetarian menus’. So, what is his advice for those cooking a vegetarian meal? “When I have vegetarians coming to dinner or someone who, say, detests shrimp, or someone who really wants Indian—anything like that, to me just gives you something to focus on and helps you find the theme, a direction. You want to make everybody happy and there’s a lot of great vegetarian cooking to be had. I’m no expert at it but I’ve often had meals that don’t involve meat at all. I’m having a steak today and I do like it,” he says smacking his lips with obvious relish.
“I do have a good friend who is a vegan, her whole family is vegan and she is a fantastic cook. We had them over for dinner once, the occasion of one of my worst culinary blunders. I used a very famous vegetarian cookbook, which shall go unnamed.” Ted grins, winks and then continues, “I cooked a half butternut squash that was filled with a bunch of uninspired stuff that I guess I should have tested it out first.” The general advice I would give would be to embrace a different vocabulary and don’t attempt to simulate the textures of meat with people who don’t like meat.
So what are Ted’s favorites? “The great triumvirate of Italian, French and Asian, but really I like it all, although I don’t like Thai food as much as a lot of people do because I made the mistake of reading how fish sauce is created. There are just some things it’s better not to know.”
I arch my eyebrows quizzically and Ted grimaces, but reveals “it happens in barrels on the ends of docks and involves fermenting with tails and heads.” Yuck! We quickly switch the conversation to more yummy ingredients and where to find them. “I think that the American grocery store actually should be blamed for a lot of the bad food we used to have here which is why we’ve seen excellent grocery stores come to the fore of late, places like Whole Foods, which a wonderful store, catastrophically expensive, but very good. It’s great, popularizing the idea of sustainable agriculture and organic food.”
Of course, not all of us, Ted included, always have the time to trek across town and fill our baskets with exotic delectables. So what do I do if the guy I really, really like phones me around 3 p.m. and I rashly invite him over for dinner at 7 p.m.? “I’ve got one for you”, offers Ted, “page 102; pan roasted salmon with a sweet tomato vinaigrette. It literally takes 25 minutes to cook and it’s a great dish because it’s beautiful on the plate and has this fabulous aroma. It’s my favorite recipe in the book because of its speed, it looks beautiful on the plate, and it’s actually quite good for you. The vinaigrette has about six ingredients in it, so it’s chop, chop, chop, done. The fish takes about three minutes on the stovetop to get a nice golden brown crust. Then, you flip it, put the pan in the oven, finish it for six or seven minutes to a nice medium, and if he doesn’t like fish, then to hell with him. Maybe have some bread and an herb butter before that and buy the dessert.
Sounds like a recipe for success, but has Ted had any other blunders apart from the ill fated blandly stuffed butternut squash? “The worst thing I ever did in the kitchen? I have this wonderful friend, Elizabeth and she cleans the plate, every time, no matter what. A little earlier in my cooking life I bought a beef tenderloin and for some bizarre reason I marinated it, which you don’t need to do, plus I marinated it in something acidic and for far too long. By the time I cooked it, it was the consistency of a mashed potato. She ate every bit of it and I knew it was terrible and said, ‘I’m so sorry I really messed up the dinner’. She insisted it was good, for weeks after, until I finally pinned her against the wall and said, Liz, I completely ruined the meat, you have to admit it and she replied, ‘Well, I’ve had better.”
Ted’s cooking has come a long way since those early experimental days and his book brims with 100 recipes which conform to a winning formula that has even earned praise and attention from Weight Watchers. The book contains a lot of recipes for salads and fish filets. “I try to be reasonable with the fats that I use, and I think its better to use something natural like a little bit of butter than a lot of something from an aerosol can. The one thing which gave me pause is that the Weight Watchers people are suddenly under the impression that it’s perfectly alright for them to eat large amounts of crème brulée.” The book features a killer recipe for crème brulée on pages 182-184 together with a tongue in cheek photo of Ted, propane torch in hand, ready for action.
The book ends with a delightfully simple, yet witty recipe for a sweet oven-baked pancake with lemon, leaving the cook eager for more. Will there be another book? “Well, we’ve just been renewed for Queer Eye next year plus I am doing Iron Chef the second week in January. I also have a guest appearance in a new Bravo show, filmed in Oakland, that’s coming out in March and which might be the lead-in for Queer Eye. I can’t say much other than it’s a competitive show with a culinary subject matter. The episode that I saw filmed was hilarious. I hope to do another book one of these days—not too soon—I’m going to take a little breather first.”
Ted’s philosophy on food was greatly influenced by the Sally Schneider, author of A New Way to Cook. “Eat everything but eat sensible amounts of it. Let’s enjoy all of this stuff and let’s just be smart about it. It’s not about denial; it’s about being intelligent. Life is too short to eat bad food. I’m never happier than when I’ve heated the oil in the pan, the shallots start to sizzle and the herbs go in, I’m much more concerned with the enjoyment of doing the cooking with how it comes out. I just love the process. I love to play music, it’s just a joy for me and I try to inspire other people to feel that way.”
He’s doing a very good job.
Ted Allen’s new book, The Food You Want To Eat, is published by Clarkson Potter, is available from all good bookstores, retails at $27.50 and makes the perfect holiday gift.