Ted Allen: The Culture Brats Interview

On April 30th, you have the chance to make a huge difference with your mouth. Dining Out For Life, a yearly fundraiser benefiting people with HIV and AIDS, will once again receive proceeds from restaurants in sixty US cities. Earlier this month, we spoke with Dining Out For Life spokesman Ted Allen about the event, what drew him to it and keeps him there, Chopped, fast food, and lots more!

Tell us about Dining Out For Life.
Dining Out For Life is a unique fundraiser, or at least it was. I think other people have borrowed the model. Dining Out For Life across the country in sixty different cities, 3,000+ restaurants, raises in a single day four million bucks, perhaps a little north of that, to fight HIV and AIDS right in your own community. All of the money raised in each city stays in that city, helping your neighbors, helping people with HIV and AIDS, helping prevent other people from being infected. I like to think of it as a simple thing with very little overhead. I also like it because it's good for the area restaurants who seem to always be the first place we turn when we're trying to raise money for a good cause. Chefs and restauranteurs are wonderful people, I love being around them, I work with them all the time. Generosity and community involvement is in their DNA, it's just part of what chefs and restauranteurs do. I just think it's a win for everybody.

You've been involved with Dining Out For Life for seven years now. What first attracted you to the event and keeps you coming back?
Its simplicity, the fact that it's so effective. I always say the real heroes in this fight and in similar fights are the volunteers and the activists and the researchers and the people who devote their whole careers to fighting this plague. Not everybody can do that. Other people have chosen to become Marines and police offers and school teachers and postal carriers. But everybody needs to eat and as long as you can afford to go to a restaurant, this is a way for you to participate in a really meaningful fundraiser without having to devote your entire life to it. The numbers speak for themselves. If you can raise more than four million dollars in a single day in a simple way like this, why wouldn't you?

Let's talk about your Food Network shows. Which is your favorite to do?
I'm thrilled to be able to do any of them. You know Chopped is clearly the mothership for me. We do somewhere around fifty episodes a year. We just finished, I want to say, Episode 325. It's great. That's a lot. Even though we've been doing it for years, it just doesn't get boring. It's different every time. Different people, different ingredients, different approaches. The food's not always great, but when it is, it's just such an achievement for these chefs. It's hard. Chopped is really hard.

I also really love All-Star Academy, the newer show that we're doing. I watched it last night, the episode from this past Sunday with Robert Irvine. So much talent, so much expertise from our mentors and the home cooks did a great job. I meet a lot of people who feel like they have a Food Network show in them. They're not all correct, of course. I think that's one of the things about the network that's just so appealing to so many people. It is a very fun place to work.

Which is the most stressful show to do?
Most of the time, shooting Chopped is not stressful for me at all. But the times when it does get stressful--for example, we just finished another teen tournament, a five-part tournament with teenagers ranging from fourteen to eighteen. Teenagers are not as coordinated as trained, professional chefs. Many of them are quite small, especially the fourteen year olds. It's hard for them to handle knives. It makes me nervous about people cutting themselves. That's stressful.

We've been doing a lot of themed episodes the last couple years because viewers really love them and we bring in people from the military, the people who serve lunch to your children at school, firefighters. Those can require more work for me because I have to memorize a lot more and explain to the audience what we're doing. But the real stress and the real stars of these shows every time are the competitors. They're the ones who are under stress. My stress is really minuscule by comparison.

What would viewers be surprised to learn about Chopped?
A lot of people are surprised to learn that we can only shoot one episode a day. It's a twelve-hour day to make one episode, longer really for some people. The winner and second-place person, they're still sitting there in the chair being interviewed I go home. I think people would be surprised at how complicated it is to do a cooking show. We have three rounds in every episode of Chopped. The kitchen has to be cleaned after every one, cleaned and completely reset. That alone takes time. I think people would be surprised at how hard it really is. I think we all sit there and yell at the television when we watch a show like Chopped or All-Star Academy or when we watch a basketball game with Duke. It's one thing to sit there and say, "Why would you cook the egg that way? That's obviously wrong." It's quite another thing to have to do it yourself and most of our competitors say that. "I knew this was hard. I didn't know how hard." It's really hard.

Your Best. Ever. barbecue episode... how come you didn't step foot in any North Carolina restaurants?
Well, I have to say first of all, I don't pick the restaurants that go into Best. Ever. and I also have to say that I've been cooking Elizabeth Karmel's North Carolina Pulled Pork recipe for at least ten years and I love it and that's the kind of barbecue I eat more often than any other kind. So hats off to North Carolina! I'm just the host of that show. I just come in and throw to the segments in different states. Those choices are made either by producers or the individuals themselves. Here's the thing: I got in trouble recently for criticizing a particular fast food hamburger that I won't name now. I realized when people were complaining that we all have our regional preferences and our particular favorites of everything. I came up with what I feel is the perfect response to that, "The great thing about America is that we all get to pick our own favorite hamburger." Our own favorite barbecue. So no insult intended, certainly.

Are there any plans for a restaurant?
Absolutely not! No way. No! The restaurant business is extraordinarily difficult. We often ask chefs, "Why did you become a chef?" One chef had a really good answer which was, "It's the only thing that I know how to do." I love to cook, I do it all the time. But I'm not a trained chef and I've never worked the line in a serious restaurant. I would just as soon enjoy cooking as a pleasure as opposed to banging it out every night. You just have to be like eighteen hours a day. It's difficult. It's difficult to make money. If you make a 10% profit margin, you're hitting it out of the park. I would rather create something like a book or a TV show and get paid to do that and then it's finished. It's out there. You can copy it. You can rerun it. When you're selling pizza, you're only as good as your last pizza. I have nothing but respect for people who can do it. It's a tough business.

We've got a few questions from our readers. I don't even know if you can answer the first one based on what you said earlier, but do you ever do fast food?
Sure. I mean, I don't like American fast food very much when you talk about the chains. It's just not very good food. It's not. It's frozen, ground up, corporate, the cheapest possible product that's designed to make lots of money for big corporations. That doesn't mean that I'm a food snob at all. I love hamburgers. Love 'em. I make them all the time. I love a great french fry. I have a local restaurant in my neighborhood, a few blocks away, that makes a gorgeous hamburger. They buy really high-quality meat. They grind it themselves so it's got a beautiful texture. They season it with salt. They put it on a good bun. They serve it with good condiments. I love that! I only eat fast food when I have no other choice. The bad thing is there are still a lot of places in the United States where that's the only choice. On the highway, in most airports. And a lot of people eat fast food because it's been made so cheap that it's all they can afford. That's something I'd love to see change.

What's your go-to comfort food?
I have lots of them. I love to make pulled pork. And when I make it, I do it over charcoal, slow and low for as many hours as possible. Six, eight. Go-to comfort food? I love all of it! I love meat loaf. I didn't used to, but I have a really great recipe for it now. Pizza, fried chicken, mashed potatoes. I like green beans the way my grandma cooked them, with a ham hock and a piece of onion until they're really soft and pale. It's not the way that fancy chefs cook them.

Do you think you could do as good of a job as some of the competitors with those wacky Chopped baskets?
I don't think I can do a better job than many of them, I'll tell you that. I'm not a professional chef. One of the skills you need as a pro is speed. Ironically, I'm a very slow cook. I tend to have music playing. I tend to have a glass of wine in my hand. I'm cooking for fun. I've had parties where I've had professionals like Marc Murphy and Amanda Freitag push me out of my own kitchen because I was frustrating them so much with my lackadaisical approach. When you go to Marc Murphy's house, which I often do, and he's cooking dinner, he only has one speed which is Fast. It's just the way he operates. He gets everything prepped, he goes out and throws the baseball with his son, he comes back, he bangs out dinner for twenty-five people without even thinking about it and it's delicious. That comes from a lot of practice. People ask all the time when am I going to compete on Chopped. My answer is generally, "How's never? Is never good for you?"

Final question: where's the best cupcake you've ever had?
You know what? I don't really care very much about cupcakes. I can tell you one really good one. The creator of Chopped, her partner, I don't think she owns it anymore, she started a cupcake business in New York City called Butter Lane. I loved her cupcakes because they're normal sized. They're the size we make at home, not the crazy giant ones. They're made with organic ingredients and French buttercream and they're really, really delicious and real. Everything in them is honest and real. But I'm not a big sweets person. Honestly, I'd rather eat cheese.

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