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Ted Allen Explains the Hoax That Is His Career

Talking old school hospitality and punk rock butchers with America's ideal dinner party guest

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Ted Allen is everywhere. The writer, cookbook author, Emmy-award-winning host, and — if he has his way — future stadium-sellout rock star has his hands in almost every element of the gastronomic zeitgeist. On the latest episode of the Eater Upsell, hosts Greg and Helen get down and dirty with the Chopped host on topics ranging from the world-shattering effect of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, to his secret background as a Chicago restaurant critic, to the ethereal beauty of a nude Padma Lakshmi.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of just our conversation with Ted Allen below. For the full episode — including a lesson in Dinner Party 101 (you can never have enough ice!!!) — listen to the audio above.

Ted Allen: The funny thing actually is that from watching Chopped and Chopped Junior, I don’t think you really get to know me that well. I do a lot of counting, and introducing, and trying to pronounce difficult names from all over the world, but there’s — you know, the chefs are the stars of the show. So it’s fun for me to have a chance to do an interview like this because I can stretch out, and maybe I’ll even say something funny.

Helen Rosner: Oh, wow. Can’t wait. You’re the star of our show.

Ted: Well, thank you very much. I’m a big fan of Eater’s, so it’s fun to actually see the place.

Helen: Oh, go on.

Ted: It’s gorgeous. All this gilded Rococo décor, the sumptuous carpets.

Helen: We had Trump’s decorator come in and do it for us.

Greg Morabito: Those clicks, they pay for something nice.

Helen: Internet journalism is so lucrative.

Ted: Dig it!

Greg: So Chopped, I feel like, actually more than any other food-related television program, it permeates culture. Like, people, relatives and stuff I have that don’t follow food media, aren’t cooks, or are not huge restaurant people — they know about Chopped. They watch Chopped. I’m constantly impressed by —

Helen: It’s a phenomenon.

Greg: It’s a phenomenon. Yeah.

Ted: We’re very fortunate, and we’re very appreciative, and the network is supporting us big time and making more and more episodes than we ever have made. When you’re on a TV show, every time you have a wrap party, there’s usually a t-shirt given out to the crew and the team, and I have one from every time that we’ve done that. I have coffee mugs, and backpacks, and other kinds of crap, but when you’re on the show — I feel it’s not appropriate for me to to walk around with a Chopped t-shirt, that would be just the height of —

Helen: It’s like wearing the band’s t-shirt to the band’s show.

Ted: Well, I mean, I did that. Maybe I was a dork, but I’m the host of the show and I feel like it would just look like I’m desperate for attention. I get plenty more attention than what I want, so I don’t wear them, but the crew tells me that any time they go out drinking with a Chopped t-shirt on, people grab them and go, "Oh!" They get really excited. They say, "Oh my God, you work there?"

Greg: Wow.

Helen: I have a hypothesis about why I think it’s so successful which is that it is a show in which cooking happens, but it’s not a cooking show. It’s a game show.

Ted: It is a game show. Or I also sometimes liken it to a basketball game.

"I liken Chopped to a basketball game. It has the intensity and speed of a sport."

Helen: Yeah.

Ted: It’s has the intensity and the speed of a sport and this is why so much of these — I think a good competitive show like ours makes more sense in prime-time than say a stand-and-stir show. As much as I love cooking shows and always have, it’s just a much broader audience and people who don’t ever cook can appreciate it.

Greg: I feel like there’s a lot of little stories in every episode and that’s kind of the thing that I feel like people get —

Helen: It’s like that adrenaline buildup too, though. It’s like tense and release, tense and release. Like every fourteen seconds.

Ted: I think the editing is really, really, really good on our show.

Helen: As an editor, I appreciate that.

Ted: Oh, you are an editor? So you understand. I mean, first of all, I don’t know how you do it.

Helen: It’s easier with words than TV I think.

Ted: I’m sure it is, but even then, one episode of Chopped takes thirty-seven days to edit.

Helen: No, it doesn’t.

Ted: Which makes me want to kill myself just thinking about it.

Helen: Wait, is that a real number or is that you being hyperbolic?

Ted: Yes. No, it’s a real number.

Helen: Thirty-seven?

Greg: Thirty-seven?

Ted: I mean, how is that even possible? But if you think about it, we have easily thirteen, fourteen cameras. Each of which — it’s a twelve hour shoot day, which probably means, what? I don’t know, seven hours of tape? Times thirteen cameras. There are four producers who sit up in the control room and log moments that they think are going to be significant in the show. I’m with you: I think of it as a game show. The only reality element that it has is that the producers don’t know what are going to be the story lines until they happen. Say somebody drops a steak on the floor, but then just decides to plate it, which hasn’t happened in a very long time. You know, you want to hope that you got a picture of that because we’re not going to fake it, and that will obviously be a story. So somewhere, somehow using computers or something, they log what moment in time and what camera got that shot.

Helen: So how does that compare to your first foray into reality TV?

Ted: Chopped is very different from Queer Eye. I have seen far fewer of our cast members naked. Well, really it’s just Carson was the only one that was routinely nude.

"Chopped is very different from Queer Eye. I have seen far fewer of our cast members naked."

Helen: He seems like that sort.

Ted: Yeah. He’s —

Helen: Drop the pants, take off the shirt.

Ted: He actually looks terrific nude. Not that I ever wanted to see that.

Helen: Please go into more detail.

Ted: I’ve actually also seen Padma Lakshmi naked, when I was on Top Chef.

Helen: Wow.

Ted: And you know, she’s every bit as stunning as you’d think. Now, for me, we were sharing a dressing room, on location in San Juan, Puerto Rico for season three I think it was, when Stephanie Izzard won over Richard Blais in a dramatic sunrise moment. That show would shoot until four, five in the morning. It was ridiculous. But she was getting ready to take her dress off and change, and I said, "Oh, I’ll just leave, I’ll step out," because that’s what a gentleman would do and she said, "What, are you repulsed by the sight of my nude body?" and I said, "Not at all!"

Helen: That’s a challenge.

Ted: I have a mental picture that so many men would appreciate more. Incredibly beautiful woman.

Helen: She’s extraordinarily beautiful.

Ted: She is. Best hair ever.

Helen: Talented cook, and host, and presenter.

Greg: Yeah.

Helen: But also very beautiful.

Ted: Yes. A remarkable person.

Greg: So to go back to Queer Eye —

Helen: Sorry. Who else have you seen naked?

Ted: Thank God you edit this thing.

Greg: Are those the only two nude celebrities?

Ted: Who else? That’s a good question. As an interviewer myself, on occasion — who all have you seen naked that was interesting? That’s the only one I can tell you about. The only two I can tell you about. Nobody else.

Greg: But back to Queer Eye. That was another phenomenon, and I feel like it must have had some sort of —

Helen: It popularized the word "queer," first of all.

Ted: It kind of did, yeah.

Helen: In a massive and monumental watershed kind of way. I remember when it came out reading uncountable articles that were explaining to people what the word "queer" meant.

Ted: I will never forget the arrival of the word "queer." The cast, particularly myself, didn’t like the title. To me, Queer Eye is  —  queer was such a loaded word. This is back — I mean, Queer Nation was still around.

Helen: This is like 2003, 2004, right?

Ted: Yes, and "queer" was a word that had not been nearly as embraced as it has today; it was a very loaded, political word. I’ll never forget the first time I watched Matt Lauer try to say "queer." The word "queer"! I mean, he kind of bungled it a little bit, because it just wasn’t a word we were comfortable with. Someone like Matt Lauer wouldn’t, shouldn’t be comfortable with that word, but I think it has something to do with what caught people’s attention.

Helen: Yeah. It was an act of reclamation.

Greg: I can’t exactly explain how this connects the dots in my mind, but I want to say that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy largely influenced straight men somehow getting into a lot of these things about design, and food, and fashion. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Ted: Yeah, sure! I mean, I think Queer Eye — we were the first all-gay cast of any show that has ever been on American TV. I think the show was pretty brilliantly made for what it was. It had certainly plenty of crass commercialism in it as well, but it also brought together two groups of people that just were never brought together. And over the subject matters of interior decorating, and food, and fashion, below that was burbling that sort of subtext. The best episodes were the ones in which the straight guy, as we called him affectionately, was visibly uncomfortable with us at the beginning and then warmed up. And they always warmed up, because it’s a powerful thing to have five people who know something about those areas care about you and help set you up. Aside from the fact that of course we give you a television — a giant screen TV and a sofa, which is awesome — and paint your apartment really cool. So there was a power there. We have to remember that whatever impact it had, that was such a flash in the pan. Queer Eye was hot for like a year. We made 99 episodes and it became the linchpin of what Bravo still is today. The president of Bravo used to say this all the time. She called it the Queer Eye Unified Theory of Bravo, which was, those are still the subject areas that they’re interested in.

"It’s a powerful thing, to have five people who know things care about you and help set you up."

Greg: Yeah, they just pulled different ideas out of it and kind of spun it off into these different trees of content I feel like.

Helen: But there was something I think really powerful about what you were saying, Greg, that these things that maybe a certain sort of hyper-masculine, macho dude of the early 2000’s might have considered beneath him or outside of his sphere, and then he was presented with five gay men. But also just like, you’re actual humans, and I think for a lot of these guys that had been watching it at home, it felt like this was for those guys who would appear uncomfortable. It was the first time that they were having meaningful interactions with people that they knew were gay. And by the end of it, they were like, "Okay, first of all, you are actual human beings with feelings and thoughts and expertise and intelligence, and I respect you in these various ways," and then also, "These things that I’ve been dismissing as way too feminine or stupid or dumb are actually going to help me get laid."

Ted: Absolutely, which is absolutely was our goal, of course. And it suddenly becomes okay to say, "Dude, do you like the way these jeans look on me?" And I think that’s awesome. I mean, I think it’s great. God knows the retailers loved it. And I loved my category because it was absolutely limitless. I thought I had by far the best job.

Helen: Oh, you did. You were food and wine.

Ted: I was food and wine.

Helen: Yeah.

Ted: So I could choose whatever. First of all, for some reason, those industries didn’t seem to be coughing up product placement money at the time, so nobody bothered me to try to, you know, flack for some horrible product.

Helen: "Kraft salad dressing will elevate your dinner date!"

Ted: There was exactly one, actually, that I did have to do and it was fine. I insisted on approving anything they were going to let me do anyway. It was Rancho Zabaco Dancing Bull Zinfandel, which is about a six dollar bottle of wine in any grocery store. And that was fine with me, but I mean poor Kyan had to sell Crest Whitestrips like 47 times. I didn’t have to. I could introduce somebody to the different varieties of champagne, I could show you how to break down a lobster, I could show you how to make fried chicken. I did all those things.

Greg: That wine angle though, that’s got to be a kind of seminal moment for wine on television. I can’t think of any other show really, before that, where that was kind of just kind of baked into it.

Ted: People who love wine have been trying forever to get wine shows on TV and nobody watches them. That’s the problem. Food Network — I’m sure they’ve tried and I know they would be delighted, if they could succeed with it. But if you try to pitch them a wine show, you can just seen them lose interest. It’s not something a lot of people want to watch on TV.

Greg: Wow.

Ted: But I could do a segment about it. And meanwhile, the hardest gig of course was Thom Filicia’s. You can’t fake a makeover. You have to go buy furniture, and you have to apply wallpaper to walls. It takes days, and there are deadlines, and there’s pressure, and you have to have it done by X day. You have to. Which if you’ve ever so much as painted a room, you know it does not happen ever.

Looking back on it now, there were several things about the show I would have changed. I would have put us in the same uniform for every episode. Thus sparing us  —  we borrowed ten outfits per episode for us to wear. One to wear for the shooting of the show, and one to wear for when we were hanging out in the loft afterwards. By the way, this is such ancient history. You might want to cut this because nobody who listens to your podcast has ever seen Queer Eye.

Helen: I watched it religiously.

Ted: You did, really?

Helen: I did!

Greg: I just feel like it was always on when you’d go over to somebody’s apartment.

Ted: Well, it was. It was on because it was the only show advertisers wanted to buy on on Bravo back then.

Helen: Because it was such a phenomenon.

Ted: Yeah. It was all they had. They had that and Cirque du Soleil, which in turn is why they ordered too many episodes of it and burned us into the ground. It was like a comet instead of a — whatever lasts longer than a comet. A planet, let’s say.

Greg: A sun.

Ted: A sun.

Helen: A sun.

Ted: I have to say, the way it all worked out for me — our design guy Thom Filicia predicted that I was the one that would end up getting a gig on Food Network, just because it translated well and because that network was there, and was established, and was the home of all things food at the time. But I got really lucky the way it worked out because when Queer Eye ended, I had already been invited to guest judge on both Top Chef on Bravo and Iron Chef America on Food Network, and neither network cared that I was doing those things simultaneously because I was just a judge and it wasn’t a role. They didn’t see me as a host, or a real family member.

Helen: It wasn’t "talent," in the same way that it’s evolved into now.

Ted: And they paid me, but not a lot. What was important about it was that it kept me visible on two very visible food shows, after Queer Eye just disappeared. During the couple years it took for Food Network to decide they liked me, and wanted to hire me for something else. So I’ll always treasure that, and by the way, the food on Iron Chef was awesome. I know you recently talked with chef Batali. My favorite battle I got to judge was Battle Parmesan with Mario Batali and Andrew Carmelini.

Helen: Shut up.

Ted: It was like a holy moment. And I’ll never forget that Mark Ladner, who was Mario’s sou chef along with Anne Burrell on Iron Chef, took an entire wheel of parm and dug a bowl out, into it, and then tossed spaghetti carbonara in that.

Helen: That’s amazing.

Ted: It was such great theater. I mean, I love that. It was such a heavenly meal. You know I can’t remember who won. I can’t imagine either of them losing. What an incredible time.

Greg: Just to back it up a little bit,  I know you have a background in food journalism, but what was the thing that sparked that? Were you someone who was really into food or into cooking as a kid? Were you into going to restaurants?

Helen: Or was it all just, like, a total fluke?

Ted: I like to call it the hoax that passes for my career.

Helen: I think we all feel that way.

Ted: I think we need to now, the way the world works. Nobody works at the same insurance company for thirty years and retires.

Helen: With the gold watch.

Ted: With the gold watch. Yeah. No. My dad did, but he was my dad. Maybe your dad did, too. I was an editor at Chicago magazine, which is an excellent monthly and it’s along the lines — it’s a lot like New York Magazine, just less frequent. And then the culture of city magazines for years revolved heavily around restaurants. They invented restaurant listings, not newspapers. Of course they’ve now been usurped by you guys!

Helen: The internet destroys it all.

Ted: It does. I know. Listen, the other day I had to use a teleprompter, and I realized that that’s just the latest thing that the iPad and the iPhone have taken over. The guy was scrolling the text on his phone and it was appearing on an iPad right under the lens.

Greg: Did you write the listings?

Ted: I did not write the listings. Thank God. That would have killed me. I was a senior editor at the magazine. I edited the front of book section, which I loved, so I assigned all those stories. I wrote feature stories about anything, not just food. But I found myself getting sent out to interview chefs and include chefs in my section and getting invited to, you know, seasonal menu tastings at restaurants, and I just fell in love with it.

Helen: So maybe this is a deep cut, but this was the Penny Pollack era?

Ted: Yeah.

Helen: Yeah. She’s a legend.

Ted: I think she’s still there.

Helen: Yeah. She sends out her weekly newsletter. I still get it.

Ted: You read Penny’s — well, you know what? Her undercover name — oh, I shouldn’t say it because she might still use it. Penny was the dining editor and still is. She started as a secretary.

Helen: No way.

Ted: A long, long, long time ago. She’s been there probably, I don’t know, 30 years. And worked her way up. And she was the assistant to the former dining editor, and learned the ropes, and had this double giant Rolodex of names in the Chicago food world and nationally. So I was doing regular magazine journalism, but also sort of tip-toeing into food, and I asked Penny if I could audition to be one of the five or six critics that they had at the time, which is something I rarely mention these days because I work with lots of chefs. But I got the gig because I took it super seriously and to this day am very offended and put-off by dining criticism that is flippant, or cruel, or unkind — unless a chef has really done something unspeakable, in which case they deserve it. But Chicago Magazine only wrote about restaurants that we thought were good, so that helps.

Helen: And when you’re once a month and you’ve got a limited number of physical print pages, you have to make your decisions.

Ted: Exactly.

Helen: And people want to hear about what they should do, not what they shouldn’t.

Greg: Enthusiasm is super important in food writing.

Ted: And I also understand that a good take-down can be entertaining for people, but that’s never really been where my heart lies. Since I was a junior critic, I was the new kid, I would be sent to restaurants that usually were okay. They weren’t sending me to Charlie Trotter. But I found it intensely fascinating to go into a restaurant, be it high or low, and sincerely appraise what you thought of what they were trying to do. Whether they were doing what they were promising for you.

Helen: It’s a totally different headspace than just being a standard diner, too.

Ted: It definitely is.

Helen: I mean you’re looking around the entire room. You’re paying attention to the choreography of the service, and what’s the logic of why this thing is on this plate, and did this carrot rosette appear more than one time in more than one entrée. I had a brief stint as a critic in my secret past also, and it’s so different. You think, "Oh, I go out to eat all the time. I could totally be a critic," but no.

Ted: I would never want to do it for the New York Times and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it that many nights a week anymore. But at the time, when I was a broke, young journalist in a terrific food city, it was awesome, and I only had to do it maybe once a week or so. I loved that you used the word "choreography" to describe good service. I mean, that’s one of the things I fell in love with was — I remember at dinner I had at Tru, which was the restaurant co-operated by Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto in in the Gold Coast.

Helen: The caviar staircase, right?

Ted: Yes, god. Did you live there?

Helen: I grew up in Chicago.

Ted: Oh my gosh. Okay. The caviar staircase. Gale Gand once said something to me that was fairly inarguably pretentious but true, which was she described the kitchen as "a ballet with knives and fire."

Helen: That’s beautiful.

Ted: But just as you said: choreography. I’ll never forget the moment  —  and there’s probably a name for this  —  when I looked over at a ten-top next to me. Was it a ten-top? Maybe it was an eight. Let’s say there were eight diners at a round table and there were eight waiters. Each of them approaching with a dish with a cloche on top, which I now work with every day at Chopped, only theirs were prettier. And they placed the plates in front of each diner and then simultaneously lifted all those cloches at the same time to reveal something precious and amazing underneath it. And I thought, "God, there’s a love, and a craft, and a beauty to that, to waiting tables, that can be so much fun to watch."

Helen: It’s really quite magical.

Ted: I think I would enjoy doing it. I never got to be waiter and I could probably get a job as one now, I suppose, but it’s — you know.

Helen: Every so often, if I’m at a particularly high-end restaurant where they do that kind of simultaneous service, I’ll catch them making eye contract with each other right before they do it and feel like I’m seeing backstage, you know? It’s like they look at each other, they give each other the wink, and then it’s—the thing.

Ted: And I know it’s from a different world and today sometimes, even going back to a few years ago .  Anthony Bourdain shot a couple episodes of a show with people just sitting around a table talking, and the one I did was with Bill Buford. Anyway, Bourdain brought up the question, "Is it appropriate for us now that" — and we were then freshly in a recession — "Is it appropriate for us to be talking about $500 meals with 27 courses?" And arguably, maybe it never is. I don’t know. But I can’t say I don’t sometimes, once in a great while, enjoy a meal like that — just the body language of it. If you’re walking down a hallway in a restaurant like that and you encounter a server, the way he’s got one arm behind his back and he stops until you pass him. I mean, there’s a bygone elegance to that.

Greg: Yeah. It can’t die. It can’t die in these big cities. I don’t know how many restaurants these big cities like New York and Chicago can support, to do that kind of thing at that kind of price, but I hope it doesn’t ever go away.

Ted: I don’t think it will, but I say this as a guy who just ate a slice at Bravo Pizza and who took the subway here. I did celebrate a significant birthday last year at Per Se, and I don’t care that some people think they need to have a star or two taken away from them. I thought it was magnificent. I thought it was fantastic. Spellbinding.

Helen: And that the entirety of that kind of experience — the "bygone elegance," to use your term. I think it’s so fascinating to trace the origins of that kind of service and to locate it in the manor houses of the turn of the century, and the way that it really is just 100 percent focused on the guest not seeing the seam, and not seeing the strings, and just having this perfectly buffeted, pillowed experience of luxury and pleasure.

Ted: Well, one of the things that bothers me about a restaurant like that is I feel like if I were a chef, I would dislike most of the people that I serve the food to. What I admire about that service is the people doing the service, and I’m looking at them the way you’re looking at them and just the excellence of it. The timing, the knowledge, the grace that they can bring to a situation where the customer’s often irritated, and complaining, and the way they can take— without losing their smile for a second. The way they can diffuse a situation, or fix it, and with seamless elegance — it’s a craft. It’s an art that, practiced well, is a beautiful thing to watch.

"The way servers can diffuse a situation, or fix it, and with seamless elegance — it’s a craft."

Helen: It’s benevolent manipulation.

Ted: Yes, even if your customers are horrible people.

Helen: Which they probably disproportionately are, if they’re spending this. The psychology of spending that much money, I think, creates either monsters or meek little lambs who are going to say yes to everything.

Greg: Okay, so you’re in Chicago, and you’re doing some writing for Esquire. Where does the phone call come in for Queer Eye? How did those two worlds meet?

Ted: I like to talk to students once in a while. I used to talk to journalism classes once in a while and — I don’t know if this is even helpful — I’d like to advise people to keep your eyes open for weird opportunities, because every job I’ve ever had was necessary for the job that I currently do. I still interview people as a journalist. All day, I interview those four chefs. I draw questions. I draw information out of them. I think I’m better at it than some TV producers are. Not ours. Ours are amazing, but they spend two hours with them. I get them in little ten minute chunks and I’m trying to get them to say things that are interesting, just as you do all the time. I had a contract with Esquire. I was regularly trying to come up with stuff to do for them and the magazine of course is based here. A friend called me that had seen the casting notice for Queer Eye and I thought, "Well, I guess I could go try out for that. It’d be a write-off. I’ll spend 200 bucks to fly out there. I’ll crash on my editor’s sofa in Hoboken" — which I did — "and I’ll have something to laugh about later." Something like 500 people auditioned for Queer Eye.

Greg: Wow, that seems like a lot. A big call for sort of an unknown.

Ted: Well, it turns out that lots of people want to be on television. Among the people that were there were Joe Dolce, who was the editor of Details at the time.

Greg: Oh, wow.

Ted: Robert Verdi, who’s a guy who works in fashion and who nonetheless is delightful.

Helen: Yeah.

Ted: He’s a sweet guy. He was wearing a cranberry-colored suit. I can see it like it was yesterday. Bravo at the time had, well, this happened in One Penn Plaza on a sweltering day in July and I remember when Carson walked in the room. It was a conference room. A whole bunch of gay guys stuffed into this conference room. Carson walked into the room. He was wearing Chanel sunglasses. This gauzy shirt. Kind of along the lines of the pirate shirt on Seinfeld.

Helen: Okay.

Ted: Then sort of flowing Ralph Lauren pants with big blue hibiscus flowers on them, and Gucci slides. And he threw a Louis Vuitton duffle bag into the middle of the conference room table and said, "I think it’s adorable that any of you queens thinks you’re going to get my part." And as it turns out, he was right.

Helen: That’s confidence.

Greg: That’s how you do it. That’s how you make an entrance, huh?

Ted: Man, he announced himself, and it turned out that Carson and I were the first two people that were chosen. They kept putting us in different combinations of five to see who had chemistry, and these are two guys from Boston, Dave Collins and Dave Metzler. And to their credit, I think they cast us really, really well. Had they had it to do over again, they probably would have chose five staggeringly handsome guys. Instead what they did was they chose a couple of handsome guys and then some guys who kind of knew something. I talked a good game. It turned out that Esquire  — I was talking about how every job I’ve ever had was necessary for the once I got. The one I have now. It turned out also that the producers were very enamored with Esquire magazine.

Helen: It’s a great magazine.

Ted: It is a great magazine. God bless David Granger. Recently deposed.

Helen: How about a moment of silence. He’s my favorite magazine editor.

Ted: David Granger.

Helen: Obsessed with him.

Ted: He now holds the record as longest running editor in the history of Esquire. But anyway, Queer Eye was all about teaching men how to be high-class. How to dress well, how to cook, how to be worldly. Esquire’s been doing that since 1933. So that also gave me a lot of cred with the producers, and the fact that I am not quite as flamboyant as some of the other folks who were on Queer Eye, and that I came from the Midwest. I think that was a bit of diversity that they wanted.

Helen: You need a range of personalities.

Ted: Yeah.

Helen: Everyone needs their own viewer surrogate who they are going to attach themselves to.

Ted: It’s fun to look back at it now.

Helen: Was TV the goal, ever? Were you ever fifteen and you were like, "I’m going to be famous."

Ted: I did, when I was fifteen, heavily fantasize about becoming famous, but it was as a rock star. I’m a huge music nerd.

Helen: Do you play any instruments?

Ted: Yeah I play, very badly, piano. I have a guitar. I can’t say I really know how to play it, and I grew up playing drums and had a couple bands back in the day. Not bands that anybody would remember, but just in college. But no, I had never been in a school play. It’s really strange how hard I tried to get the Queer Eye job. I interrupted a European vacation. I flew down from a vacation in Maine in a storm. I mean, I kept having these callbacks. They kept dragging me back for callbacks. Then it worked out. I mean, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me, ultimately, because — at a time in my life when my partner and I kind of wanted to move to New York, suddenly television made it possible and comfortable. Which as anybody who lives here knows, is a lucky thing. It’s a rare thing. And now I never want to leave.

Helen: Pretty nice place, living here.

Greg: So you guys shoot Chopped in New York?

Ted: We do, in Chelsea Market.

Helen: Just down the street.

Greg: There you go.

Helen: A long ways down the street.

Greg: A very important food place. Our eater critic, Robert Sietsema just declared that it’s the best food hall in New York City.

Helen: And a really good hummus place just opened inside of it.

Ted: A bunch of stuff has just opened. I have trouble being inside Chelsea Market because it give me panic attacks. It’s so crowded. It’s like the Times Square of downtown, but there’s one of the only places in New York that you can truly get a great taco, Los Tacos. There’s Num Pang. I’m going to date myself, because I know there are places much newer that have just opened down there.

Helen: Yeah. I mean, there’s Mike Solomonov’s hummus place Dizengoff, which is my current object of obsession. I’m really into it. I don’t know. I’m into hummus right now. It’s a weird thing.

Ted: We have several Middle Eastern restaurants that deliver in my area of Clinton Hill and I hate their hummus. It’s boring. Most of the hummus that I’ve tasted here, as opposed to an Egyptian place I used to go in Chicago, which is where I got introduced to hummus — the hummus in New York City is too much about tahini and not enough lemon and not enough garlic for me.

Helen: Okay. I’ll agree with that. Yeah. No, I think that’s totally fair.

Ted: And I don’t know if that means that Egyptian hummus is more vibrant than Lebanese hummus, or what.

Helen: There are a lot of debates about this. My husband is Middle Eastern and his father’s Egyptian and his mother’s Palestinian, and we have lots of friends who are from all over the Middle East and there is a lot of very strong animosity about whose hummus is superior and I think in the end it is 100 percent dependent on the individual making of the hummus.

Ted: And, hey, just like the debates that rage here about burgers and pizza.

Helen: Yeah.

Ted: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Helen: So do you still cook? Do you have time to cook?

Ted: I love to cook. I’m one of those people who gets uncomfortable if too many days go by that I haven’t been allowed to cook. It’s one of the things — I’m constantly admonished by a certain husband of mine not to complain about my job, but one of the things — I love my job. It’s great, but one of the things that is hard about it for me is that it’s a twelve-hour shoot day, and so if we’re shooting, we usually shoot four or five days a week. I only have about a four hour window before I have to be back in bed, so I can’t cook, and I don’t really want to go out to dinner or anything because I’m trying to chill and go to bed really early which I hate doing. Yeah I love to cook. Ironically, when you consider where I work, I am very much a slow food person. I like to braise things and cook things that take forever. I don’t even want a recipe that resolves itself quickly because I want to savor the experience.

Greg: You give yourself challenges, huh?

Helen: And the lingering pleasure.

Ted: Yeah. I just like to be in the kitchen with wine and music going, and cook things that develop flavor slowly, like soups and stews. It’s all simple.

Helen: What do you do in the summer when soups and stews are not —

Ted: I might cook a pork shoulder over charcoal for twelve hours.

Helen: Summer braises.

Ted: I made pulled pork. Oh, that smell.

Greg: Get those tomatoes from the box and —

Helen: I’m incredibly hungry right now.

Ted: Right? Actually, another thing we did for my birthday last summer is we hired the guys from The Meat Hook to come out and do a barbecue of us. Brent Young and those guys and I mean, they killed it. It was a whole — as you imagine, most of my friends are really into food and I had some of the Chopped judges there too, Amanda Freitag and Chris Santos, so everybody was really adventuresome and into it. So the guys from The Meat Hook come. For listeners who don’t know, it’s a place in Brooklyn. It’s an amazing butcher place. The also have a really successful sandwich business, and they cater, and they make their own sausages. They showed up with smoked ducks, and a beef tendon salad, and all this stuff. It’s not your ordinary food. I love also that easily half of their butchers are women, and all of their butchers are, you know, in their twenties and thirties, and they’re really cool, and they have tattoos and stuff. They’re just gonzo food lovers, so they had this audience that was so appreciative. We were all just psyched to have them there and it was a great experience for everybody.

Helen: Man, that sounds like an awesome birthday.

Ted: It was great and they were so — the price, maybe they gave me a break because I said nice things about them publicly, I don’t know, but the price was fantastic.

Helen: I got a six-foot sub from them for my birthday this past year.

Ted: Sweet.

Helen: I feel like we’re on the same wavelength, but your party sounds like it was a little more fun.

Greg: It’s great. I remember when it first opened I was very intimidated to go up there and ask them for meat, but then they’re so nice about it.

Helen: There’s so cool.

Greg: I feel like they’ve kind of broken, you know, everybody’s —

Helen: I’m intimidated by cool people, but then they’re actually like really real.

Ted: Well, they’re total food nerds at heart. They just happen to have tattoos and they play speed metal behind the counter, but they’re pussycats. They’re delightful.

Helen: Aww.

Ted: As I said earlier, I’m not a trend person, but that’s a trend that I can’t even believe is happening: That the butcher is back, and the butcher is 26. And this isn’t only in New York City.

"That's a trend that I can’t even believe is happening: the butcher is back, and the butcher is 26."

Helen: No, it’s everywhere.

Ted: It’s everywhere and it’s unbelievable, the appreciation that people are having. My mom is obsessed with grass-fed steak. She lives in Carmel, Indiana. It’s a suburb of Indianapolis. She has a great butcher.

Greg: Wow.

Helen: I think that’s fantastic. It’s this whole pendulum swing away from the easy, processed, shrink-wrapped food that arose in the post-war era, and it’s weird to me that it’s the butchers that are kind of the ones paving the way for everything else, but it’s so obvious when you taste a grass-fed steak that’s been recently cut by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Like a cow that was not slaughtered seven years ago and kept in cold storage. You’re like, "Oh, no. This is actually supposed to taste incredible." And then you don’t want to go back.

Ted: It’s a great time to be a food lover. It really is.

Greg: All right, Ted, it’s time for that part in the show we like to call the lighting round.

Ted: Uh-oh.

Helen: Da, da, da. Lighting round music!

Greg: So we’re going to ask you some questions and then you just answer whatever comes out.

Ted: Oh, God.

Helen: Cool. So question number one is, if you were not a TV host, journalist, cookbook author, and podcast guest, what would you be doing with your life?

Ted: Well, I would be the lead singer of Aerosmith.

Greg: Specifically Steven Tyler.

Ted: Actually, I don’t really need to look like Steven Tyler. Let me thing of somebody cuter. That’s what I — you know, it’s funny, because now on Chopped Junior, we have two guest judges in addition to one of our regular Chopped long-time judges, and the network likes us to have guests who are famous, and actors, and musicians, and whatnot, and it lends something fun to the mix. It also makes the lifting a little heavier for Amanda Frietag or Alex Guarnaschelli or myself. But it’s exposed me to some performers who have nine million Instagram followers and who sing in stadiums and get their lyrics sung back to them, which to me, I think would be the ultimate rush. I feel like at 51 that maybe that window might be closing on me a little bit.

Helen: It’s never too late.

Ted: Never too late to be a rock star? We’ll see. I might learn how to play the damn piano though. I bought a piano, but I haven’t learned to play it very well.

Greg: Okay, so question number two: You’ve got an hour at the airport, and you've got money in your pocket. What are you going to do? How are you going to kill that time?

Ted: I’m going to read a magazine.

Helen: Which magazine?

Ted: Vanity Fair usually. Because they do good long-form yarns and they have a little bit of bubbly, trashy stuff, and a little bit of serious reporting. I read all morning. If you let me, over coffee, I’ll read for three hours or four hours every morning. And I do a lot of it digitally, but one thing that I’m experiencing is a sort of, what they might call a flight to quality when it comes to journalism. Eater is a great website and I think is a very high-quality and journalistically sound website. There are lots of news aggregators that are not. And I’ve gotten really sick of most of them. I get the New York Times of course. I also just signed up for the Washington Post because they do real journalism, particularly with the election stuff, which I’m obsessively reading even though it makes me want to die. I went to the Post because they have a really good national presidential race coverage and it’s also really fun to read George Will sputter apoplectically at the phenomenon of what’s his face who I won’t mention the name of. I’m not answering these questions very rapidly.

Helen: No, these are great. Our next question. If you had to be a contestant on a food competition show that’s not one of yours that you host, which one would you want to be a contestant on?

Ted: I mean, the thing is, I’m not a professional chef, so I’d be happy to compete against people who are kind of at my level, but it would have to be like, you know, home cooks.

Helen: All right, we’re going to have home cook edition of whatever.

Ted: The home cook edition of whatever. I don’t watch any of the other competition shows if that’s what you’re getting at. I’ve actually never seen a Gordon Ramsay show. Not for any special reason other than that I’m so steeped in that life all the time at my job. I can’t keep up with my own show. People have asked all the time when I’m going to cook. When I am ever going to cook on Chopped.

Helen: I don’t think you should do that.

Ted: I’m not going to.

Helen: Yeah.

Ted: Thank you. We get along great. We should hang out.

Helen: We should.

Ted: Because, I mean, maybe you could put me up against Sunny Anderson. She’s a home cook. I’m not cooking against Alex Guarnaschelli. She’s a barracuda.

Helen: She’s amazing.

Ted: Not only am I not a professional chef at a neighborhood restaurant in Nashville, or a diner in Jersey City, but I’m not a professional chef in New York City who knows how to cook competitively. That’s a giant skill, and there are about 25 people in the world who really really have it and about 15 of them work at Food Network. Why would anybody think that’s gonna be a fair fight? And then even if you don’t care about that, who are going to be the judges, and are you going to consider the results legit if they take me to dessert?

Helen: Yeah, I didn’t think this question through enough.

Ted: Most important of all, I’m not giving some other schmuck the chance to audition for my gig, dude.

Greg: That’s a very well-reasoned answer.

Helen: I retract my question, it was poorly considered.

Ted: No. Next question.

Greg: Next question. You’ve got an eight-hour road trip. It’s just you. You’re gunning down the highway. You’re playing some music and you’re singing along to it. What is it?

Ted: Well, probably — I mean, one of my favorite band is the New Pornographers.

Helen: Oh, yeah. Good call.

Ted: It could be that. So one of the fun things about Twitter if you happen to be on a food cable show, a lot of music people watch us and a lot of music people are really into food. You know, it goes together. Batali is a giant music nut and he’s friends with Jay-Z and Bono, and all that.

Greg: They’re a shared brain cell, food and music, or something.

Ted: Oh, I really think so. And I’m actually troubled by people who don’t play music when they cook, even in a pro context. I went in the back of a kitchen at Alinea. It was as silent as a mortuary and it just made me uncomfortable. I thought Zeppelin should be on. Which also might be something that I would play in my car. But last summer I was contacted on Twitter by the touring drummer for The New Pornographers who said, "Hey, dude, I really dig Chopped. Would you send —?" He had asked me for something. I said, "Hey, dude, I’m really into The New Pornographers, can I, like, meet them?"and he said, "Yeah." Carl Newman’s really into Chopped also, and he and his wife who live up in the Catskills. They used to live in Brooklyn. We got in touch and the next thing you know, without asking my husband, I invited them to my house. I said, "Hey, you guys are playing in Prospect Park this summer, do you want to come over for a little afterparty afterwards?" To my amazement, they said yes, and then I had to tell Barry that I invited a rock band to our house at like midnight. And they came!

"I’m actually troubled by people who don’t play music when they cook. I went in the back of a kitchen at Alinea, it was as silent as a mortuary and it just made me uncomfortable. I thought Zeplin should be on."

Helen: That’s so cool.

Ted: Carl, Christy, and the drummer. It was awesome. Another very long answer. It was great. They drank all my liquor and then about two weeks later they sent me really high-quality liquor to replace it.

Helen: That’s class!

Ted: Well see, they’re rock stars who are like, my age and they have a couple kids, so they’re the kind of rock stars who would, if they stayed at your house, they would take the sheets off the bed before they left. This is not old school, you know, trashing-a-hotel-room kind of rock stars. These are replace-your-tequila type rock stars.

Helen: So considerate. I love it. If you could bring back any restaurant that is now closed from the dead and have it reopen in the world, what restaurant would it be?

Ted: Mmm. Boy. You know I’ll just say this, because it was a part of my life during a really wonderful part of career of when — and not that I went there. I only went there three times in my life. I’m going to say Charlie Trotter. Again, another fancy pants, fancy schmantzy restaurant, but I say that not because I was a regular there. I ate there three times, both on somebody else’s dime. And always on one magazine or another’s dime. And Charlie was not universally beloved by everybody, but I wrote an article about Charlie when his first cook book  —  Charlie Trotter died a very untimely death a couple years ago, and here’s something that people may not know about him. Charlie Trotter wrote the very first coffee table cookbook. His first cookbook! People laughed. It was a fifty-dollar cookbook. It was published by Ten Speed Press, and it was lavish. Full of these gorgeous pictures of this impossibly complicated food and I wrote an article for Chicago magazine that I still love called "Sorry, Charlie," in which myself and a bunch of 20-something friends tried to cook a few of his recipes, and it was just a comedy of errors. People who smoked back then tapping ashes into the food by accident, and things going terribly wrong, and Charlie loved it. He had a real sense of humor that not everybody saw. I’m sure he was a bastard to work for, but you have to be when you run a restaurant that complex. And he signed that book for me. So I’m going to say that one.

Helen: That’s a beautiful answer.

Ted: But, you know, I mean, I’m much more likely to be found eating an Italian beef hoagie than I am to be eating that way.

Helen: Well, you can’t eat that way too often without inviting gout into your life.

Ted: I know somebody with gout.

Helen: We know a couple of people, I think.

Ted: Isn’t that messed up?

Helen: It’s an occupational hazard of the food world.

Ted: I mean, really? You’re like 26. How do you know somebody with gout?

Helen: I’m 34. There are a couple of high-profile people who have their secrets that they let us in on.

Ted: I really do know someone who right now has gout. Actually, I just read that Frank Bruni had a bout of gout.

Helen: Yeah. He wrote about it in the Times.

Ted: Yeah.

Greg: How do you get rid of it? You just start eating roughage?

Ted: I think you have to give up alcohol for one thing.

Greg: Well, that is the —

Helen: Let’s hope we never find out.

Greg: To the people that already have gout —

Helen: Email us with your gout stories.

Greg: Yeah. #goutstories.

Ted: You know what, it would not be a dumb story. That would be an amazing story to do on Eater.

Helen: That actually would be. Yeah, for real, if you have gout and you’re listening to this, drop us a line at

Ted: And it’s no joke. I mean, I had some pain in one of my toes, and I worried, "Oh, my God, I’m not getting gout, am I?" And I went to a doctor and he said, "Oh man, if you had gout—." When you have gout, you can’t drape a sheet over your foot without agonizing pain.

Helen: Oh my God.

Ted: It’s very, very painful.

Greg: That sounds awful.

Helen: I hope none of us ever get gout.

Ted: Me too.

Greg: Well, okay. Last question and somewhat related. So you go to the bar in Heaven and the bartender pours you your drink. Your favorite drink.

Helen: The most perfect version of it that’s ever existed.

Greg: What is it?

Ted: It’s probably a Tanqueray Negroni. And that’s the gin that I like. I really like gin. I really like gin and tonics, with nice tonic water. But all these varieties of small batch gins that are out, even Bombay! Bombay’s definitely a good gin, but it’s lacking some of the bite and some of the specific aromatics that come with Tanqueray, those are just what I go for. That’s my thing. I do have about sixteen different kinds of gin in my liquor cabinet because people keep giving it to me for my birthday or whatever.

Helen: Because you like gin.

Ted: I do.

Greg: Not bad to have around.

Ted: No.

Helen: When the New Pornographers drop by.

Ted: The New Pornographers are tequila people, I’ve learned.

Greg: I hope that, now that you’ve shared this bit of insight into the New Pornographers, that they constantly get asked to these fun parties because they’ll constantly replace the liquor.

Ted: I mean, hey, you know what? They showed excellent manners. I mean I did have to kick them out of the house at 3:30 because I had to go bed. I mean, that’s really late for me. But they left politely. They were great. They were great. That’s one of the things about Twitter that I really enjoy, that I’ve gotten in touch with several musicians that I like, and have gotten to meet people. And then my husband’s like, "You know, you really should stop trying to meet your rock heroes because what makes you think they’re going to be nice people just because they make good songs?" And, you know, of course they’re not. Some of them are, but you know. I was really sad to lose David Bowie this year as so many of us were, he was a hero of mine. But I kind of thought, I mean, "I wonder if he would have been nice?" You got to be careful about trying to meet your heroes.

Helen: It’s always risky.

Ted: It’s always kind of risky.

Helen: Well, you turned out to be really nice. Thanks for coming by.

Ted: Hey, thanks for having me. Lots of fun. Thanks for the cookies. They smell amazing.

Helen: They look really good too. Ted, you can check him out on Chopped and Chopped Junior, and you have cookbooks, and you’re on Twitter, and you’re on Instagram. He’s everywhere.

Greg: What’s your Instagram handle?

Ted: @thetedallen, and that’s also my Twitter name.

Helen: Cool. Ted, thanks for coming to the Eater Upsell.

Ted: Hey, thanks for having me.

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