A Conversation with Ted Allen (conclusion)

How long did Ted Allen and I talk? Judging by the five-year-old transcript, we started at the MoMA Cafe, walked down the street, went into Bar Americain, then dinner, dancing, and the next morning over breakfast…

I’m kidding—although he probably makes a great breakfast!

Herewith the conclusion to that interview from the summer of 2007:

VM: You mentioned in the Observer how peculiar it is to be a celebrity chef. Half of it is giving and love and the other half is wanting to be loved.

Photo by Ben Fink

TA: Any kind of “chefing.” I think of it as an act of enormous generosity and great neediness at the same time. It’s people who love doing this. And it’s true of the wait staff too. It’s show and tell, like, Look at what we got today. You won’t believe the razor-neck clams that we’ve managed to find today and look what we’ve done with them. And then you present them to your customer and stand back and say, Tell me how great I am.

Which is why one of the things that makes [judging] difficult … is … My parents are Southern. I was taught to believe that when someone does this great act of love, to prepare food and put it in front of you, it’s delicious. No matter how bad it is, it’s delicious. And it’s not polite to say anything else, which I believe to be true unless you’re a judge on a cooking television competition, in which case you have no choice. But to tell people when their food sucks, it’s nice to do it in a respectful way.

VM: Another thing I see on these shows is getting one contestant to choose who among his fellow contestants had bad dishes.

TA: Yes, the lovely Padma occasionally does that to people, and that’s the theater part, that’s the entertaining part. I mean, for one thing, it’s interesting to watch the arc of the life of a show like Top Chef because in season one, no one know has any idea what’s going to happen to them. When season two comes along, they’ve all watched season one, and they’ve learned someone’s going to be a bad guy and the winner turned out to be the guy that was above all the politics and all the drama and just focused on the cooking. Well that’s all well and good but it makes for boring contestants and there has to be conflict. There has to be a narrative arc. There has to be evolution across the episodes…. And it’s best when it happens organically, and it almost always does. But sometimes, in season three at the beginning of the competition, you can see that they had banded together. They were banded together and determined not to fight. They weren’t going to give the producers what they wanted. They were going to just try to cook and not get in each other’s way. So that’s where you actually see the host of show—you see Padma having to say, So who do you think should be voted off?

VM: Is primetime on a major network the most a the celebrity chef can hope for?

TA: It’s too hard to say what the format will be because it’s all about who the star is … It’s really all about the cast and … finding the concept that somehow just pops for people and resonates with people.

In Hell’s Kitchen, you have an already acclaimed chef whose willing to be the most blistering asshole necessary to carry a really outrageous, provocative show…. It’s all about the personality. That works because that’s the personality—Fox viewers seem to have no problem enjoying a show that’s witheringly cruel. It’s not my thing…. So that works. They found a guy with star magnetism. I don’t know if the ratings are good or not but evidently they must be good enough because they got renewed and I guess it’s entertaining to watch people crumble.

VM: How do you like being a food celebrity?

It’s great because people who don’t like me tend not to say anything, which is good. They must be out there, but nobody ever goes “Fuck you!”

VM: Ever try walking around without your glasses so as not to get recognized?

TA: That helps a little bit. It does, but my voice gives it off.

VM: When I told Michel Richard it was great he won this [James Beard] award, and he doesn’t even have his own show, he said, “But I’d like one.”

TA: His problem is that he’s French.

VM: He said he wanted to see more French chefs on Food Network.

TA: I think he won’t because, well, for the same reason that wine intimidates people: That feels like old school. That feels like the ’60s era when the only good chefs were French, and that is the image—well, first of all, regular guy America thinks French people are snooty and that’s exactly what Food Network doesn’t need. I don’t work for Food Network but that’s not something that—that doesn’t comport with the trend. The trend is people who are charming, regular, approachable. I was just thinking this because Daniel [Boulud] also guested on Top Chef and Daniel is different from a lot of French chefs in that he is very, very warm. But he does have a French accent.

VM: And that’s a liability, not an asset.

TA: Well, you have to be understandable. Daniel is, but not all of them are. I mean, if you’re not understandable to an American ear, then how are you going to be a TV star?… That’s the other thing you see on Food Network: Younger, cuter people. Which I hate because I’m just getting older and uglier.

I used to think I could be the food character because I could be old and fat. It wouldn’t matter. But that may not stay true. We have lots of cute, young chefs. You got Dave Lieberman, Jamie Oliver, of course Giada and Rachael.

VM: What is the best wine you’ve ever had?

TA: I’m never good about narrowing it down to just one, and I’m also not a huge wine snob. I just had a barbecue at the house … and we made sangria with about seven bottles of $5 wine with screwcaps. I mean with sangria, you don’t need fancy wine. Probably—but I don’t work for this division of Mondavi—Mondavi’s fine wines—I have a few bottles of Opus One that are pretty amazing. I don’t know which years are better than others.

VM: Would that also be the most expensive wine you’ve had?

TA: No. That’s not the most expensive wine I’ve ever had. I can remember a very expensive wine that I had at a restaurant in Las Vegas that was brought to our table gratis by a server who was subsequently dismissed. It was about a $750 sauterne. I’m actually more excited when I find a great $15 bottle of wine because any jackass with $500 can buy a fancy bottle of wine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *