A Conversation with Ted Allen, Part 2

From a June 2007 interview with food celebrity and author Ted Allen in New York City:

VM: Do you worry that there’s a downside to all this celebrity chefdom and, if so, what is it?

Photo by Ben Fink

TA: I don’t worry about it too much because I think if you, particularly with this molecular gastronomy business going on, which I’m open-minded about. Any new way to deliver great flavor and great theater on the table is fine with me. But I think people who go to excess or people who are pretentious and show off and fake are going to get caught. Sooner or later, people aren’t going to love them. What I want to see on a plate, whether it’s a hoagie or a caviar canape, I want to see love on the plate. Whether it’s a hot dog or a foie gras dish, people can tell when somebody’s fake. I understand an old guard chef feeling that way about the flashiness of it—

VM: They’re also saying “Kids these days…”

TA: All of us old farts do that. But if they’re educating an entire country about opening their minds to different kinds of food, all they’re doing is training a new chef, a new crop of customers. There’s nothing mutually exclusive about fusion cuisine versus classical French. People still want to go to Le Bernardin and have that experience as well.

VM: The aspirations too are limitless but to the point that many might expect a TV show after graduating from cooking school.

TA: Yeah, well good luck. I mean, it’s like a lot of fields. Journalism, you can make the same argument. There, I think the responsibility rests with culinary schools. Admitting too many people and allowing people to have these unrealistic expectations and dreams. I don’t mean to chew anybody down but first of all, being a chef is extremely difficult. And secondly, that first job you get out of culinary school is going to pay you $10 an hour and you’re going to be peeling onions, you know? And if you don’t do that, if you don’t work…. You know what, Top Chef did a really great episode, season one, I think it was episode one, where they took their batch of contestants and threw them on the line in a great restaurant in San Francisco. The chef’s name is Hubert [Keller, the restaurant is Fleur de Lys]. And half of them couldn’t cut it. At all. Like one of them was a nutritionist and a cookbook author, which is basically, I mean, I’m an enthusiastic home cook and I have a cookbook, I can develop recipes if you give me two years, but I couldn’t belong on this line. I have no idea. And if you can’t do that, you’re going to be caught real fast. So if you think, of course, not only does every 19-year-old going to culinary school, of course they all want to be on Food Network. Well so does every 35-year-old who owns six restaurants in San Diego, and he’s not going to get it either. It’s like, you know what, I want to be a rock star. I’ve always wanted to be a rock star. Forget about being a journalist, I want to be the lead singer of an enormous band, but, you know, it’s like me wanting to be a supermodel. It’s not likely.

VM: What other food shows do you watch? Do you watch Hell’s Kitchen?

TA: No. I’ve never watched Hell’s Kitchen because, and I should—

 VM: Tony Bourdain called this season unwatchable.

TA: Well, I really like Tony Bourdain a lot so I’m…

VM: Glad that he said it?

TA: Well, he’s really smart. He says whatever he wants. He’s fiercely independent. He’s witty as hell. I once heard him liken somebody’s dish to a plateful of chlamydia, which is something—I’m just too nice to say that. Umm, I don’t like television that’s humiliating. And I don’t think it’s great leadership to berate people in an office or a kitchen and so I don’t want to say I don’t like the show because I haven’t seen it, but it doesn’t look like something I would like. As I mentioned before, I don’t like competitive reality all that much.

VM: Top Chef is a little different because the contestants are already well qualified.

TA: Yeah, particularly this season. This is the deepest talent pool we’ve had ever. I would argue that the first season, when half the people couldn’t cook on the line, those people shouldn’t have been there. And Tom Colicchio would say the same thing. You have to strike a balance. It’s an entertainment show so job one is to cast people who are entertaining. But—and that’s more important probably than culinary credibility but culinary credibility is still very important. Maybe that’s 40 percent as important.

Because, I remember magazines, you know magazines were, I don’t know if you guys, you guys probably don’t need to do this because you’re a more serious magazine but city magazines are always doing Top Doctors, Top Lawyers, Top whatever. What you know if you do Top Lawyers, every attorney in the city is going to buy the magazine, especially if they’re in it, they’re going to buy a hundred of them.

And chefs, most chefs are characters. How hard is it to find 15 people who are great cooks and characters? And they’ve done that this time. I think the first couple of times, well, you also learn as you go along.

VM: Is there a saturation point for celebrity chefs in our culture. Will there come a point where celebchefs jump the shark?

TA: I mean, you can never tell. But there’s already a trend, we were talking before about—is the era of the celebrity chef, has that phenomenon peaked a little bit? Well one argument that it has in a certain sense is that many of the people who are Food Network stars now are not professional chefs. Rachael Ray, Paula Deen—but Paula Deen has her own restaurant and she’s a star. But she’s not a fancy chef. It’s southern home cooking with a lot of butter.

VM: Do you watch that show at all?

TA: Yeah.

VM: Tony Bourdain said that her show’s cast is beginning to look like The Hills Have Eyes.

TA: As he would. Well, no, I met Paula and she’s just a delightful person. And she sends the message that food is love and she smokes cigarettes where they’re not legal and she’s just a large but light character who incidentally happens to do food. But she’s not an Eric Ripert kind of chef. She’s not a Daniel Boulud kind of chef. Dave Lieberman is not a professional chef. Ina Garten was a caterer. I guess she probably is a chef of some sort or other. But Giada isn’t a professional chef. Some of their biggest stars aren’t restaurant chefs.

VM: Have you met Giada in person?

TA: Yes. She’s stunning.

VM: How big is her head?

TA: Not very big. Well her whole body, she’s teeny. See, here’s the thing—

VM: You know the theory about large-headed people doing very well in showbiz.

TA: In television. Yeah. All the male heartthrobs are tiny people with big heads

VM: Did anyone on Queer Eye have a larger head than anyone else?

TA: Physically, probably me, to be honest. But the casting of Queer Eye was not done based on looks, obviously. At least for a couple of us. Thank God they found a couple who were sort of cute. But it’s a similar phenomenon with Queer Eye. Queer Eye could have cast a chef chef in my job. But Food Network has long ago realized that it’s not necessary that someone be a CIA-trained, you know, formally trained chef to resonate with an audience. What they need are entertaining food people who are entertaining. So in that sense maybe the idea of the celebrity chef, well, I guess you could argue that Giada is a celebrity chef of sorts, but it’s not so important that she is a chef. But there’s been an evolution there. I don’t think Emeril is quite as, I don’t think he looms as largely on the front burner at Food Network as he once did because there are so many other people…. He’s got such charisma. And he’s like a legend. But his style of show I think is something you’ve seen them move away from. You’re more likely to see someone cooking in a home-type kitchen.

VM: The strange thing about the live audience aspect of Emeril is you have people clapping at the oddest moments, like when Emeril throws in garlic.

TA: When I do cooking demonstrations, I’m always asking the audience to help me come up with my own Bam. I need a Bam. And everyone knows exactly what I’m saying.

(To be continued)

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