A Conversation with Ted Allen, Part 3

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

VM: Where do you stand in this whole “cooking should be aspirational and not dumbing down” versus “different shows for different people”?

Photo by Ben Fink

TA: Well they’re right. Those are two completely different kinds of shows and audiences. Aspirational is often used to mean a more fancy, upscale lifestyle, which is part of what’s going on. That’s probably another reason for the growth in interest in fine cooking, is that everybody wants to show their sophistication; everybody wants to have a BMW and a fancy house.

VM: Moreso than in the 1980s.

TA: Yeah, and that’s one way you communicate you’re a sophisticated person. It’s part of being a sophisticated person—it’s knowing something about wine and maybe knowing how to make a tart. Just having that knowledge and that ability shows that you’re a sophisticated person.

The reason Rachael has a multibazillion-dollar deal and a show in syndication and 700 million books is Rachael is doing something else. Rachael is helping real people solve the real problem of What the hell do I do to a chicken tonight after 25,000 other nights? How do I feed my family? How do I cook in 30 minutes? And I think that’s great. Rachael’s show in the daytime is not the kind of show I’m going to watch any more than Martha Stewart’s daytime show is, because those are shows that run five days a week that are at 11am when I’m usually working, that are targeting stay-at-home moms whose kids are taking a nap and they need a friend. And that’s a different kind of show. And I don’t care about that kind of show.

VM: It’s almost as if cooking will no longer define the celebrity chef for the rest of her life. It can be stepping stone to other things and they may never have to cook again.

TA: Well, it can be a stepping stone for those lucky few who are struck by lightning and who America falls in love with the way they did with Rachael. I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation for most. But I didn’t mean to say I wanted to get away from food, because I don’t, but my next show, I don’t envision myself doing an Emeril-type show or a directly instructional cooking show. I can see that being a segment. I come from a journalism background. I like to interview people. I didn’t mean to say I wanted to get away from the food or that I expect to graduate to a talk show per se. I’m not saying I would say no, either. A few people get that Oprah wand waved over them like that. Rachael’s a really interesting phenomenon, and I’m not sure I understand it….

Rachael for whatever reason is that kind of personality that so many American people just, I think she’s just become their friend.

VM: But you must run into other people who say they have had enough of Rachael Ray.

TA: Oh yeah, sure. And especially in the food world, there are a lot of people who can’t stand Rachael Ray. She’s cutesy. Yummo and, you know, EVOO. I mean, she’s got her little thing and when I also do cooking demonstrations, sometimes I have fun at Rachael’s expense and I’ll say EVOO and people in the audience will groan because among the fancy foodie aficionada, just like a scientist looking down on popularizers, you know, Rachael has gone the kind of US magazine route, the kind of daytime talk route, but you know, if you watch her cook, her food is perfectly respectable. It’s not like, there’s one show on Food Network, I think it’s called Half Home Made, where this woman will take a head of lettuce or something, and then she’ll pour a can of cream of mushroom soup and pour it on there, and it’s like fooling your guests into thinking you cooked for us when you didn’t. Now that I think is disgusting. But I think that show is absolutely nauseating. I suppose it’s useful if you’re in a real hurry. But Rachael doesn’t really do that. Rachael will actually take a piece of chicken and throw it in a skillet with some olive oil and, you know, fresh parmesan on it, and it’s fast real food. There’s nothing wrong with helping people find food solutions when it’s good food.

It’s just like Tyler Florence and Applebee’s, you were saying before. I’m sure Tyler Florence takes a lot of shit for doing Applebee’s commercials, but if you look at the food he’s put on Applebee’s menu, it’s pretty good.

VM: Have you tried it?

TA: No, no. Actually I’ve never eaten at Applebee’s but I’ve eaten at plenty of other places like that. You know, I saw a commercial of his, doing some kind of, I forget what it was, it was something like a dry-rubbed chicken breast. There were chipotle peppers involved. There was fresh pasta, there was fresh herbs. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with bringing that to a large audience. What’s wrong with restaurants like that is if all the food comes frozen in a 55-gallon drum. That’s what I don’t want.

VM: What do you see 10-15 years from now in terms of our food culture and celebchefs?

TA: As media continue to fragment, I’m sure you will see a lot of people, unlikely stars will emerge from podcasts or whatnot. But I don’t think that augurs anything problematic for the idea of the celebrity chef necessarily. I mean, who can say. How could it happen that a country that’s had this Pandora’s Box of deliciousness opened for it is suddenly going to lose interest in eating good food? I have trouble accepting that idea. I mean, Food Network’s fortunes could wax or wane. I don’t know what’s going to be the trend with cable TV necessarily. But I don’t know, I think it’s here to stay. Well, I mean, what’s next? It could be celebrity housekeepers, I don’t know. There could be something—well look at Top Chef.

Bravo is a network that had nothing whatsoever to do with eating. Top Chef is kind of like American Idol, Bravo-style. Obviously it’s a smaller audience than American Idol. It’s cable. It’s a little bit more nichy than watching people sing pop songs, but it’s kind of like the American Idol for people who have an American Express card, because people who watch Bravo have jobs and money. They like a little bit of dish and froth and soap—the kind of stuff you saw in Queer Eye and the kind of drama that you see on Top Chef, but they’re also a sophisticated audience that does care about the food. I don’t know what the numbers really are, but I would guess it’s about 30 percent people who are into food, and 70 percent people who just fall in love with the cast.

If Bravo’s good at one thing, it’s casting. And I say that with all humility. They were brave and weird enough to cast the five of us on Queer Eye. It was a decision that was based on chemistry, not on good looks. And Bravo understands chemistry. And they don’t always get it right. But if you look at their show Top Design, I don’t know how well it did, I didn’t love everything about it, but the contestants were fascinating. I instantly fell in love with some and hated others. And you know they always try to carve out a villain. In a sense, the competitive reality thing Bravo is doing is—in fact, Runway and Top Chef are very, very similar in formula but they’re the same production company; Top Design, some other company did it, but I think they actually bought the formula. And then Shear Genius, exact same format, they tried it with the idea of hairstyling. I like the show. I don’t know if it was successful or not. But this network is really, really good at finding a collection of people that grabs your interest. So if you care about food, fine. But if you don’t care about food, you still have things to watch. It’s still compelling. You got the guido guy—I shouldn’t say guido, that’s not kind—you got your big, burly Brooklyn guy, you got your lesbian with the mohawk. Actually I’m not sure that she’s out of the closet.

VM: I think we know, though.

TA: Well they asked her if she could cook for anybody in the world, she said like Gina Gershon, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, I mean what else? K.D. Lang? Joan Jett?

So yes, it is a food show. But first and foremost, they know how to entertain you with this cast.

VM: We talk about how more and more Americans are learning about good food. Isn’t wine the next step?

TA: Wine is a tough one…. TV networks hate wine as a subject because I think it’s—

VM: —a vice?

TA: Well, that’s one issue. Wine is an alcoholic beverage. There are people who don’t—particularly Baptists who aren’t into that. Wine has all sorts of legal problems in terms of shipping, selling, you gotta be 21, marketing, intoxicant is an issue, advertising alcohol is an issue. But mainly I think wine is such an intimidating and difficult subject for people. I work with Robert Mondavi Private Selection—I actually do press and try to encourage people to try wine and not to be so offput by it. But it’s an uphill battle. Something like 25 percent of Americans buy any wine at all. And most of those people buy one bottle a month…. But figuring out a way to make a TV show about wine is difficult. Uncorked on PBS is very straightforward. There’s nothing revolutionary about the idea. It’s an introduction to wine. That’s what it is. Wine 101.

How do you come up with a concept, a conceit about wine that makes an entertaining show for a network like Bravo or even Food Network. I mean, what’s the game?

VM: Did you ever watch The Restaurant on NBC?

TA: Oh yeah, yeah.

VM: What did you think?

TA: Well, uh, flamed out fast. That was a big deal.

VM: The guys at FN said if it were on their network, it would probably still be on.

TA: Yeah, the stakes were so high. I think it was a great idea for a show, and something like that probably could be done again. I mean, a restaurant is a very dramatic place. These guys put on a show every day. And like I said, the people that work in restaurants, a lot of them are characters. A lot of them are psychotic [Allen eyes a waiter eavesdropping behind us, pretending to arrange a table]. Especially at a time like this, in New Orleans, the staff, they’re hams. They’re performers. It’s a great venue for a reality show.

VM: “Misfits” is what Tony Bourdain called them.

TA: That too. I’m actually surprised you haven’t seen some other—well, The Restaurant went so famously down in flames. And I know Rocco. Rocco’s a delightful guy and I can’t wait for him to get another gig because he’s so telegenic. But that show, we were talking how these culinary shows like Top Chef have to have culinary credibility. I don’t remember all the reasons The Restaurant flamed out, but I remember that one night where they allegedly ran out of red wine. I was like, Oh c’mon. It’s just like it was staged by producers. Producers have to be careful about meddling so much.

(To be continued)

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