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Interview with TV Chef Ted Allen

F&W talks to Ted Allen, cooking expert on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (NBC/Bravo) and judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America and Bravo’s Top Chef.

What was your first big break on TV? How were you discovered?
"A friend told me about the casting notice for Queer Eye. I was in Chicago and I had a contract with Esquire magazine, so had been coming to New York City regularly and thought I’d catch a cheap flight, crash on a friend’s sofa and do this hilarious audition that I had no chance of winning. I had no TV experience except for little blurbs on the news and whatnot for Esquire, and really this was just a lark. I had no TV aspirations. There were somewhere around 500 people trying out. I couldn’t have prepared even if I’d wanted to, because I didn’t know what they were going to have us do. They kept putting us in groups of five—five guys from five specialty areas—to see if sparks would fly. I’m a home cook and love to read about food, but I’m not trained as a chef. I’m just really into cooking and passionate about it. They asked me about food trends, how I would throw a dinner party. They really threw out questions to see if you could think quickly on your feet, in addition to looking at how you got along with the other guys."

What are some of the best recipes you’ve made on-air, and why?
"I’m very partial to pan-roasted salmon with sweet-tomato vinaigrette. This dish is beautiful and has a punchy flavor. It’s fast and simple—about 20 minutes once everything’s all chopped. I love the tomatoes on the fish, and the vinaigrette has some cumin in it. I was addressing people who are afraid of cooking fish at home; a lot of people think they’ll ruin it. I was trying to send the message that as long as you get uniform-size filets and use a decent oven and pay attention, you’re going to be fine. Three minutes, skin-side-up in a hot pan with olive oil, flip it over, then throw it in the oven for six or seven minutes. I make the vinaigrette in a bowl and heat it in the same pan, then put that over a bed of arugula, so it’s a one-dish meal. I always tell people to buy fish the day they’re going to cook it.

"Another recipe—and this is a little dorky, I have to preface with that—is baked eggs in ham crispis. You take a muffin tin, spray it with oil, take individual slices of ham and put them in the tin. Add a dollop of crème fraîche, season with tarragon, and then crack an egg into the tin, add salt and pepper and put it in the oven. Look for ham that’s sliced medium—not too thick, not too thin—and don’t use slices with holes or tears. And you want it to come over the edge a bit, so you’ll get a nice ruffled edge that gets crispy when it bakes. And don’t overcook this. It’s fine if the yolks are a bit runny, and if the yolk is whole it looks pretty. Crème fraîche can be a bit pricey, so you can use sour cream instead. The best way to learn is live, in person, cooking, feeling, smelling and tasting, but TV is the second-best thing to that; it’s a halfway facsimile."

What distinguishes you from other TV chefs?
"I think what I do differently from a lot of TV chefs is that I break down barriers and make fine food more accessible to the regular person, who might be intimidated. I try hard, particularly with wine, to make it not intimidating. It’s sort of a teaching job. I’m very approachable and informal and really irreverent and funny. When I do these things people are really interested in presentation, but I try not to be fussy. I tell them to try it, learn about it, burn it, then order a pizza and laugh about it. It’s really gratifying for me."

What is the worst experience you’ve had on TV? Any disasters?
"A lot of our guys screw up the recipes. One guy was making mole and burned it in the pan. We were all watching in the loft to see how well the guy performed, and I was screaming at the TV. You can lead a straight guy to cuisine, but you can’t guarantee that he’ll pull it off. We had a guy, Jim, who was very smart, and I took him to Le Bernardin to meet Eric Ripert and introduce him to Eric’s recipe for lobster salad. The way Eric cooks it necessitates dismembering the lobster. He uses this technique where he takes a chef’s knife behind the neck and cuts, and... well, let’s just say Jim did it very, very wrong. He was tentative with his knife, holding it the wrong way, and cut the lobster in half while it was alive. Bravo, in its infinite sensitivity, showed it in all of its blazing carnage. I still can’t believe we didn’t get a letter from PETA. The four other guys in the cast kept calling me ’lobster killer.’ Jai hid behind the sofa—it was really gruesome. But I was able to get a restaurant table afterward, so Eric couldn’t have been that mad. I’m not sure how Jim recovered from that part of mutilating the lobster, and his girlfriend was really rude to him after he took her for a sail around the city and made her all this food. He did a great job aside from the lobster."

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