Ted Allen is a celebrity in today's food world

Ted Allen never sought the fame he now has. It all began "on a lark," he says from his residence in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I had never been in a school play before. I never had aspirations to be on TV." Then six years ago he got the food and wine guy role on Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

"I thought we would shoot the pilot and I would come home with a VHS tape and $2,000."

But as he found, larks fly. "Queer Eye" pushed him into the public eye, and his success has continued to roll as he has judged, cooked, written and emceed pretty much all over the modern food world. He has been a judge on "Top Chef" and "Iron Chef," and now has two shows running on "Food Network" -- "Food Detective," in which he playfully discusses the science behind food, and "Chopped."

More from Ted Allen

• He gets a weekly community supported agriculture delivery from a mom-and-pop farm on Long Island. "I cook exclusively with fresh, natural, real food," and he likes the challenge of being creative in using his CSA share. "The thing that's exciting me most about cooking now is allowing the seasons to dictate the menu. We're basically forced to cook kale because that's what you got. It's wonderful. I almost think that's what your body wants."

• He and his longtime partner, Barry Rice, attend cooking classes when they vacation, most recently in Bangkok. "Probably the best part was going to the market in the morning and looking at the strange, exotic seafood and fruits and vegetables you can't grow here," he says, singling out a "funny spiny fruit" called a rambutan. "When you take that spiny red peel off it, it looks like an eyeball and it kind of has that texture you'd expect an eyeball to have."

• About "Queer Eye": He did not like the title and lobbied to change it, but found "it had a provocative quality that got people's attention," and, in fact, joined the lexicon. He gets Google alerts on it, seeing examples such as "queer eye for the mechanic." He also found that while "we never set out to be an important show," the impact of the Fab Five, as the hosts were called, was multiple. For the straight men on the show who were trying to improve, "We had an overwhelming and profound effect on those guys. There was a heart to that and a sweetness to that that was kind of cool."

• His Web site tedallen.net has a link to the Corduroy Appreciation Society. He laughs: "I haven't joined but when I heard about it I did want to link it because I like corduroy a lot."

The latter, which he hosts, airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and is a weekly competition among four chefs for a $10,000 prize.

Mr. Allen will be among those helping to launch Giant Eagle's Settlers Ridge Market District store in Robinson this weekend. He will appear at 11 a.m. Saturday for a cooking demonstration.

Mr. Allen began his career in print media. He is a longtime contributor to Esquire magazine and a former editor and restaurant critic at Chicago magazine. A graduate of New York University with a masters in journalism, Mr. Allen also has a bachelors in psychology from Purdue University.

It's psychology, in a way, that moved his journalism career into a food niche. In talking with him, as well as watching him on television, you can see the wheels turning. He appears curious, approachable, a bit puckish when he's not downright funny, and intelligent.

"I consider chefs to be artists of the highest order and I have the deepest respect for them and their craft and how difficult it is," he says.

"Chopped" puts that on display. Working with ingredients that are unknown to them until just before they begin working, contestants have 20 minutes to prepare an appetizer and 30 minutes to make an entree and dessert, with their offerings subject to judging by three renowned chefs. After each round, one chef is "chopped." The rest proceed until a winner is declared. Mr. Allen does the ceremonious chopping, uncovering the choppee's dish to reveal him or her after each round.

The show is like a culinary "Project Runway" played at an ice-hockey pace. Chefs are presented with a basket containing three mystery ingredients designed to knock them off their culinary base. On a recent episode, the chefs had to use hamachi (a fish usually used for sushi), quail eggs and dried cherries.

"The mystery ingredients are chosen very deliberately by Food Network in order to create a puzzle and to set specific traps for the chef," he says. Cooking under time, ingredient and space restraints, and under the study of top chefs -- "I don't think people realize how staggeringly difficult that is."

Although he uses the phrase to describe the mechanics of his show, setting traps is not Mr. Allen's style. He comes from the "show and tell" school, preferring his role to be informational. Asked if he's always so nice, he says, '' 'Nice' is not what I'm going for as much as knowledgeable and respectful of [chefs'] work.

"I don't like sarcasm in arts critics and food critics. There's too much of it, and I know there's too much of it on TV.

"Apparently a lot of Americans like to watch cruelty in action but that's not my thing."

He does not, however, suffer arrogance or fraud. Chefs have to be able to take criticism, and chefs and restaurants have to serve the public, and safely. If they don't, as a critic, "I think they deserve it with all barrels."

He says he is looking forward to visiting Pittsburgh, where, when he was a child, his family had friends. Raised in the flat terrain of the Midwest, he remembers being wowed by Pittsburgh's hills.

At this writing, Mr. Allen was still mulling what dish he'd prepare here. He is not a trained chef but a devoted food lover and cook, learning as he goes.

"My mom had always encouraged us to cook when we were kids, but just simple stuff. We didn't eat fancy food in my family very often. I got more interested in more serious food when I got the [food critic's] job at "Chicago" magazine.

"I fell in love with the culture, the way food is a window into other cultures.

"The culinary world, the world of food and wine is absolutely limitless."

Margi Shrum can be reached at mshrum@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3027.


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