Carmel native and Purdue grad Ted Allen returns to Central Indiana in mid-January for the inaugural Fantastic Food Fest at the Fairgrounds, where he'll be a guest speaker. Allen, who spent years writing for Esquire before gaining national prominence on the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, now hosts Chopped on the Food Network. Chopped, for those who haven't been near cable TV lately, involves a panel of three celebrity chefs judging three rounds of work from four chefs: appetizers, entrees and desserts. At the end of each timed course, the judges "chop" one chef until a winner's left standing to take home a cash prize of $10,000.
NUVO spoke to Ted via phone in late December.
NUVO: Do you get back to Carmel much? Do you have friends and family there still?
Ted Allen: Yeah, my mom still lives there.
NUVO: What was your experience like, growing up there, when you did? Was there any bullying going on?
Allen: Oh, no. It was a really different time. There could have been — if you're talking about me being gay —
Allen: The weird thing about it, looking back, is that I can only remember a couple of people who I thought were gay or lesbian when I was in school. But it also was a time when there weren't role models — in media, on television, in the movies — there weren't a lot of people who were out. Because I'm a century old —
NUVO: Easy, man, you're younger than me.
Allen: Well, it was a time when people figured themselves out a lot later. I wasn't fully aware myself, at the time — and my masculine animal magnetism is obvious.
Carmel and Indianapolis were good places to grow up. I think that anybody who's editing NUVO — which, by the way, I've been reading for ages — remembers certain things. My whole world revolved around music. My friends and I prided ourselves on knowing good music; my orbit basically was Second Time Around Records on Broad Ripple Avenue, the Patio — both of those are gone, of course — the Alley Cat, which persists and the Vogue.
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NUVO: After high school, you moved on to Purdue, then Esquire, and eventually to a much wider audience on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Appearing on a show like that must have been very liberating.
Allen: Yeah ... we've lived in the Midwest for ages, but my parents were originally from the South, from South Carolina and Florida, respectively. And I'm not talking about Miami. My family wasn't the most progressive politically, although my parents were always incredibly supportive. When you do something as in-your-face as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, obviously word gets out. And the great thing about it was — which I think translated for gay kids, gay young people watching the show, or whose parents were watching the show — was that it seems like you put people on television and suddenly everything's OK. My folks were dreading it before it happened because it sounded so aggressive, but it turned out to be a pretty big-hearted effort. They loved it. Their friends loved it. It's amazing to me how long it's been since that happened. It was just one of several pop culture moments, some of which persist, like Modern Family, which I think make it possible for millennials to understand that being mean to gay people is not cool.
I'm not saying it's easy for a kid to be different, but it's a hell of a lot better. I work for a network that is very kind to LGBT people, employs a lot of us, from the executive suite all the way down to on-camera. ... They're really committed to diversity, and it's nice. The nightmare that some politicians put your state through in the last year [compared] to what happened in Carmel [passing a civil rights ordinance] — I don't think it was easy. I'm really proud of that.
My experience growing up in Indiana was completely positive. But I wasn't out. I think the experience would have been different, as it would have in much of the country in 1979, '80, '81. Since Queer Eye, I've been brought back for multiple jobs, appearances, openings and things and people have been nothing but gracious and welcoming and eager to see me. It's really sweet. I think most of us have really turned a lot of pages.
NUVO: I'm not quite as obsessive about Chopped as some of my family members and co-workers are, but it really is a compelling show. It's a little mini-drama every episode. Sometimes there's a clear villain or a clear hero.
Allen: I think there a lot of things that make it work, but a lot of the credit has to go to the woman who created the show, Linda Lea, who was also a producer on Queer Eye. I think the editing is really fast and exciting, I think the format itself is really durable, because you can impose themes on it. You can bring in a room full of first responders or a room full of regular chefs ... and now we've started doing the competition with kids, Chopped Jr., which is super fun on a different level. It seems that often the more serious the chef is, the less interesting and kooky they are, the less entertaining they are — but they're cooking really good food. You've got a rotating cast of really good judges — something can always pick up the slack if one part's weak.
NUVO: You mentioned the judges — is that a random chance thing or are the producers saying, "Look, we have [Chris] Santos and [Aaron] Sanchez on this one, we better bring in Amanda [Freitag] so it's not too dark."
Allen: It's much more like the latter! Not that Santos is dark — I love them all. Santos has a deep gravitas and he's so engaged with things. These are people who are really committed to this craft. There's definitely a method to the madness as far as which groups of judges are paired together. I'm not saying Amanda's brought in because Chris is dark [laughs] — he's a nurturing guy, but he can be rough on you if you're abominable to the food.
The same is true of the way the competitors are lined up. It makes for a more interesting show if you have one person who's a really serious French chef with a lot of experience and somebody who's a more casual cook with less experience — those inequities are often balanced out by whatever's in the basket. If you're a French executive chef and we give you soba noodles, sesame oil and ginger, you're already kind of knocked on your heels. It also creates the potential for David and Goliath face-offs, which are exciting in any kind of competition — and I always secretly and quietly root for the underdog.
NUVO: Have you ever seen a basket that you just found utterly revolting? "Calamari and chocolate pudding? I can't believe they're doing this to these people."
Allen: All the time. My all-time favorite ingredient for years has been the whole chicken in a can, with all that lovely gelatinous material and the sucking sound it makes when it flies out of the can. Uniquely appalling.
NUVO: The contestants have four stoves, four ranges — but there's ONE deep fryer. There's ONE ice cream maker ...
Allen: You are correct in that producers enjoy watching people fight over stuff. It's not [me] or the judges who enjoy that. If I stocked the baskets myself, the show would've been over long ago. Every basket I made would've had a porterhouse steak and a chunk of Parmesan and some beautiful asparagus and potatoes for au gratin. There are frequently combinations that don't go together well, but I finally realized that what is great about chefs is that they don't take no for an answer. You can throw whatever you want to at them, and they might get irritated about it, but for the most part they're never going to say "Oh, I can't cook that." They'll say, "Oh, really? You think I can't cook with that? I'll show you."
NUVO: There are moments when a chef reacts poorly to the pressure and makes some kind of egregious error — you know it, the judges know it, the audience knows it, but that individual in the moment doesn't seem to get it. Those moments are equally exciting and heartbreaking sometimes.
Allen: Agreed. Had one of those very recently. We gave in a dessert basket pate a choux, which means "shoe dough" — I believe, I'm not a pastry chef — it's what you use to make an éclair or a cream puff. It's a wet, soft dough that goes into a piping bag. You squeeze it out onto a baking sheet. ... I just stood there and watched a chef take that product — she thought it was like a bread dough and she thought it was too soft and wet. She put it in a food processor and started adding flour to it. We want to say something. We want to help, and we can't. The judges are practically lurching across the table yelling "NOOOO." That didn't work, by the way.
NUVO: The show does a brilliant job at manipulating time ... I'm well aware that the shots of the countdown clock are manipulated to make things look a little more compressed than they are. Is there a lot of downtime? How close to a real-world clock are we working with?
Allen: With all these shows, there are laws about these things — going back to the quiz show situation in the '50s. There are rules about this that have to be observed to make this fair. Our 30-minute cooking round is exactly 30 minutes long. There's editing ... you watch eight minutes, maybe? Five? But you can't fool around with the timing, and the decisions are made entirely by the judges based on what the food tastes like. We don't really know what the storylines are going to be until they happen — the classic example would be someone dropping food on the floor and then deciding to serve it anyway. That's why we have a lot of cameras.
If you were to come and watch the show, it wouldn't be nearly as exciting. Shooting the thing takes about 12 hours ... There's plenty of editing for the suspense and drama and exciting bits.
NUVO: It seems terribly unfair that you never get to taste the food.
Allen: If something's particularly tasty, my judge friends will fix me a bite. On the other hand, how much do you think I want to taste a plate of Rocky Mountain oysters with chicken feet and a side of root beer and Gummi bears? I'm good.
Fantastic Food Fest
Indiana State Fairgrounds Champions Pavillion
1202 E 38th St.