Ted Allen and I met on stage in 1991 during the then-annual Chicago Gridiron Show, a satirical review of local politics and media that was edgier and funnier than the better known Washington, D.C. edition. We’ve been friends ever since.
Ted was a community journalist then but soon became a senior editor at Chicago magazine and shortly thereafter a contributing writer at Esquire. Big fame came when he was named to the original cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003. On that show, his horror at the contents he’d discover as he peered into the refrigerators of hapless straight guys soon landed him on a long list of food shows. His ongoing run on the Food Network’s Chopped began in 2009. Ted’s love of food and travel has been combined in shows like Best. Ever., which scoured the US for prime examples of classic comfort chow.
Ted lives in Brooklyn with his husband Barry Rice (another old Chicago pal). When they escape Gotham, you might find them on a remote patch of the Maine coast.
I caught up with Ted recently, during this odd moment in time, and we talked about travel, upheaval in food media, and where the U.S. is heading.
What were your trips like growing up in Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis?
My parents’ parents lived in Panama City and Orlando, respectively, and it was important to Mom and Dad that my sister and I had a relationship with our grandparents. So most of our travel consisted of piling into one of dad’s succession of Buick LeSabres (back when they were 30 feet long) and driving what seemed like an endless distance to a kid. I remember Pop-Tarts, apples, and dad’s endless supply of Elvis. Later, when they bought a station wagon, I was always happy to have the back compartment all to myself.
And what was young Ted up to back there?
The seat faced backwards, with me looking out and listening to the Talking Heads on my headphones.
What was your first independent trip (family-free)? Was it life-changing?
When I was 14 or 15, I went with my Boy Scout Troop 199 on a 60-mile canoe trip at the Northern Wisconsin National Canoe Base. It was amazing. I recall Pablo Cruise’s “Whatcha Gonna Do (When She Says Goodbye)” playing on the radio of the woody-side station wagon of my Scoutmaster, Wayne Wilson. Also, I recall that portaging sucks. Dehydrated food is better than I thought it would be, but also sucks. I remember some kind of chewy, peanutty bar that was tasty. And I remember learning quickly not to let my shorts get wet, because the canoe seat would deliver you a rash on your bum. BTW, Wayne Wilson is now a longtime city councilman in my hometown of Carmel, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis.
How has the last 20 years of being a public figure changed how you travel?
Once, on a flight to Italy, my husband and I elected to save a few bucks and bought coach seats. Before takeoff, a flight attendant noticed me in economy, wagged his finger, and said, “Oh, no, no, no!” and promptly whisked us into first class. I can’t complain.
Is there an anonymity you miss?
More so in the States than in foreign countries. Depending on where I travel, I can sometimes get the anonymity back. Honestly, the moderate amount of recognition I get is more often helpful than harmful—and, in any case, there’s nothing I can do about it other than to be gracious and friendly. A tip to those who might become famous: When you need an encounter to end, offer to take a photo with the fan. As soon as that has happened, you have universal permission to say, “Nice to meet you—gotta go.”
How is recognition helpful, besides the obvious joys a flight attendant can provide?
You’re likely to be seated at a nice table in a restaurant, for example. The dues for this special treatment? One must always tip well. Very well. Someone saw me washing up in the restroom with my husband Barry, and then, apparently, thought I left without tipping the attendant. As it happens, Barry had already left a tip for us both. The next day I got a call from Page Six at the New York Post. Things get super weird in this business, man.
Does being gay influence how or where you travel now?
Whoa—I can’t believe you just outed me. Sure, it influences Barry and me. We will not travel to any country that has demonstrated no interest in protecting LGBTQ people—and there are many of them. These days, if I lived outside the USA, I’m not sure I would travel here.
Why is that?
Our current, so-called “president,” has the worst track record in history of any American leader on LGBTQ issues, despite having grown up in NYC. He has stripped away existing protections against discrimination purely out of spite, or simply to please his far-right-wing supporters. Super weird. Why would any LGBTQ person ever choose to visit a country run by somebody like that?
I’ve been with you at least three times when we were having a beer at a bar and a server or patron thanked you for making it easier for them to come out. How often does that happen?
Aw, man. That could have happened to me one time, and it would have permanently made life worth living. That is a privilege. It has happened to me hundreds and hundreds of times—and let me be clear, while times are better than ever for LGBTQ people, they are still often difficult and dangerous. Queer Eye never pretended to be something important—but in that sense, us representing LGBTQ people and being accepted on a broad scale—that did allow us to accomplish something important.
Has travel influenced who you are today?
Yes, of course. I had a reporting trip to Mozambique once, where the many wars have left whole fields full of landmines; I was writing about the demining effort there. We stayed in a beautiful, luxurious Colonial-style hotel, surrounded by a 14-foot fence with razor wire, which in turn was surrounded by villages of huts and the smell of wood smoke. The poverty, the children who had had legs blown off by mines, and the contrast with our near-royal luxury was a punch to the gut. It inspired me to devote my philanthropic energy to hunger organizations.
How important is food when you travel and how has that changed as you’ve become known for your food expertise?
Food is one of the very most important things about choosing where to travel, and from this point forward will always be.
My first journalism job started me at $17,000—and it wasn’t in the 60s; we’re talking 1990. We stayed in some serious fleabags, but we always traveled. I was quite happy to discover how delicious (and cheap) the sandwiches were in Paris. There’s decent pizza pretty much everywhere. These days, we don’t have to rough it so much, and are more inclined to burn money on memorable lodgings. I love a great hotel. And I adore room service. At this point, I feel as if I’ve earned it.
American food has always been the world’s largest mashup of treats from other places; people are just noticing that?
Food media seemed to be a good place for inclusive writing for many years. True?
Really the main place I created any food media was Queer Eye—and that just involved teaching one simple food-related lesson to a guy who knew little about cooking. So really basic stuff. But Queer Eye being a show about a straight guy suddenly being jammed together with five gay guys, I certainly always felt welcomed. Food magazines also historically have welcomed LGBTQ people easily and comfortably; we’ve long been part of that landscape, as we have the restaurant and theater worlds. At both of my longtime magazine jobs, Chicago and Esquire, the editors and staff were all completely accustomed to LGBTQ colleagues and friends—there was never a wisp of an issue.
And now, there is a focus on racial issues in food media like never before. Mindful of current events like the Bon Appétit upheavals or John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance, where is food media going?
Food media is finally waking up to its overwhelming whiteness, both in staffing but also in the types of cooking and cultures upon which it trains its lens. On Chopped, our producers have always tried to improve diversity among judges and competitors, but have only gotten so far; their efforts have been made more urgent by the tragic murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, and it will show in coming episodes.
I’m thinking, for example, of Padma Lakshmi’s “Taste the Nation” and how she is broadening the definition of “American food.”
I love Padma’s new show, and perhaps the thing that’s most remarkable about it is that its premise is at all remarkable to anyone. To me, the whole greatness of cooking has always been the incredible variety of foods that immigrants have brought here, and continue to bring here. American food has always been the world’s largest mashup of treats from other places; people are just noticing that? That is the definition of “American food” going forward—ever-increasing diversity and variety—and that is entirely, 100%, a great thing.
Where have you been in the US that shaped/changed your view of the country?
My favorite parts of the States are places with strong culinary identities. The Northeast coast, with its chowder and shellfish that is sold while it’s still alive. New Orleans, where, whether it’s Creole or Cajun or French, the audience is extremely savvy, and the cooking must be excellent. The beautiful Asian cooking along the West Coast. We’re a bouillabaisse, and these foods manifest that fact in literal form, right on your plate.
Tell us about an amazing local food discovery in the US in a place where you didn’t expect it.
I’m a huge fan of fresh mozzarella, but had no idea how great it could be until my friend Scott in Hoboken sent me to a deli on Washington Street, where it was made fresh, stretched by hand, all day, never refrigerated EVER. I took a pound of it home to Chicago, where I lived at the time. Took us one day to eat the whole thing.
And, a big one: The Statesider is always wrestling with the age-old question of cake or pie? You?
I reject this false dichotomy. Both! #resist
Ted Allen has hosted over 500 episodes of Chopped on the Food Network since 2009. Ted has written two cookbooks, most recently In My Kitchen: 100 Recipes and Discoveries for Passionate Cooks, which contains two cakes and a rustic apricot tart that is arguably a pie. For more, head to Ted’s website or follow him on Twitter or Instagram @TheTedAllen
All photos are photos of photos taken by Ted Allen on his kitchen table.