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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ted Allen: Cooking for the Sake of Cooking

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Ted Allen doesn't write about food as much as he used to. The Food Network personality began his career as a restaurant critic and food writer for Chicago and Esquire magazines—he continues to contribute to the latter on occasion—but since becoming the food and wine expert for Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," television has been his primary gig. He's now a regular on several Food Network programs and the host of the channel's top-rated competition show, "Chopped."

Now and then, though, he still picks up the pen. This month the sophisticated chef released his second cookbook, In My Kitchen: 100 Recipes and Discoveries for Passionate Cooks. In advance of his May 19 appearance at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Allen spoke to the Shepherd about the book, his love for the art of food criticism, and whether he'll ever compete on his own television show.

What made you decide to write another cookbook?


There is no shortage of cookbooks in our great nation—or even in my house—but a lot of what you see in the marketplace these days are books that purport to help you get out of the kitchen as fast as possible, or cook 15-minute meals. I wanted to write a book that celebrates the love of cooking. You know, all we ever want to do in this house is get a free day so we can turn the stereo on, open a bottle of wine and call our friends and go to it with a leg of lamb or pork shoulder. We cook because we like to do it, love to do it, and that's sort of the unifying principle here: the joy of cooking for friends or with friends. And I chose each recipe in the book because they each contain some little kernel of discovery: an epiphany or technique or tool that changed my cooking life for the better. Originally I was going to call the book The Kitchen Adventurer, with the idea that each time I go into the kitchen I'm hoping to learn something and have some kind of discovery.

What is the process for compiling a cookbook like this?


Well, it's a good thing I was able to come up with a theme, because really what it is is a collection of stuff that I've just felt like cooking the past few years, which is not much of a theme [laughs]. It's funny, because my partner Barry urged me to write another cookbook, and it's been a while since I've done one—they're a lot of work—and the hard part was finding a theme, because I include in the book Mexican, Italian, Thai, Japanese, comfort food, simple stuff like turkey burgers and complicated recipes like cassoulet. What connects all of this? Well, it's really just about enjoying the process as much as the flavors. I write this in the beginning of the book: A lot of people are proudest when they present their glorious, perfectly browned turkey to their guests, and that's their favorite moment of the process. For me, my favorite moment is when I start, when the pan gets hot and you put the oil in the pan and the aromas begin and the sizzling happens, and there's the promise of a great dish.

Was there a point when you realized you wanted to make a career out of food?


I've always been into cooking, since I was a kid, but I suppose I got more serious about it when I was working at Chicago magazine, because I was exposed to chefs and I got to join the team of restaurant critics, and that was probably the linchpin. You go to restaurants, you take notes, you whisper into a tape recorder that's hidden behind a napkin or up your sleeve, because we're very strict about anonymity, and I feel in love with what I found to be the very interesting intellectual exercise of thinking very carefully and honestly about how well a chef has done with a dish, whether it's a sandwich or a 12-course tasting meal that costs $500. I find that endlessly fascinating, and endlessly complicated, and, lo and behold, that's what I do for a living now on "Chopped." Food criticism is tremendously interesting to me. We're all food critics, really, and I think the more we talk about it, the more we learn and the better our food becomes.

Is it safe to say you're more comfortable critiquing food than you are cooking it, at least on camera?

Well, I love cooking it, and I'm getting good at it. And people ask me all the time if I'm willing to compete on "Chopped," and I always say "no," and I probably should continue to say no because mainly I'm worried about who exactly is going to host that episode. I don't need some better host stepping in [laughs]. But I do kind of have the itch to prove something. I wouldn't want to compete against restaurant chefs, because I'm not one, but maybe I could compete against some other Food Network host. I don't know. I have to say, I'd have a dramatically unfair advantage, in that I know where everything is, I know where all the tools are. I've hosted every episode of "Chopped," 179 episodes, so there's a lot of experience there that could help me, but then again it's nerve-wracking. That's a lot of competition.

And there's also the whole Alex Trebek effect, where the person judging and asking questions seems smarter than the person answering them.


Definitely. There would be a great vulnerability exposing myself to the other side of that, which is of course what you see when our judges turn the tables and compete on the show. It's really hard for them. They worry about it for weeks. And the fact is, on "Chopped," three of the four people are going to be chopped, and that's not fun. These are people whose whole careers depend on their reputation, and if they make one mistake, it cuts against their credibility. They're exposing themselves in a very vulnerable way to being critiqued and called out for errors. You know, you can't fake it on a show like "Chopped." Nothing is rigged; each competition is exactly 30 minutes and you are not going to know what the mystery ingredients are. It's hard, and it's hugely risky.

Ted Allen will speak about his book, and all things food, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, at Next Chapter Bookshop. Tickets are $35 and include a signed copy of the book.