Ted Allen is probably best known for being the food and wine guy on Bravo's popular Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. But he was an accomplished cook and writer long before that. He writes a regular column for Esquire, and recently released the terrific new cookbook The Food You Want To Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes. He talked with me by phone about the book, what it's like working on Queer Eye, his favorite drinks and music, and what food is his guilty pleasure.
Ted Allen: Are you in the Time-Warner center?
Bob Sassone: No, I'm actually north of Boston, in a town called Gloucester. You might know it from the movie The Perfect Storm.
TA: Oh, OK!
BS: And it's a big Portuguese and Italian town, and we use linguica on everything from Sunday meals to pizza, but I've never seen it mentioned in a recipe book or on television, so it was actually cool to see that in the book.
TA: Yeah, we cooked that in an episode because we worked with a guy who had a Portuguese background.
BS: On Queer Eye?
TA: Yeah. And I just really liked it.
BS: In my younger days I used to wait tables in some restaurants in the area, and we'd get a lot of tourists during the summer, and one of their big questions to me was "what's linguicka?"
BS: So I not only had to explain what it was to them but also how to pronounce it.
TA: Exactly. I think we put a little curly-cue under the "c," I can't remember.
BS: I was very surprised and really pleased to see that in there, so right off the bat your book got stars from me.
TA: Well, I'm glad. This book really is all over the place, and that's kinda where the title came from. My recipe tester and I were talking and she said, "what is this book about?" And I said, I don't know, it's stuff I want to eat. So maybe that idea will translate to the buying public as well.
BS: It's interesting because, I don't mean to sound like I'm giving you a blurb or anything, but the name of the book is The Food You Want To Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes, and it really is, you did really pick recipes that people can use.
TA: Thank you, I'm glad you think so. Other people agree. So far the response has been good.
BS: It's funny, I think I told you via e-mail that even the cover is great, the spill-proof cover. Whose idea was that?
TA: That was the staff at Clarkson Potter and my editor. They wanted something that was sort of sleek and contemporary and different, and I don't see a lot of other cookbooks that have that.
BS: Clarkson-Potter also do art and style books too, right?
TA: Yeah, and they have a great art staff. I feel the acetate gives it a picture under glass type of look. It kinda makes it "pop."
BS: It also really smells good!
TA: (laughs) Yes, it does.
BS: That lively plastic smell that will keep people awake while you're cooking.
BS: So what are you hoping people will get out of the book?
TA: Well, just as with the show...what I look for in cookbooks is inspiration. You can get technical solutions to your cooking problems online really easily, and I use Gail Horowitz's AOL channel online all the time for that.
TA: You know, all I have are bananas and mustard, what can I make out of that, what's going to be good? I think cookbooks, especially those with nice photos and compelling recipes, answer the question, what on Earth am I going to do on a Tuesday night with a chicken breast for the 15,000th time, with your spouse or your friend or your children telling you what sounds good to them. Finding inspiration is always kind of the rub, and it's the first thing that has to happen before you even go to the market, unless you get your inspiration for the market, which is actually a great way to do it. But then you go to the market and you buy some basil because the basil is great today and you get home and you realize you forgot to buy the mozzarella!
BS: (laughs) Yeah, that's one of the great things about the book, even if it's last minute, you open the book and it's not daunting, the recipes you have in there. They're actually real life recipes. They're not something that people are going to have to take a mini cooking class just to open the book and do something.
TA: Yeah, I really wanted to make it as simple and accessible as I could, while still using natural, from scratch, fresh ingredients, and there are some familiar-sounding things in the book, some American comfort foods, a great take on fried chicken. But there is also some stuff you don't see everyday, like linguica, or panzanella, a lot of interesting sauces. A lot of people are trying to get more seafood in their diet. That's something that's new to me in the past 3 or 4 years, cooking a lot of fish, and I'm always trying to find new ways to sauce it, pan roast it, treat it differently so it's exciting every time.
BS: So what's your background in cooking?
TA: I first learned to cook from my mother. She was a really good cook in sort of a traditional southern style, the southern United States.
BS: Oh, where are you from?
TA: I'm from Ohio, but I'm the first Yankee in the family.
BS: Oh, OK.
TA: Everyone before me was doing all sorts of grits and greens and stuff us Yankees don't see as often. So I loved cooking as a kid and then growing up I got a little more serious about it. I was a journalist before I got into this crazy business, shredding any credibility I may have had. And then I became an editor at Chicago magazine, which is sort of the restaurant bible for that city. And because of that I found myself interviewing chefs and going to menu tastings and became so fascinated with that world that I just started studying and learning. I became a restaurant critic at that magazine and I thought, if I'm going to be criticizing other people's food I should get serious about learning.
BS: (laughs) You should know what you're doing.
TA: A little bit, at least. I always took the criticism very, very seriously because I have a lot of respect and love for people who cook, and I thought I had to approach it with that sort of very serious, thoughtful, fair approach.
BS: Then you eventually went to, and you're still at, Esquire?
TA: Yes. They threw me a book party on Tuesday!
BS: Great. I remember you had a couple of Esquire books, like a style and grooming book that you worked on.
TA: Yeah, Things A Man Should Know. They were really small books, not as much of a book as this one.
BS: Well, they helped me out immeasurably. I don't wear white athletic socks as much as I used to.
TA: (laughs) Well, I'm glad. I think they have some good information in them.
BS: Now when do new episodes of Queer Eye start up?
TA: We have a new season starting on December 6.
TA: A lot of wedding episodes, which viewers really really love. Just crazy, over the top, lavish, fantasy weddings, that people respond to very well. And we've just been renewed for next year!
BS: Oh really? That's great to hear. I thought that Bravo kind of overexposed it there for a little while. It seemed to be on every time I turned the TV on. It's a great show, but I think any show can be overexposed.
TA: Yeah, cable networks tend to do that.
BS: They gotta fill up the time.
TA: Yeah, they do, and Bravo was trying to build its audience, and were successful with Queer Eye so they kinda had us on all the time, sort of the Queer Eye Network, and now the network has been very successful in developing some other shows that have their own audiences, so they're able to distribute us a little bit more judiciously to make people more hungry.
BS: That's great to hear you've been renewed, because I really, really need you guys to come here and help me.
BS: I need you to dismantle my life completely, and I'll be completely in your hands.
TA: Well, you know the show was born in Boston.
TA: In the South End.
BS: The headquarters is still in Boston, isn't it?
TA: Yeah. They have offices in a couple of other cities too, but that's the mother ship. We're planning to travel the show next year, but whether we can go to as many cities as we want is unclear because it's expensive.
BS: You did that a couple of times last year, didn't you? You went to Texas I think?
TA: Yeah, we did. That was really fun. It helps, because we have to keep the show evolving and growing. Going to different places in the country really help us. You go to a place like Texas, where they have so much character and it becomes like another player in the show.
BS: Well, if you do another field trip, keep me in mind.
TA: Oh, I'd love to. That would be great.
BS: Have you ever had anybody on the show, any of the guys you made over, not like what you've done, either to them, to the way they looked or their house?
TA: Hmmm... I don't think anyone ever objected to the makeover on their house, but once in a while people will push back on the clothes. The very first episode we shot, I think it was the third episode to air, I actually had somebody react very negatively to my pate of foie gras, which I haven't lived down to this day.
TA: It was a kosher household, and I try to respond to them as a person, for who they are, but try to elevate them a bit into the culinary world, so what's the ultimate Jewish dish, besides chopped liver, so why don't I try to do something with liver that is a little more special, a little more luxurious, and foie gras naturally came to mind. It was quite an effort to find kosher foie gras, but I did, from a place in Miami, and shipped the stuff up. And on camera, the gentleman's wife took a bite of it, and you could just see her face and she was not happy at all. And it turns out she doesn't like chopped liver! (laughs) That was my fault. Thom finished it off, it was really delicious.
BS: Now can you tell us anything secret about the Queer Eye guys, that we don't know from the show? Hopefully something embarrassing.
TA: Oh God, there's so much.
BS: Or embarrassing about yourself.
TA: Well, you know, we've all learned to trust the show enough where we don't hold anything back. We often do things that if they aired we'd be deported. Carson lately has developed a real penchant for removing his clothing at odd times. I don't know if that's going to be surprising to anybody.
BS: (laughs) What's an odd time?
TA: Oh, when we're working. The crew is there.
BS: Meeting the President?
TA: Well, nothing like that.
BS: Now, why aren't you coming to Boston on your book tour?
TA: As you know, Boston is a really amazing book town, in part because of all the really smart people.
BS: And you've got the Queer Eye offices here too, so...
TA: Absolutely. You know, I may yet add it to the tour. We had to start with cities that were particularly important to Clarkson Potter. No slight to Boston intended! I love Boston. I spent a lot of time at the Lenox House.
BS: That's a nice place.
TA: When we were shooting the pilot we had a lot of fun in that neighborhood. So we may still do it. I just added Seattle. I'm already doing a lot of cities. I'm going to be a wreck.
BS: Yeah, I was looking at the tour schedule at your site. After New York you're in Indiana?
TA: Yeah, we're starting in my hometown of Carmel, Indiana. That's where I grew up anyway.
BS: OK, I asked this question recently: if you could only eat one food, every single meal, for the rest of your life, what would it be? Assuming that medically you wouldn't get sick from it.
TA: I was going to say cyanide, because just the thought of only eating one food...
BS: Sort of depressing.
TA: What I love about food, what's an endless source of fascination, and it's true to the show and to writing cookbooks, is that there's absolutely no limit to the number of things you can do and learn about other cultures. It's a great way to kind of travel without going anywhere. And the variety is the most important part for me. When I go to a restaurant or sit down to a meal at home, the best part for me is having a huge array of choices and taking lots of little bites of everybody's food.
TA: That having been said, let's see...I'm a real sucker for potato chips. That's my weakness.
BS: I said pizza.
TA: I think for me it would be an absolutely perfect tomato. In the middle of September, which is the only time of year they're any good at all. That's more special to me than foie gras or truffles or anything that's a pretentious delicacy like that.
BS: Now, is there any food that you just can't stomach, that for some reason you tried to like over the years, and maybe to the shock of your fellow cooks you just don't like?
TA: You know, I'm not gonna eat liver.
BS: Ah, I'm the same way.
TA: I'll eat foie gras. I don't mind liver as part of something else. I'll use the turkey liver at Thanksgiving, but it's chopped really fine. I like that it has that earthy sort of richness, but I don't want to eat a big slab of it.
BS: It's the same with me and anchovies. I don't like whole anchovies but I love Caesar salad.
TA: I think it's really funny that people love Caesar salad and they say they don't love anchovies. I think it's the filet, that hairy looking thing that's not very attractive. Of course, the dressing itself is made from mashed-up anchovies.
BS: What's your favorite drink? I'm partial to Negronis myself.
TA: I'm a big fan of Campari!
TA: I love Negronis. You probably like a lot of the stuff I like. I don't like sweet drinks.
BS: Me either.
TA: I like bitter or tart or astringent, citrusy drinks.
BS: I'm a big Campari and soda fan. I know a lot of people who hate it.
TA: I love Campari, and I'm always interested in trying other bitter flavorings. I just tried Lilet.
TA: The French cordial. It's a little much for me. But anise flavors...anything that's sort of bitter and jaded (laughs).
BS: A lot of bars you go into and you ask for a Negroni, the bartender will look at you like you have three heads. They're not quite sure what it is.
TA: Yeah, but you know what, I used to get that a lot more than I do now. I think that drink is coming back.
BS: Yeah, I know that the owner of Passerby in New York...Toby something...he wrote a book called Cosmopolitan, about his days bartending...he picks 4 or 5 drinks that everyone should know how to make and the Negroni is one of them.
TA: The Negroni is a true original, there's nothing quite like it. I like to do a variation on it with orange juice. On the rocks, maybe not with the vermouth...hey, you know what I'm watching right now, that famous falcon, the one over Central Park?
TA: The one that was evicted from his home, I'm watching it right now...it's huge!
BS: I actually thought he was gone from there.
TA: Well, they got him out of his nest for a while...
BS: Wasn't there something with Paula Zahn?
TA: I think it's her building...they were forced by public pressure to put it back. It's quite a majestic bird.
BS: Are you calling from the Time-Warner center?
TA: Right across the street from it, in Central Park. I'm watching the bird circle and I'm hoping it will capture a pigeon. That would be very cool.
BS: But not cook it up or anything.
TA: No, no. (laughs)
BS: What's your favorite TV show? And don't say Queer Eye.
TA: (laughs) I won't...I'm a huge fan of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and now I'm a brand new fan of The Colbert Report.
BS: I saw the first episode, very funny.
TA: I love him, and I'm glad he and Steve Carell are doing so well. It's just great to see smart humor in a sea of bad talk shows and sitcoms. You know, we do a lot of superficial stuff on our show, makeover stuff, instructional stuff, but there is an edge, particularly in Thom's humor, that's really really smart. It's great that smart, satirical shows like that on Comedy Central being appreciated by people. And of course The Simpsons.
BS: What about favorite movie?
TA: That's harder for me. I watch a lot of movies, usually at home. The most powerfully affecting movie I've seen in the past few months is Hotel Rwanda.
BS: I haven't seen that yet.
TA: Oh, it's great. I came kind of late to it.
BS: Don Cheadle, right?
TA: Yeah, we got it from NetFlix and had it sitting in our house for two months because we didn't want to watch it. We always opted for some comedy instead because we thought it was going to be a big buzzkill. It's a very serious, devastating subject but it's such a beautifully done film that kind of opened our eyes to and made real the genocide. Not to get all serious. I also really liked The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
BS: The opposite end of the spectrum!
TA: (laughs) Definitely.
BS: What type of music do you enjoy listening to most?
TA: I'm really into music, and I'm especially into weird, American indie rock. One of my favorite bands is The Dandy Warhols.
BS: Yes! Mine too.
TA: I saw them at CBGB's a few months ago.
BS: They did a song on, not sure if you remember a show called Ed that was on NBC.
TA: Yeah! They were on that?
BS: They weren't on it, but there was a scene in the bowling alley and they played "Bohemian Like You," in the background.
TA: Oh my God.
BS: And I remember thinking, wow that's a great song, I wonder who that is, and I did some checking online, and that's how you usually start to like a band, you hear a snippet of it, and then it leads to something else and you do a little research.
TA: Bob, you're a weird guy after my own heart.
BS: Thank you (laughs). How about guilty pleasures?
TA: Probably potato chips and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
BS: Heh...that's weird, because Sierra Nevada is one of my favorite beers.
TA: Yeah, it's great. It's probably going to make me morbidly obese.
BS: It was named one of the 25 best beers in the world by...I think it was Maxim or FHM or one of those magazines. I don't know if it's that good, but I love it.
TA: I just think it's so beautifully balanced. It's got tons of hops and it has a lot of body, but I never get sick of it. That and Stella Artois. I like that a lot.
BS: And potato chips. Everything comes back to potato chips.
TA: That would be my guilty pleasure, and my favorite food the perfect tomato. But maybe not together.