I recently had the pleasure of a conference call with Ted Allen to discuss his new cooking competition show, Chopped. Culinary guru Ted Allen has appeared on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Top Chef, and Iron Chef America. He now has two shows of his own on the Food Network: Chopped and Food Detectives. As always, Ted proves to be intelligent, entertaining and funny. I enjoyed talking with him.
Interview with Ted Allen
What makes Chopped stand out from the other cooking competition shows?
TED: There's a realness to Chopped that I think is really cool. The chefs coming into the show are mostly young chefs or mid-career sous chefs behind the stoves in New York City restaurants or nearby states. The Food Network wanted this to be a very straight forward cooking competition. There are so many cooking contest shows out there. Everything out there from Iron Chef to Next Food Network Star to Top Chef to Hell's Kitchen. All those shows have their own distinct angle. What I think is special about this one is that 'real' feeling. Whatever panic or bloodshed or tears or whatever happens on Chopped is entirely about can you make a good dish with these ingredients or not. And we've had a lot of drama. In the first episode, there are buckets of tears.
What do you look for in these chefs when they are working with ordinary everyday ingredients?
TED: I think there has been too much emphasis put on the 'ordinariness' of the ingredients.
If you look at the first appetizer battle, the mystery basket has a baby octopus. You know, some people come to Food Network because they want to learn how to cook some really complicated, high-end haute cuisine. Other people are regular folks that want simple solutions, 30-minute meals and then there are people that want something else: they want to be entertained.
Or they may want all of that. I think that was put out there not to say we are going to be using white bread and fruit loops but I do think the ingredients are important. That's another thing that makes this show so hard. For example, on Iron Chef America (and you're talking about chefs at the top of their game) they are required to cook with one secret ingredient. The ingredient sets a theme for their meal. On our show, you get a basket with 3 to 5 ingredients per course and all those ingredients have to go into your dish. So if I give you baby octopus, bok choy, Dijon mustard and gummy bears that's tough.
A lot of judges on cooking shows focus on knife skills. How important is that to the final dish?
TED: I think when you see judges talking about how good someone's knife skills are it says something about how much respect that chef has for his ingredients and his dedication to his education and practicing. On one hand, it might not seem like it would have any impact on the flavor whether your garlic was smashed or chopped in a clumsy way or diced into perfect little squares but on the other hand, one of the best, simple principles of getting all of your ingredients properly cooked is having everything cut to the same size.
Like if you were making a stir fry and you cut your carrots into a teeny little dice but left your broccoli in gigantic chunks it might not cook evenly. So there is some genuine flavor impact to that but mostly it's that when you see a dish come out where the knife work is just perfect it's an impressive sign of how dedicated that chef is to do their food honor....justice, beauty, truth, all that kind of thing.
I’ve read quite a few reviews online have said that Chopped is like Top Chef. Can you explain how it’s different?
TED: Why did I know that people were going to do that? And the really funny thing is that there are a lot of bloggers out there with extrasensory perception, evidently, because I should point out the show has never been broadcast yet. I was alluding to this before, there is shockingly a large number of cooking contest shows out there now, and it isn’t even just on cable.
Obviously, Hell’s Kitchen is on Fox, which is sort of a network, not counting the news part. And there’s a new one coming out, I think it’s in D.C. with Marco Pierre White, who is the great three-star Michelin chef who trained Mario Batali, who has an ego the size of, you know, Texas. Bad example. I should’ve said something European.
Our show is different from all of those shows. Well, first of all, I think all of those shows have their own character and I think Chopped very definitely has its own vibe. It’s mainly different in that all of our episodes are self-contained. So we have four chefs in each episode, one person wins, takes $10,000 and goes home. It’s also different in a sense that it’s strictly a cooking contest, there’s really no reality component to it. So they don’t live together and we don’t take away their phone. They’re just there for one day to cook three courses and leave if they’re lucky. Some only get to cook one course and then they have to leave.
But I guess I should acknowledge that Magical Elf, who are the people who have made Runway and Top Chef, and several other shows, that they definitely are influential on all kinds of television because they’re so good at what they do. I don’t know, but I’ll let you guys judge for yourselves. When you watch Chopped, I think you’ll see it’s got its own thing going on.
What are the details and criteria for the three-course meals the contestants have to prepare?
TED: The rules are pretty simple. You can do whatever you want, but for each course, there is a basket of mystery ingredients. That can range anywhere from three to five things and you have to use all of them in your dish. You can use a little bit, you can use a lot. It’s not like on Iron Chef where you have to make one of them the focal point. But I have to say it’s really difficult to cook with when you have to use all five things or all three things. They might not necessarily seem to go together in an obvious way. We’re not going to give you like Soba noodles, salmon, ginger, and soy sauce.
It’s never going to be that simple, and then you only have thirty minutes to think of the dish, execute the dish and plate the dish. It’s actually really, really hard. But some people manage to pull it off.
Unlike Top Chef, the contestants on Chopped are stuck with using the mystery ingredients. Is that fact weighed in the judging?
TED: I should add that in addition to the mystery ingredients, the contestants have access to a pretty nice pantry full of fruits, vegetables, spices and dairy stuff, cheese and what not. So, they don't only get those five ingredients. They certainly get all the oils and spices they would probably need. However, we were about a third into the shooting schedule when the Food Network Culinary Department (they help design the challenges and stock the pantry) thought it needed to be harder. So just, for example, let's say we had a mystery basket that did have Asian type ingredients they made a point of removing from the pantry those items which those components would have led you to. So a basket full of Asian ingredients means there's no soy sauce in the pantry. They do want to make life difficult. It's not a challenge if it's not hard.
What are Ted Allen's top 3 secret ingredients?
TED: Ah, that's a hard one. The first one's no secret: pork. I talk about that all the time. I found a sleeper ingredient in cauliflower, which I could never stand as a kid. Lately, I've been roasting it until browned on the edges a little bit. I'm digging that. But probably my favorite one is black beans. Which is great in these impoverished times since black beans cost about 6 to 9 cents and have a lot of protein in them. My partner's mom got me a pressure cooker and now I can cook black beans without waiting hours to soak. They are a really good vehicle for a lot of other flavors: chipotle and bacon and I'm just crazy for them.
Another would be...it's kind of the 'it' ingredient right now...salt. Different kinds of salt. It seems like every fancy restaurant in New York right now seems to be serving food on top of blocks of pink Himalayan salt. They're using the salt as the plate. Picture a 12- by 12-inch square of pink salt that's two inches thick. It looks like a piece of stone. You can serve food on that and if you want your food to be saltier just swirl it around on it. I guess it kind of makes sense: what's more important than salt? It's the most important thing in cooking.
Is it true that you won't be on Iron Chef America or Top Chef anymore?
TED: Isn't that terrible. Naturally, I'm kind of wistful about that. On both Top Chef and Iron Chef I appeared at least once in every season of their first four seasons. The very first episodes of Iron Chef America were shot in L.A. with people like Wolfgang Puck in a gigantic sound stage and that's where I got to do my first guest judging. It was wonderful. I was really kind of fortunate being allowed to appear on these two competing networks. They usually don't let you get away with that. It was also fortunate for me when Queer Eye finished I had a presence both on Bravo and Food Network. It kind of kept me visible on both those networks while I went shopping around trying to find a show of my own. One thing I've realized is shows take a long time to percolate and are harder to sell than magazine stories, which is what I used to sell. So it gave me the ability to sit back and wait for the right thing to come along. But when it did (from the Food Network) I knew all along that I wouldn't be able to keep working on both networks. So was I going to be a judge on half of somebody else's show or host two of my own shows? I found that to be a pretty easy call.
Were there any particular guest judges you were excited to meet? And is there anybody you would like to see a judge in the future?
TED: I was really excited about all of them. I've met most of them before on one or another of these shows. You never can tell how good people are going to be at this judging business. Food Network knows a lot about picking people that ARE good at it because they had to find judges for Iron Chef and find them for so many years that they've learned. It's not hard to find people who know food. But to talk about food and be funny once and while or charming or staggeringly good looking, such as myself...that was a joke, obviously...is actually difficult to find people that can do those things.
I have to give it up to Alex Guarnaschelli. In addition to being staggeringly beautiful and really knowledgeable about food, she's hilarious. I've never heard anybody who could mix metaphors the way Alex does. She'll say something like...Well, chef, you kind of put the key into the ignition and pulled out of the driveway but then you put it into reverse. I don't know, it was like you were trying to pat me on the head but you messed up my hairdo. She really talks that way.
What makes for a good contestant on this show as opposed to Top Chef?
TED: Actually you know, one of the things that have made Top Chef so good is the same thing that makes our show so good: casting. It's something that all of these networks really have to learn how to do well. I was talking to someone at Food Network earlier today about this. You are looking for people obviously that can cook. You want people that can cook really well but these are television shows. You need people that are also interesting. I don't want to see people that are performers or are fake. You need people who are actually interesting as people. The casting is so tricky because somebody can come into an audition and seem like they're fascinating but then just fall apart on camera. I think the kinds of people we want cooking here are not that different from what our friends at Top Chef want. We are both looking for people who are sort of mid-level cooks or new in their careers, generally younger. The people you see on Iron Chef are masters at the top of their game. But the pressure isn't on us to find people who are lunatics. All we ask of them is to cook. Whatever panic or drama or bloodshed that happens on Chopped is based on whether you can cook something well or not.
What type of food are you into right now?
TED: What I'm into right now is food that I can cook on a hotplate or in a microwave oven. I've actually been doing quite well. I have a microwave that is also a convection oven so you can cook real stuff in it. I've been roasting chickens and making baked ziti. On my cooktop, I've been doing risotto. Last night I did a chicken, broccoli, cauliflower and carrots with pasta in a broth that I reduced down. You don't need a fancy kitchen to cook well. It just makes it a lot more fun.
Catch more of Ted Allen on the Food Network. Chopped and Food Detectives.