I spent my afternoon coffee break with the one and only Ted Allen. Okay, it was a phone interview, but I did have my coffee and pen in hand. I can tell you, FN readers, I am officially a “Ted head.” Below are some of your questions Ted answered, as well as a few additional questions I was hungry to ask.
FN Dish: Setting aside the dropped food and tasting with cooking spoons, what’s the most cringe-worthy thing you’ve seen in the Chopped kitchens so far?
TED ALLEN: If you’re talking about the issue of hygiene, something that really freaks me out is chefs who sweat profusely. It seems like the sweatiest ones are the ones who like to lean over the plate while they’re tinkering with it. We can’t put all the blame on the chefs because the Chopped kitchen gets really hot. The judges are sweating too, but they’re not cooking. So, I kind of think if you’re a chef who gets really juicy, maybe a headband, hat, doo-rag? Something?
FN Dish: Are the baskets of food selected based upon the chef contestants, or are they selected at random?
TA: Oh, that’s a good question. They’re not random. The basket ingredients are chosen by Food Network’s culinary department, and they are created long before FN knows who the chefs are going to be. Also, the staff that picks them has long tortured meetings in which they argue whether anything is possible with a given group of ingredients. They don’t want to make a basket that’s impossible, just incredibly difficult.
FN Dish: Why do you think women have been less successful than men on the show? Are there really so few female chefs out there?
TA: Another great question, and one that is dear to my heart. The percentage of chefs who are women in our country continues to be shockingly low. I recently had this conversation with Alex Guarnaschelli — she was guessing that maybe it’s 10 percent. The kitchen has a very macho hierarchy, hopefully better than what it was, but this is a field that for the most part is dominated by men. So, first of all there are far fewer female chefs available. Our casting department tries really hard to get them. We want all kinds of people on our show. I can tell you for sure I am always rooting for the women. Some of my favorite contestants have been women, notably Katie Rosenhouse. She was awesome! I promise you we have some good women winners this season — and some pretty exciting male flameouts.
FN Dish: When do we get to see you and the judges compete on Chopped?
TA: Oh, man! I’d probably cut my thumb off. I really don’t want to cook against Alex Guarnaschelli or Scott Conant, or any of them for that matter. I’m not a professional chef; I love to cook. I cook all the time; I write recipes, and I publish cookbooks. I know something about food but I’ve never had to work on a line. I’ve never had to churn out 400 covers, with people yelling at me. I’d be at something of a disadvantage. Maybe an April Fool’s episode?
FN Dish: Do you get to taste the food?
TA: This is the upside about transitioning from being a judge to being a host: I can the taste the food if I want to, but I don’t have to. So, I taste things that look really delicious or if something sounds really fascinating. Sometimes the dishes are scary, and I don’t have to eat them.
FN Dish: We’ve read that your Mom was a big influence on your interest in food, so does she tune in to Chopped or DVR it?
TA: Oh yeah, sure. She doesn’t like it when people are mean to one another. She just thinks people should be polite. On occasion she has found Alex a little tough.
FN Dish: It seems that most food competitions shows have either one of two extremes with their contestants: Either they are established home cooks or established restaurant chefs. So why put sous chefs or mid level cooks on Chopped?
TA: I look at our contestants as the people who are actually behind the stove truly cooking your food for you day in and day out. They’re the ground troops of the culinary world. Most of the chefs who make it to Iron Chef are at the top of their game. Also, those chefs are at a point in their career where they are overseeing the kitchen. Now of course they still have their chops, but that’s one of the things that make our show different.
FN Dish: Do you and the judges wonder what you’d do with the ingredients when baskets are revealed?
TA: Yeah, that’s the first thing we do after the basket opens. I go back to the chopping block and we talk about what would you do? What could you do? What would be the smart thing to do? What be a disastrous mistake? What always seems to happen is the chefs resort to putting yellow and red bell peppers all over the plate because they like the color of them or something. I would urge them not to do that. Our judges are so sick of bell peppers. Most of our judges don’t even like bell peppers. Find something else that’s red — a radish?