But most people would sooner die than dish up risotto -- or even cold cereal -- for a celebrity chef or Food Network Star. Unless, of course, you're talking about Ted Allen, who may well be the most down-to-earth culinary celebrity on the planet. He's the kind of guy you'd invite to a backyard barbecue, knowing that even if you scorched the ground chuck, he'd gently guide you to gourmet glory.
The longtime Esquire food columnist sprang into the public's consciousness as the food and wine guru on Bravo TV's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" in 2003, helping clueless guys impress their dates by teaching them to whip up simple, but impressive fare. These days, you know him as the affable host of Food Network's "Chopped" -- a role that just earned him a James Beard award -- and frequent "Top Chef" guest judge. And he has a new cookbook out, "In My Kitchen: 100 Recipes and Discoveries for Passionate Cooks" (Clarkson Potter, $35, 272 pages).
We caught up with Allen midway through his book tour -- and on the eve of his San Francisco appearances.
Were you one of those kids who could wield a whisk at age 2?
Not quite 2, but my mom always encouraged us to cook. Most kids like to cook. It's fun to play with food -- and so many kids watch Food Network now.
Your background is in journalism. How did you get from there to "Chopped"?
I was an editor of Chicago magazine's books section, and I was given the chance to become a restaurant critic. I fell in love with food and cooking, chefs and the culture of restaurants. It's immensely interesting to eat a meal and analyze how good it was, whether it's fancy food or a hoagie, whether the chef was doing something original, cooking with love -- or was a charlatan.
A friend told me about the auditions for "Queer Eye" in New York, and I figured I'd audition, not get the part, nobody would pick up the show and we'd go home and laugh about it. Things went differently.
That's for sure. It snowballed from there?
When "Queer Eye" was at its peak, it was the first season of "Iron Chef America," and they asked if I would guest judge one time in L.A. I loved it -- got to interview Wolfgang Puck. The first season of "Top Chef," they also asked me to guest judge. I've always considered it part of my job to translate complex food -- "Gastrique is a French term for what is basically a sweet-and-sour sauce" -- and it endeared me to Food Network. So when "Queer Eye" went away, I was able to maintain a presence on television on two networks.
Including seven seasons of "Chopped."
Who knew? And it just won two James Beard awards. It has been a very happy trajectory.
Aw, you're so modest. One of those awards was yours -- for best media personality/host. So what's the premise behind "In my Kitchen"?
This is a book about loving to cook, about hungering to be in the kitchen. Turn up the stereo, blast the tunes, invite friends, have a bushel of herbs, pork -- I'm trying to pass along the passion and love that I feel for feeding people and cooking with friends. There's nothing I'd rather be doing -- almost.
It's an eclectic mix -- comfort food, Thai curry, cassoulet, fresh and seasonal fare. How did you choose which recipes made the cut?
Each of these recipes reflects what I've cooked the last few years and contains some little kernel of knowledge or technique I've learned. The original title was "The Kitchen Adventure," but the title we ended up with invites you into my house and my kitchen.
And the photos take us into your backyard, your market, your life.
That was my goal. That really is our life -- that is our farmers market. And the photos! There's a double spread of radicchio that has been roasted with thyme and lemon. My god, that would make a great wallpaper. I just asked them to make me a 2-foot-by-4-foot print to hang in the kitchen.
You've got some intriguing combinations in the book -- bruschetta with strawberries and tomatoes, for example.
They go together beautifully, and it's a fun and inspiring thing, fun to serve people without telling them. They say (Allen's voice drops an octave and takes on tones of mystified wonderment) _ "What is that flavor? Strawberry?"
I had this dish of heirloom tomatoes with ripe peaches and stracciatella (mozzarella), drizzled with aged balsamic and a nice estate olive oil. It was so wonderful, I ended up eating peaches and tomatoes all summer! They're juicy and sexy and beautiful and tangy. That's the kind of epiphany I'm talking about. Everyone says there are no new things under the sun, but it was new to me.
There's this crazy good butterscotch pots de creme that is just incredibly wonderful. Mmmm _ with scotched pecans. Ohhhh, that is really good. The spaghetti and meatballs _ that's a recipe that goes through my discovery of what true Italian Sunday gravy is and the fact that tomato sauce is clearly a supporting actor. And I love my turkey burgers.
The following are from "In My Kitchen," by Ted Allen with Barry Rice.
BRUSCHETTA WITH STRAWBERRY AND TOMATO SALAD
Makes 10 to 15 hors d'oeuvres
1 cup diced fresh ripe strawberries
1 cup diced grape tomatoes
1 small garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons thinly sliced basil leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, sliced on the diagonal, 1/2 inch thick
1. In a medium bowl, combine the strawberries, tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Let rest for 30 minutes, stirring now and then.
2. Heat an outdoor or indoor grill or grill pan to medium-high. Spread out the sliced bread on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Transfer to the grill, and toast the bread until golden all over, 2 or 3 minutes per side. Arrange on a platter.
3. Cover the warm grilled bread slices with a generous layer of strawberry-tomato salad. Serve immediately.
BUTTERSCOTCH POTS DE CREME WITH SCOTCHED PECANS
Pots de creme:
3 cups heavy cream
3 2-inch strips lemon zest
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons Scotch whisky
6 large egg yolks
Lightly sweetened whipped cream, optional
1 cup pecans
2 tablespoons Scotch whisky
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Put the cream, lemon zest, vanilla bean and seeds, salt and cardamom in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, remove pan from heat and set aside to steep.
2. In another saucepan, heat butter and brown sugar over medium heat until it starts to bubble. Stir in the 3 tablespoons Scotch; cook until whiskey evaporates, 1 minute.
3. Put the egg yolks in a bowl and add a little of the butter-sugar mixture, whisking to temper the yolks. Add more, bit by bit, and whisk until incorporated. Strain cream mixture into bowl; whisk to combine.
4. Put 8 4-ounce ramekins in a large roasting pan, leaving space between. Fill ramekins with the cream mixture. Pour hot tap water into pan to come halfway up the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then remove foil and bake until just set, about 35 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, put an ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat and add all the scotched pecan ingredients. Cook until the Scotch evaporates. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast the pecans until deep golden, 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
6. Carefully remove the pots de creme from the oven -- watch for sloshing water -- and let cool in the pan for at least 40 minutes. Wrap in plastic and chill. When ready to serve, top with dollops of whipped cream and a few pecans.