Ted Allen is mostly the straight man – in the comedic sense – on the television reality show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." And that’s a shame, because he is a truly funny man. His role on the program is to give sound guidance to totally clueless men on how to prepare a simple yet impressive meal that will endear them to their under-appreciated girlfriends or wives. Meanwhile, Carson Kressley, who gives wardrobe advice, is the center of the program’s kibbitzing.
But never mind. Allen is delighted to have been given a chance to begin a show business career at age 37. "Queer Eye," which starts its fourth season in December, was a hit from the beginning. In addition to dishing out hip tips on food and clothing, it gallops through each hour in a madcap whirl, guiding its universally pleasant, yet totally hapless, "clients" through the basics of interior design, dining in and dining out, grooming, and the social graces.
The show and the celebrity lifestyle it has conferred upon its five stars is demanding, but Allen still has time to display his wit in articles for Esquire, where he is a long-time contributing editor, and even in his just completed his first book, "The Food You Want to Eat." Allen will be signing the book, and talking food, at Barnes & Noble MarketFair on Wednesday, November 16.
The cookbook is a collection of recipes for good-looking, great tasting, easy-to-prepare food, and is liberally laced with a running commentary on the basics of stocking a kitchen, choosing cooking tools, gathering ingredients, putting together meals, and choosing accompanying wines. Writing about butter, Allen says: "Ask any professional chef: Even in this diet-obsessed culture, butter is probably the single most important ingredient in a cook’s arsenal. Sure, too much of it will kill you. So will too much yoga." This pithy commentary makes the cookbook not only a good source of recipes, but also a great read.
In his writing, no matter what the topic, there is the sense that Allen can’t help being funny. He starts out seriously enough, and then veers off. In a November article for Esquire on "The Laws of Dining," he starts off with guidance on how to get a great table at a restaurant with the sensible advice to "become a regular, learn the hosts’ names, and tip well." Several bullet points later, he writes, "Advice to those who order steak well-done: Stop ordering steak, because you don’t actually like it."
In a travel advice article, also for Esquire, he is moving along, giving tips on getting a good seat on an airline, and opining that "Ireland is precisely as beautiful as New Zealand, and much, much closer." Then, several paragraphs later, he throws in, "In the lexicon of rental cars, the English word ‘economy’ translates to ‘three-cylinder Korean death box.’"
That last point about the car displays Allen’s confidence and authoritative voice – essentials in anyone giving advice on anything. It also sums up his view of life – probably not coincidentally – that permeates the "Queer Eye" show, which implores the men it makes over to abandon their sleep-walking ways and to become alive to all of life’s joys. "Regarding post-vacation depression," writes Allen, "shut up, open your mail, and be glad that you had a vacation."
A print journalist all his adult life, Allen is humble in acknowledging how amazing it is to find oneself a television star. When coaxed, however, he does admit that there are a couple of drawbacks. His book tour is a mostly pleasant experience, but it can be a grind. "I was just in Chicago for four days," he says. "I worked from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day." Then there is the constant attention, some of it rude and intrusive.
He had this to say in an Esquire article written shortly after "Queer Eye" had made him a star: "Are you considering a career in the new field of gay-reality-makeover cable television? Good for you, tiger! Suddenly, you’ll notice people hollering things at you from across the street like ‘(your name), Miami loves you!’ and my favorite, ‘Do my husband!’ It’s a super feeling."
Asked about how annoying attention like this can be, he quickly brushes it aside. "It’s a little exhausting," he says, "but you’re nowhere without fans. Really, it’s a privilege. I don’t like it when people whine about being a celebrity."
There are concrete celebrity perks too. "The best part of being recognized is that it’s very helpful in getting a table in New York City on a Saturday night," says the Chelsea resident. "It’s a very competitive sport. Also, flight attendants recognize us, and will bump us up to the front."
A native of Columbus, Ohio – "I was the first person in my family born a Yankee" – Allen grew up in Indianapolis, where his father was a CPA at a Big Six accounting firm and his mother was a music teacher. The family was originally from the South, and retained a southern bent at the table.
Did everyone in his family cook? "Oh, yes, everyone," he says. "Well, not my dad, but all the women." The food was relatively simple, he says, recalling that the family went to dinner at a friend’s house at one point in his youth, and were all mightily impressed by the entree – beef Wellington, the height of gourmet cooking circa 1975. He says he did cook when he was growing up, but not necessarily at his mother’s elbow. "When I wanted to cook, I just sort of took over," he says. "She stepped out of the way."
Praising his mother as a great cook, Allen says he hates it that she is now somewhat intimidated by him. People tend to be nervous about their culinary efforts when there is a professional chef around, he finds, and it bothers him that he makes his mother nervous in the kitchen.
While he has long enjoyed cooking, Allen didn’t start out to be a chef, cookbook author, or food writer. He studied psychology at Purdue, from which he earned his bachelor’s degree, and went on to New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism. After a stint at a community newspaper, he got a job at Chicago magazine, where he edited the front of the book and did all sorts of stories, ranging from humorous shorts to in-depth features. The magazine is "the culinary Bible of Chicago," says Allen, and so he had a number of opportunities to interview chefs, attend tastings, and write restaurant reviews. He says that his work at the magazine was the inspiration behind his choice of food writing as a career direction.
Moving on to Esquire, and writing for a number of other national publications, he wrote on everything from bacon as a health food ("Not just for supermodels anymore!") to a guy who was famed for opening champagne bottles with a sabre. The sabre guy, it turns out, sealed the deal on his "Queer Eye" gig.
"’Queer Eye’ had a casting call," he says. "The producers said they wanted the show to be a cross between ‘Will and Grace,’ ‘Trading Spaces,’ and Esquire. They realized the show had to be funny, but wanted it to be full of service information." With a fat folder of Esquire clips, many of them offering advice on food, fashion, travel, and relationships – generally with a funny twist – Allen was a perfect candidate to become one of the Fab Five. His interview went well, and he capped it off by opening a champagne bottle with a sword. "That really got them!" he says.
An accomplished writer, Allen was a 2001 finalist for the National Magazine Award for an in-depth article on male breast cancer. He would like to do more magazine features, but says that right now, "I’m too busy to read a novel."
‘Queer Eye" has altered his career direction. "It’s opened a lot of doors," he says. There is the cookbook, of course, and appearances on the popular cooking show "The Iron Chef." He has also recently been named spokesman for Robert Mondavi wines.
Allen has a brand new gourmet kitchen to go along with all of his food-related work. It was designed by his partner, Barry Rice. "We’ve been together for 12-and-a-half years," he says. "That’s like 50 years in straight time." Rice had been a magazine writing instructor at Columbus College in Chicago and is now on the brink of opening his new interior design firm, Barry Rice Designs. The couple live in a large Chelsea loft – "Original, huh?" quips Allen of his neighborhood, which is famous for its gay culture. The pair share their home with "two very beautiful, very useless cats," Maggie and Big Daddy.
Despite his career as a food and wine expert, and now as a cookbook author, Allen doesn’t cook as much as he would like. This is especially frustrating now that the new Viking kitchen, situated in the middle of his loft, is ready to go. "It was finished just as my book tour began," he says. "I only had time to cook Barry one meal – bacon, eggs, and pancakes. The stove has a built-in grill." But he will be home for Thanksgiving, for five days, the longest home stretch in his two-month tour. He plans to give the kitchen a workout then.
"The Food You Want to Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes," talk and booksigning by Ted Allen, the food and wine connoisseur on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Wednesday, November 16, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. 609-716-1570.