As the host of the Food Network show “Chopped,” the one where competing cheftestants are assigned wacky ingredients and tasked with melding them into restaurant-worthy dishes, Ted Allen has seen his share of dubious combinations.
But two things he’s sure go together? Kids and college. When he’s not ordering chefs to open their baskets, he’s volunteering as an ambassador for Reach Higher, former first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative aimed at encouraging high-schoolers to get college degrees.
Allen, who left behind a career in journalism when he was cast as the food expert in the original “Queer Eye,” was in Washington last week for a dinner at the Dupont Circle Hotel celebrating the group’s school counselors of the year. Before he dived into a power mingle of donors, former Obama administration officials and college advisers, we sat down with him to talk about why kids should go to college (spoiler: it’s not just about academics), the “dirty secret” lurking in his pantry and the sneaky way “Chopped” ups the drama.
How did you get involved with Reach Higher?
I told a friend in the PR department of Food Network that I would really like to cook at the White House Easter Egg Roll because I’d seen some of my colleagues doing it. And it happened in 2016 — I made toad-in-the-hole on this tiny stage for a group of children, which was fun.
So I was mingling with the cast of “Black-ish” and I was waiting in line behind Shaq to get my picture taken with the Obamas in the Blue Room. It was a very exciting, beautiful, wonderful day. And a guy from this organization corralled me on the way out and said, “Would you like to do an event celebrating an organization Michelle Obama has launched?”
Fast-forward to an armory with three or 4,000 screaming college-bound high school seniors. And Robert De Niro, and Aidy Bryant and Jay Pharoah from SNL were there. Common performed, and Mrs. Obama was there. And just the energy that radiated back — I don’t know if you ever had 4,000 high school kids screaming at you at once, but it’s pretty awesome. What I wish I had done with my life was to become a rock star. But I think the window on that has closed, and that might be as close as I get.
And I thought, What could be better? Many people are raised in families where there are no financial issues, where it’s just expected that you go to school, but a lot of families are not like that, and a lot of kids never dreamed that they could handle it academically or financially or whatever. So what a wonderful initiative this is to tell those kids out there that may not realize it: “Hey, you could do this. Your life could be a lot richer.” And I don’t even mean just financially. But financially, too.
So what about your college experience informs what you’re doing now? I am guessing you didn’t major in hosting a Food Network competition show.
I loved college so much that I think I spent five years at my undergrad school. I ridiculously dabbled in an MBA for about five seconds and realized that I hated that. But my teachers had always told me that I was good at writing, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll go into journalism, and I’ll take the lousy pay.” I found a grad school program at NYU, so then I fell in love with both journalism and New York City. And I finally figured out that magazines paid better than your average community weekly. . . . Wait, I’m not sure I answered your question.
What do you tell kids? What did college do for you that you think it could for them?
A college education opens a whole new world of possibilities for you, and not just in terms of your job. It gives you a chance to explore — things like history, or you might learn a language. Date a lot of people, have a lot of fun, go see some bands! I mean I kind of wish I was still in college. It was such fun. But I will say I also like getting paid.
Yeah, there’s that. So President Trump recently served fast food in the White House. What do you make of that?
There’s no way those burgers worked — they were freezing cold, right? Because the only way you could have done that would be to keep them in some sort of a heated appliance. So that was error number one. And then there were a lot of students from Clemson that chose not to attend those festivities, and I would have joined them in that response.
Clearly, you’re a political person. Who’s your candidate in 2020?
I’m baffled. It’s too soon to know. There are many wonderful candidates from my side of the aisle, but who knows who’s the most electable? It’s a tough one. Why is it always tough for my side? I mean, so many of them would be good at the job and work hard and go to work . . . maybe even earlier than 11 in the morning.
I have to ask you about “Queer Eye.” How is the reception to this iteration of the show different from the reception to the original version, and what does that tell you about where we’ve moved?
With the original “Queer Eye,” I will never forget watching Matt Lauer trying to wrap his mouth around the word “queer.” I didn’t like the word back then, and I actually asked the producers to change the name. They said no, and they were right, because the provocative quality that word carried back then was part of what got people’s attention and freaked them out. We were funnier, and I think these guys [in the new cast] are more about emotion.
Even though we had lots of laughs and made fun of people’s apartments and their porn and their bongs or whatever we’d find, it’s very powerful to have five people really care about you, which we did. We were soulful, genuine people, and so are the new guys. I don’t know if you know this, but Antoni Porowski [the current “Queer Eye” food expert] worked for me for three years.
Right, he was your assistant. So my colleague interviewed him for this same feature and asked him what he would serve President Trump, and he said “a subpoena.”
Haaa! Well played, young Antosh! Well played.
So what would you serve President Trump?
I don’t think I’d serve him anything.
Okay, you used to be a journalist who interviewed celebrities, so I’m going to ask you to do my job for me. What is a question that I could ask you that would be very revealing of your personality?
You’re assuming I have one.
I have my suspicions.
It’s always fun to ask people who are positioned as food authorities what their dirtiest secret is, food-wise, because everybody has them. So mine is — since I was at least in high school if not probably junior high — Lay’s sour cream and onion potato chips. I could house an entire bag, and they give you terrible breath. But I think they actually are all natural. Somehow.
I mean, if that doesn’t get me an endorsement deal, I don’t know what’s going on.
Okay, a “Chopped” question: Why the ice cream machine? Why do people use it when it’s, like, scientifically proven it will not work out? Does that say something about the human spirit, that we’re eternally hopeful?
It’s the indomitable human spirit and the belief that magic might still happen. You know, I thought you were going to ask why we only have one ice cream machine, because a lot of viewers think that’s terribly unfair. The truth is that it only takes six minutes to make ice cream — it’s quite simple to rinse it out and have other people use it.
Uh-huh. Wait, so you’re engineering conflict?
It’s about drama. It’s about tension.
I see your secrets.
We are never going to get a second ice cream machine.