Catching up with a friend years ago, I asked her about another mutual acquaintance of ours who I hadn't seen in a while: Ted Allen. 'Oh, he's in the running to be the food and wine expert for this new show on Bravo,' Kate said. 'Believe it or not, it's called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' The phenomenal success of Queer Eye and its five openly gay hosts ( a.k.a The Fab Five ) has been well documented. For Allen, who was a longtime Chicago resident and restaurant critic for Chicago magazine, it meant a move to New York ( with his longtime partner, Barry ) and more successes.
Allen is one of the judges on two reality programs, Iron Chef America'and Top Chef; acts as a spokesman for Robert Mondavi Private Selection Wines; and is the author of The Food You Want to Eat, a cookbook. In addition, he's hosting a new PBS six-part series, Uncorked: Wine Made Simple that explores the world's most 'storied beverage.' The series has just come to DVD ( on three separate discs ) and may return for another season. After Allen and I caught up for a bit we discussed Uncorked, the upcoming last season of Queer Eye and a few other items from his overflowing dance card.
Windy City Times: Tell me about Uncorked.
Ted Allen: It's basically Wine 101, an introduction as to how wine is made; a little bit of interesting history; and talking about how to taste it, how to pair it with food, how to enjoy it and not be overwhelmed by it. What I've always been interested in with everything from Queer Eye to Top Chef is trying to demystify complicated stuff like wine and fancy food and encourage people to have a good time with it.
WCT: For someone whose beverage of choice is Dr. Pepper—
TA: Which I think is delicious.
WCT: I've always wondered how long wine can really last. For example, could I still drink a bottle of wine that went down on the Titanic?
TA: It all depends on the kind of wine. I should say first of all that 99 percent of the wine that's sold in the States is intended to be drunk right away, so most of us are never going to need to bother worrying about aging wine or when the right time is to drink a wine. But to answer your question about a wine that went down with the Titanic: The corks in a bottle of wine tend to give way. If you store wine for 25 years or so, the chances of that cork giving way are really high and if you put that wine miles and miles under the ocean I would have to guess the chances are even higher. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Are friends and family just terrified when they try to make dinner for you?
TA: That's a good question. Most of my friends are not, because we all cook together and we've all cooked together for a long time and I know that I'm not really that much better of a cook than they are. But my mom is intimidated, which really bothers me. Whenever I go home she feels the need to try to make this multi-course, fancy thing and she's visibly nervous in the kitchen and I'm like, 'What are you doing?'
WCT: Well, what kind of food did you grow up with? Was it the basics or fancier?
TA: I grew up eating totally normal American Midwestern food like everybody else and it was never fancy. My family is not formal at all, but my mom sees me talking about truffles and fancy wines and stuff and then when I come home she gets nervous. It's weird how a semi-cable level celebrity can make people behave strangely but, in a way, I understand it.
WCT: Not when you have all those pots and pans to clean. Switching tracks for a moment, I found your comments in the recent New York magazine story on how disposable reality stars are quite interesting.
TA: The essential difference between 'reality stars' and the Fab Five on Queer Eye is that we were hosts of the show as opposed to being contestants.
There are two things going on with that. One is that all five of us were in every single of the 100 episodes we made and we don't get voted off the island. The other thing is that when you're the hosts of the show, the network has no [ part ] in ever making you look stupid. They wanted us to look like gay superheroes. Some of the things made us look a little stupid but it's not like someone who goes onto Top Chef and crashes and burns because they got stoned and stole food and sabotaged their competition. It's a totally different animal.
WCT: Are you ever prepped by producers when you do those shows to try and help make those 'accidents' happen? Are you told to make it harder on certain contestants?
TA: No, they would never do that. I know a lot of viewers suspect that these shows are rigged and that the producers tell us what to do. There actually are laws about competition shows that keep the producers playing by the book. While they are allowed to influence the outcome if they want to, I've never seen them do it. They tend to leave the judging up to Tom [ Colicchio ] and Padma [ Lakshmi ] and Gail [ Simmons ] , and myself.
WCT: That's good to know.
TA: Yes, but sometimes we have to make some decisions that are really hard for us. Recently, we had to vote off a popular contestant that we liked, Trey—a really nice guy that we thought might make it all the way to the end but he screwed up.
WCT: Uh-oh. A bad créme brulee, huh?
TA: Not that, but a bad bread pudding and a bad salmon dish. I often use a baseball metaphor but since we're talking to the gays today [ laughs ] , let's go with figure skating and say that if Johnny Weir wins every single competition and goes all the way to the nationals but if Tonya Harding smacks his knee before the final competition he's out.
WCT: Good analogy, Ted.
TA: It's a bit of a stretch. [ Laughs ]
WCT: We're counting down to the final season of Queer Eye, right?
TA: Yes, we have 10 never-seen episodes that will comprise our finale season, including one that is a very, very campy, over-the-top pageant. It's the opening episode, which I think is Nov. 1, and you're going to see a whole bunch of our favorite straight guys from the past come together in a delightful show that will feature us doing musical numbers and we actually have choreography—it's appalling.
WCT: That sounds like fun.
TA: I'm excited about it. We shot that a year ago in June and, while I still see my guys, I don't see them every day the way I used to so I've forgotten all about these episodes. I have no idea what happens in them so I can't wait to see how they turn out.
WCT: So what's next in your plan for domination of the food and beverage industry?
TA: Well, let's see: We have the finale of Top Chef 3 coming up on Oct. 3 in good old Chicago. We've shot the finale but we're unveiling the winner live from Chicago. That's going to be fun and then we go right into shooting Top Chef season four, which takes place in Chicago.
WCT: So you'll be here a lot?
TA: Yes, and I'm so excited because this has been a record year for Chicago restaurants. It's a great city for them to do Top Chef in and I'm thrilled.
WCT: What's the first thing you'll probably do when you come back to your old stomping grounds?
TA: I literally just got home from Chicago yesterday. I was there for a wedding. I always drive by my old houses in Lakeview and Edgewater and Rogers Park to see if they're keeping up with the weeding which they are not. [ Laughs ]
WCT: You and Bette Midler, the queen of composting, have to get out here.
TA: I know, right? We stayed with our friends Roger and Bill in Boystown, and probably my favorite thing that we did on this last visit was walk through Boystown and see that everything looks gorgeous and stop in at Unabridged, which is my favorite bookstore. I'm usually to be found lurking in their dirty book section. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Now that you're one of the relatively few gay celebrities, do you feel any of that tabloid backlash like you have to be careful about your public behavior?
TA: We're just on cable so the level of scrutiny is pretty easy to live with, but it is true that—especially if I'm talking to somebody who works for something like Gawker.com—some of those guys will really go for the jugular and you have to watch it. Also, I don't think I'd want to see a gossip item talking about how I was just emerging from the Ram. That could be a little embarrassing.
WCT: Being part of such an overtly gay show, do you feel like a spokesperson for our community? Is it a role that's been forced on you?
TA: I think that there are a lot of other people who are much more responsible and who have worked a lot harder as activists to talk about serious stuff in the gay community but one of the nicest things that's happened as a result of Queer Eye is the letters we get from gay kids talking about how having openly gay people on television has made it easier for them to come out to their parents. And lots of straight people liked Queer Eye, too, and I think that's only good. There were always the conservative queens in their blue blazers complaining that we were perpetuating stereotypes and I'm like, 'Oh, get over yourself.'
WCT: Because some of the stereotyping just happens to be true.
TA: Well, yes, I mean we weren't playing characters. Carson was playing Carson, I was playing me. If we were really going to perpetuate stereotypes we would've needed a florist and a flight attendant.
WCT: [ Laughs ] Ooooh Mary, this is sounding good!
TA: And a figure skater. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Okay, so when you go on these tours—because you're always going on tour with something you're promoting—have you ever had an incident where someone's come up and thrown anti-gay crap at you?
TA: I've had a couple of people yell 'faggot' or something across the street, but I don't even know that's because they recognize me. It's weird. During the whole life of the show people have only said nice things, and I think that's probably because if you're some hard right nut ball and you hate the gays, you probably just grit your teeth and keep walking. I was worried about that; I was afraid people would throw stones, but it hasn't happened.
WCT: I can see where that would be a concern. Okay, last question: Did you ever think when you were working at Lerner Newspapers on Belmont Avenue [ that ] your career would scale such impressive heights?
TA: Well, to the extent that it has, I'm very grateful. I had a lot of fun working for Lerner on Belmont. I look back on that job really fondly.