All eyes on foodie Ted Allen

The Baltimore Sun

Food personality Ted Allen suavely - but not too suavely - swirls his Chardonnay. The golden wine sloshes and his Baltimore audience - an enthusiastic, if not inebriated, crowd at last weekend's Chefs and Wine Experience event - eats up his tucked-out shirt, his self-deprecating jokes, his instruction delivered like friendly advice.

Feeling comfortable, a woman interrupts Allen's wine primer with a question: "How do you know," she asks, "when you have a discerning palate?"

Allen deadpans: "That's a nice way of saying, 'What on earth entitles you to judge anything?'"

Though Allen, 43, has forged a name for himself as a culinary expert, as the bespectacled food specialist on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, as a judge on both Iron Chef America and Top Chef, and as the author of a cookbook, he's never been to culinary school, never cooked professionally, never owned a restaurant.

On his new show Food Detectives, which debuts July 29 on the Food Network, Allen will investigate the truth of food myths - like whether an apple a day keeps the doctor away or if swallowed gum really takes seven years to digest.

In the first episode, which was filmed in Baltimore's Little Italy, chef Jerry Pellegrino of South Baltimore's Corks is asked to make the hottest hot wings he can muster so that Allen's team can try to cool mouth fire. Also, a Johns Hopkins biologist will help Allen test the five-second rule regarding dropped food.

All of this suggests Allen's lack of foodie street cred is hardly holding him back. He's unapologetically turned talking about food into not only a covetable skill, but a nice living.

His success follows the evolution of food television from simply how to cook a chicken to entertainment, complete with reality shows, drama and comic relief.

"I know some things about food," he said in an interview, "but more importantly, I can taste things and quickly articulate what's going on."

You'll never catch Allen calling a dish simply delicious or good. He's a paid professional - It's "this is very creamy," he says. "Or, the flavor of the thyme is really coming out or the asparagus went really well with the blah, blah, blah."

Before Queer Eye became a cable hit, Allen worked as a journalist writing for Esquire magazine. He wrote about food and wine, but also about things like male breast cancer. He earned his first food-related paycheck at Chicago magazine, where he was part of a team of restaurant critics.

He's also just a guy who really enjoys food. This past Saturday, which he calls his first day off in a long time and his last for a while, he hit his neighborhood farmer's market in Brooklyn and brought home zucchini blossoms, gooseberries and purslane for a summer salad.

On Top Chef, he's known as the nice judge, or, as he puts it, "the Paula," referring to the American Idol judge who loves pretty much everything. He doesn't appreciate the comparison, pointing out there's a difference between critical and impolite.

"It's the height of rudeness to sit there and be sarcastic and flippant about someone's art," he says. "Unless they're charlatans or frauds."

He adds: "I'm not going to say, 'Your dish looks like a plateful of vomit,' though sometimes it does. That's why God made Anthony Bourdain."

But even Allen's seasoned palate doesn't tolerate just anything. He's not impressed with ostrich, rattlesnake or other purposely provocative foods. He's not much for organ meat. And he really, really hopes you never serve him pig's feet.

Iron Chef Mario Batali served Allen both his best and worst reality show dish.

The best? A spaghetti carbonara served in a hollowed-out parmesan wheel.

The worst? An undercooked langoustine that Allen, in his best judge words, recalls as "slimy" and "gelatinous."

As quick as he is with the opinions, Allen knows when to stop working.

As in-demand as his judging skills are, he's pretty sure his shtick isn't welcome everywhere.

"Do you really think your friends and spouse want you to pick apart everything that's in front of you?" he says, shaking his head. "You better not try this at home."

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