The first time many of us met him was in his role as one of the 'fab five'--the food and wine expert on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
But Allen had already spent years reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine. In other words, the Purdue psychology grad knew his stuff--something he's proven as a judge on Iron Chef America and Top Chef, as well as host of Chopped and Food Detectives on the Food Network.
On May 8 he will be at Taste of Addison as part of the Robert Mondavi 'Discover Wine' Tour, participating in a food and wine experience, answering questions and running a cooking demonstration.
Good stuff. But if you ask him about habaneros...
1. Purdue sounds like a good place to study because there's nothing else to do in Lafayette. Is that true? That's absolutely correct. But it's kind of a pretty part of the state. There's a river dividing Lafayette and West Lafeyette, so there's a little topography--which is very unusual for Indiana north of Bloomington. But it's a fine university. I probably should have gone to Indiana--they have a journalism school and the bars are better. But I had a ball and at the time, there was a thriving post punk scene. I was even in a band.
2. Let's see--Top Chef, Iron Chef. Do they all run together? It's kind of hard for me to remember specific episodes. The conversations at the judges table are so long. There are like 9,000 possible things you could look for. Meanwhile it's television and the producers don't want you to take that time--time is money. It really does run together. But I also really love doing it. It's complicated and that's what makes it fascinating. There's no way to fake it.
3. Did you ever cringe at some of the dishes you had to judge? I don't know that I've ever cringed on Iron Chef, because the level of chef that makes it on that show is so high. The question is whether it's unbelievably delicious. Now, Top Chef and Chopped, you're talking about younger chefs. And they don't always get to do what they want. The point is what are you going to do if I give you ginger snaps, grapefruit, gin.
4. Queer Eye was fun. But do you still look at straight guys and want to help out? Well, I'm glad it's not my job anymore. But I think most of us see some people who could use improvement. I mean, the show sounds superficial, but it was really profound in that most of the people we made over really changed their lives.
5. Which do you like better, print or television? Um, well--given the way the advertising market is working right now, television. But the people who work in print are much more my type of people. I was in an MBA program. I hated it and quit after half a semester. I got a job in Lafayette at Gannett and I loved it. I felt at home. I've never had more fun at work than at Chicago magazine. But I also love doing food on TV. I love being around chefs.
6. OK, but which is more glamorous? Certainly on the surface that would be TV, because you're on TV--and because you're on TV everybody thinks you're Puff Daddy. But if I go to a doctor and have to fill out one of those personal information forms, I always put 'writer' as my occupation.
7. Can you believe the fascination Americans now have with food? I'm certainly happy about it. I'm especially excited about having a president who is so interested in food. They are going to have a White House garden. When is the last time that's happened? America has been in a food renaissance for decades now. It started slowly, with Julia Child. But once it becomes the norm, how can we ever go back? It's fantastic. My parents' generation was looking for a way to make cooking go away. Now we have many generations of people who like to do the cooking.
8. Yes, but that means if you make a mistake, people notice--right? I was writing a blog entry and made the mistake of saying habaneros were the same as Scotch bonnets. I had 30 people saying I'm a moron. But they are similar. They're f'n hot.
9. Is there anything we haven't tasted? There's always something we haven't tasted. That's what's so great about this. It's a big world.
10. What is your favorite way to waste time? I don't think of it as a waste, but I saw an interview where a big Hollywood star said he liked sitting on the sofa with the Sunday New York Times and his dog for hours. That's my favorite thing to do--although we don't have a dog; we have two old cats. But I'm going to do that in two days. I can't wait.