Ted Allen knows the difference between a Scotch Bonnet and a Habanero. He does now, anyway.
Thanks to the intrepid readers of his “Top Chef” blog, which can be found at BravoTV.com/blog/TedAllen, he won’t mistake one for the other as he did a few weeks ago when he chastised a since-eliminated contestant for never having heard of the Scotch Bonnet.
“I got [crap] about that for weeks,” Allen says. (They are both in the same species of chili pepper but have distinct flavors.)
But he’s enjoying the rabid reaction to Bravo’s culinary competition, either way.
In fact, life post-"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” for the foodie fifth of the original Fab Five has been one satisfying meal after another. He’s got the highest profile of the quintet these days, and his face is now ubiquitous with food TV fans, from recurring judging gigs on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” along with his own PBS series, “Uncorked: Wine Made Simple.”
“Eating the food of good chefs and complaining about it on TV. It ain’t bad,” Allen says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn.
It’s a busy life but a welcome relief after several grueling seasons of “Queer Eye.” “Each episode took a week to shoot, so really, you couldn’t do anything else, which was sometimes frustrating. It made it hard to write books or make any other appearances,” he says. (Note to die-hard “Queer Eye” fans: The series will begin its final season Oct. 2 on Bravo with 10 new episodes.)
Meanwhile, “Top Chef” is enjoying a first-ever Emmy nomination for outstanding reality competition series and bigger audiences than ever. The show is watched by an average of 2 million people, up 28% from the same point in Season 2, and last week’s episode won the 10 p.m. period on cable.
The only pitfall of Allen’s “Top Chef” gig, one might be surprised to know, is the occasional all-nighter. Turns out brawls are a-brewin’, and not just between the contestants. There has been more than one heated argument at the judges’ table, and the debates that appear to last moments on camera have actually gone on for hours.
During a recent taping, Allen and fellow judges Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi discussed the merits of the contestants under the ax until 5:30 a.m. “I’m not complaining,” Allen says. “I feel bad for the contestants.” They, after all, are relegated to “The Stew Room,” where they await the judges’ final decision after each challenge.
But yes, real fights have broken out. “Many of the decisions have been agonizingly difficult,” Allen says. “We’ve got a higher level of competition than before.”
Still, at the end of last week’s episode, the chef-testants, as Allen calls them, had been given a reprieve from a disastrous edition of Restaurant Wars, a once-a-season challenge in which two teams establish, decorate and open a restaurant within a 24-hour period.
It’s a tall order for even the most accomplished of chefs, and each operation had its share of woes. One team, who founded Restaurant April, tastefully decorated their place but suffered from poor service. Their competition, the Garage, soared in front-of-the-house skills, but the team made the crucial error of burning vanilla-scented candles in the restaurant, a fatal error according to the judges.
Allen says that even within the tougher-than-normal confines of a reality TV challenge, Restaurant Wars is his favorite week during the season. “The show isn’t called ‘It’s Easy to Be a Chef.’ Restaurant Wars is a difficult challenge, but also not. They have an ample budget, and we’re not asking them to cook with Cheetos or Coke. They only need to cook the food they love and serve it to people. You get to see what these people are really about.”
Allen, who got his master’s degree in journalism at New York University and studied environmental and science research reporting, found his own love for food as an editor at Chicago magazine, the city’s “restaurant bible.” “I found myself being sent out to interview chefs and attend tastings. I began pitching in with reviews and just really fell in love with it all,” he says.
Tonight the teams will remount their operations in a never-before second chance for the group. And they’ll get a surprise visit from Season 1’s self-important sommelier, Stephen Asprinio.
The season concludes in a first-ever live finale this fall, but Allen reveals his favorites. “I would love to see Trey go all the way. He uses bold flavors, and he’s a great guy.” He pauses and quickly adds, “But I also think Dale, Hung, Casey and CJ are people to watch.”
And hot-headed Howie? “I don’t mind that he cooks pork all the time. If you wanna make ‘em happy, give ‘em bacon.”
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When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)