Ted Allen is having the best summer ever.
A few months ago, the celebrity chef and host of Food Network’s “Chopped” learned that he and the show’s judges were being honored by the James Beard Foundation at its 21st annual “Chefs & Champagne New York” tasting event on Saturday, July 21, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack.
But he felt suspicious.
“We already knew we were nominated for two James Beard Foundation awards for ‘Chopped,’ so I figured it either meant we weren’t going to win the awards and this was a very nice consolation prize, or that we were going to win both of the awards and the James Beard Foundation was providing me with the greatest summer ever,” Mr. Allen said during a telephone interview last week. “And the right answer turned out to be ‘B.’”
In addition to winning the Beard awards, this weekend Mr. Allen and the “Chopped” judges—who include Maneet Chauhan, Scott Conant, Amanda Freitag, Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sanches, Chris Santos and Geoffrey Zakarian—will join the ranks of Emeril Lagasse, Martha Stewart and Wolfgang Puck, all of whom have been honored in years past.
And just like during the past two decades of “Chefs & Champagne,” hundreds of foodies will turn out to taste the creations of 30 master chefs who will be whipping up their specialties under an expansive white tent and pairing them with wines from Wölffer Estate and Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte.
Mr. Allen said that in addition to just enjoying the event that combines his passions, he’s got an agenda come Saturday.
“Two of my favorite things in the world, chefs and champagne,” Mr. Allen said. “What isn’t there to like? I particularly hope to run into Ina Garten. She’s been
a favorite for ages. It seems like a good opportunity to bump into Martha Stewart, whom I’ve learned more from than anyone else on the planet.”
The man who gained a national audience as the food and wine connoisseur on Bravo’s hit show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” received his introduction to cooking in his mother’s kitchen in Ohio. Always called the first Yankee of the family because all of his relatives are from the South, Mr. Allen lived off “classical Americana,” he said. He became a master of pizza, elaborate hamburgers and cake-from-the-box—nothing too ambitious, he said.
After earning a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, he jumped into restaurant criticism, which eventually led him to Chicago magazine, where he wrote about food and wine.
He fell in love with restaurants—their chefs and their culture, he said. Not long after, he broke into the television industry.
“I used to say when we were shooting ‘Queer Eye’ on Bravo that I was the luckiest of the five guys,” he said. “My category was food and wine. Food and wine is absolutely limitless. You could live 20,000 lifetimes and you’ll never taste everything, but it sure is fun trying.”
These days, Mr. Allen is constantly exploring, and judging, new foods on the set of “Chopped,” he said. And it’s a job he doesn’t take lightly.
“I find it endlessly fun and interesting to talk about and think about and debate about which chefs did the better job,” he said. “Some reviewers do it because they want free food or they’re just jerks and like to trash other people. I’ve never been either a critic or a judge who uses snappy catch phrases to sound like Simon Cowell. I’ve always tried to open the door to people to fine cooking and to wine, as opposed to showing off how brilliant I think I am.”
With every dish placed in front of him, Mr. Allen evaluates whether it’s balanced. Personally, he looks for a combination of sweet and savory, and hot and cold, particularly with desserts, he said.
He’s more apt to forgive when a dish is over-salted, rather than under, he said, and appreciates the simple food in life. His guilty pleasures—though he said he doesn’t feel any guilt toward them—are potato chips and beer.
“A lot of chefs get all excited about foie gras and caviar. For me, the greatest culinary moment of the year has just arrived, and that is when my home-grown tomatoes are ripe and sweet,” he said. “It’s just happened. I just got my first one. I grow them on the roof of my house in Brooklyn.”
In his part of town, there’s no better time to be a cook and food lover, he said, especially when it comes to meat. He’s been famously roasting pork shoulder for years.