In the Mood for Food

9.4.2005

By Dennis Sebayan

Tell me about your new book.

What I wanted to do with the cookbook was build a collection of foods that I really love to eat, with the thinking being that if I like it, there are probably people that do also. It's a combination of American comfort food and a little bit of Italian, a little bit of Mediterranean, and a little bit of Asian.
It's my favorite stuff and that's where I came up with the title'The Food You Want to Eat'not about dieting, certainly. It's also not about cooking with 800 sticks of butter. It's about cooking with natural ingredients, when they're best seasonally. For example, you use tomatoes in August and September. It's probably not a great idea to use tomatoes in February, because they're lousy [then]. It's a cookbook for new cooks, people who are kind of new to the kitchen but want to do things the right way.

What did you get out of creating the book?

I got a chance to sit back'first by myself and then with my editor'and think Wow, what do I really love? What is the stuff that makes me want to sit down and clean the plate? That process allowed me to keep on talking to friends and relatives and remembering great meals I had at restaurants, when we've traveled, food that was really exciting to me and taught me something that I didn't know before.
There's a woman that developed recipes with me. Stephanie Lyness is amazing. The book Stephanie did right before mine was in collaboration with an openly gay Indian chef in New York named Suvir Saran. It's entirely coincidental that I'm gay and that Suvir's gay and that we ended up working with Stephanie. Suvir has a restaurant in New York City called Devi'fabulous restaurant. Suvir was one of the Out 100 last year. And Stephanie is not gay, to my knowledge, but it's been a wonderful collaboration with her.

How is branching out with your own book a reflection of other endeavors you're taking on besides the successful show?

It's a very natural, logical thing for me. One of the reasons why I'm so fortunate to have the job I have is that it's all about stuff that I would be doing in my free time if I weren't getting paid for it. Anybody who gets to work in a field that they really love is very fortunate. It's such a privilege and I'm grateful for it. It all works together. Now I have my own recipes that belong to me that I can use in the show if I want to.

You created the recipes from scratch?

With Stephanie, yes; all of them. Some things are classics. You know, how to cook a steak or how to make a Caesar salad. Even something classic like that, I twisted it around a bit, did something that's personal to me.
But all these recipes have to be tested and they have to work. If they don't, you've got a problem. It really is a complicated process and it takes forever to publish books. This book has taken 18 months. It's crazy. If this one does well and I get a second cookbook, I'm hoping I can produce it a little bit more quickly.

What was your biggest kitchen disaster?

Oh, God. I've had plenty of them, but let me just say that one of the reasons I love cooking, especially for a love interest, it's not important that it comes out perfectly. What matters is that you tried. Cooking is an act of great affection and generosity. At the same time, it's an act of somebody who appreciates receiving approval from his or her loved ones. It's a great thing to do for a date.
That said, when I lived in Chicago, I was an editor, writer, and restaurant critic at Chicago magazine'sort of a restaurant bible. One day, I was having the dining editor over to my house for brunch. It's an intimidating situation because Penny Pollack is the person who decides whether a restaurant gets four stars or no stars and whether they get listed or dropped.
I decide that I'm going to do homemade cinnamon rolls. I put them in the oven about 15 minutes before she's supposed to pull up. The doorbell rings and I look over at the oven. There's smoke pouring out of the oven because I didn't put a pan under the baking dish. So there's sugar, cinnamon, and butter gushing onto the sides, onto the bottom of the oven, burning it. I opened the door to the dining editor of Chicago magazine, my house is full of smoke, and it looks like my kitchen's on fire. She looks and says, 'Wow! How's it going in there?' The cinnamon rolls were fine. You know, we opened the windows; we aired the place out. It was a little embarrassing'but it happens to all of us. You know, if you're cooking dinner for a date, you light the kitchen on fire, and everything becomes a total disaster, what you should do is open a bottle of wine, order a pizza, and laugh about it.

What's the one plate to win a date over?

That's definitely going to depend on the person. If it's somebody who likes meat, the ultimate, special occasion meat dish is a roasted beef tenderloin or prime rib, which is a more flavorful piece of beef. There's almost nothing more American than that big, roasted thing in the middle of a table and that's a very nice, special-occasion dish.
Actually, my favorite is rack of lamb. It's such a flavorful, beautiful, very elegant-looking, special entr'e. But then also, this is not just Ted's cookbook for the straight guy at all. I made a conscious effort to appeal to a lot of people.
There are a lot of fish recipes in here and there's even a vegan recipe that I think is really great as well. It's very satisfying, it's very much an entr'e, and it's very much a center-of-the-table kind of dish, not a bunch of side dishes. The vegan dish is a roasted butternut squash pie with filo dough. It's great. It's got great texture and it's satisfying. Some people are so nervous about working with filo because it's so delicate, but it's not that difficult. With a little bit of practice, it works out.

Would you ever do a cooking show?

I would love to do a cooking show. Whenever Queer Eye is finished. If that should happen, I'm going to try to develop one. I think whatever I do will probably involve food and maybe travel. I love studying other cultures and there's no better way to do that than with food.
I have an endorsement deal now, which plays nicely into all of this. I've become the spokesman for Robert Mondavi. They're a wonderful company and they make fantastic wines. Obviously, this is a job for me and I'm lucky to have it. But it's also a vote of confidence from the corporate community and the food world' I have a two-year deal. I'm going to be representing Private Selection wines; we've got all sorts of public events; we have a Web site called discover-wine.com that teaches people about throwing wine tastings and wine parties. I call myself the concierge of that site. So if you go to discover-wine.com, they've got my picture right at the front there.
This is a wine education effort that Robert Mondavi is doing that I think is trying to break down barriers and introduce people to what I think is one of the great pleasures of life. I think it's validating to the gay community that the Robert Mondavi winery saw it as perfectly appropriate to hire an out, gay spokesperson.

Do you have any intention to reach out to the gay community in this way?

Absolutely! It's for everybody, and I think that the gay and lesbian community has shown itself to be extremely loyal and grateful to companies that have the good sense to talk to us. You can rattle off several that have been leaders in that area: Subaru, Orbitz, Disaronno, Volvo, Volkswagen, Apple.
There have been several great companies that have seen the value of marketing to us not just because we have money to spend, but also because we're cool people. We tend to be early adopters of cool things. We don't forget the companies that respect us. I want to make it clear that I was not hired specifically to target lesbians and gays for Robert Mondavi'that's just part of the deal. It's not just they've only brought me in to talk to the gay market, but I definitely will be doing that. Absolutely.
The gay market is a very important one for entertaining, wine, and food. You know, for a long time that's been part of our culture even more so than America at large. It kind of makes sense, for me to be involved in it.

For additional recipes and information about Allen's new book, The Food You Want to Eat (Clarkson Potter, $27.50), visit www.tedallen.net.

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