Between the slices
Ted Allen, Chicago's 'Queer Eye' food guru, talks straight about his new TV fame
By Steve Johnson
Tribune television critic
November 18, 2003
Six months ago, it would have been just a sandwich between two Chicago journalists.
But now, almost overnight, it's a sandwich created by Ted Allen, nationally known food expert, taste guru, man over whom the golden wand of television has passed. And it's a whole lot heavier than the usual ham-and-turkey assemblage.
There is reputation on the loaf, an image between the slices.
And smoke in the kitchen.
Suddenly, as the conversation about the new season of Allen's surprise TV hit, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," distracts him from his lunchtime creation, the faintest hint of smoke curls up from over by the toaster oven.
Allen rushes over to rescue the focaccia. "Do not say I burned the bread. Do not," he mock-commands, his voice as booming and authoritative in his North Side home as it is on the show, where, most people are aware by now, he's the "food and wine expert," part of a "Fab Five" of gay men who spend a TV hour each week turning a straight fellow from plain apple pie, at best, into pie a la mode.
"'Cause what happened was cheese dribbled down onto the thing. I did not burn the bread."
He is careful to serve the can of sparkling water with a glass, and, as a magazine writer of some renown before he became a star of cable and even network prime time, careful to highlight the care he has taken.
"We can't let them see the can," he says, only half joking. "I'll be crucified in the media."
Allen apologizes for the sandwich not being what it might have been had the interview not been scheduled so hastily, on one of his rare free weekends home from New York, where the show is now taping. "Queer Eye's" 40-episode second season, begins airing Tuesday (9 p.m., Bravo).
And before taking a picture of the sandwich, he and his partner, Columbia College journalism professor Barry Rice, scramble to make it over, selecting just the right place mat and napkin, adding silverware, fretting about how "tragic" the potato chips look on the plate.
This is what sudden celebrity will do to you, the appearance of a public reputation to maintain where before there was none.
Not long ago, Allen was known in Chicago journalism circles for having made the jump from Chicago magazine to Esquire, but perhaps more so for trying mightily -- and ultimately, nobly, failing -- to organize the city's clan of writing and editing loners into a kind of regular after-hours journalists' drinking salon.
He wrote some restaurant criticism here and longer, reported pieces as well (a William Kennedy Smith profile, e.g.), but readers would probably best remember his 1995 Chicago piece chronicling his comic misadventures trying to cook out of super-high-end chef Charlie Trotter's new and complicated cookbook. The group eventually ordered pizza.
The 38-year-old is casual and ironic about the leap from being known a little bit, by a few people, to being stopped in airports by strangers, but he also recognizes what comes with that.
"One false move and you're in Sneed 'cause you were mean to a little kid," he says, referring to the Sun-Times columnist.
Just to be able to get things done, such as go to the store to buy garbage bags or the sour-cream-and-onion potato chips he admits are his "food weakness," he'll often wear a baseball cap in public now. And because his aggressive glasses are as much a trademark as the voice, "I went and got contact lenses on purpose, which I hadn't worn in years," he says.
"Barry jokes about me dressing like a straight guy so as not to be recognized."The weirdest thing is just the intensity of feeling which some people seem to have about famous people -- which I have to, I still kind of stumble over the word, acknowledging that I've become . . . whatever."
Talk of the town
Whatever, indeed. Since the show exploded from an oddly and, to some, offensively named cable curiosity into the talk of summertime television, he has appeared, with the gang, on "Today" and "Oprah" and "Tonight."
He has had his new salary, a reported $8,000 an episode, printed in the trades, a figure Allen doesn't deny. He has been to a dinner thrown by "Will & Grace" executive producer Max Mutchnick at the home Mutchnick was renting from photographer Herb Ritts. He has seen lunch with him and his four TV partners auctioned off for more than $20,000 for charity.
He has heard Sarah Jessica Parker at the Emmys gush to them about how much she likes the show for what Allen, too, identifies as its best quality, its "heart," the way the makeover team is rooting for its subject and the charming and even greedy way the subject tends to soak up the advice.
And he has witnessed a neighborhood kid, maybe 12, trick-or-treating at his house with his dad, quote back at him one of his lines from the show: "Fat-free cheese is the polyester of food."
Allen's now got representation by the William Morris Agency, a manager who boasts that his new fame is worth "millions" and two book deals, one for a kind of style how-to with the Fab Five due out in February and one on his own (to create a food book for 2005, details still under discussion) with the high-end publisher Clarkson Potter (Mario Batali, The Barefoot Contessa).
There is only a little evidence of financial reward: new landscaping in the backyard of his and Rice's Chicago home and a costly new apartment in Greenwich Village, only partly subsidized by the show, to make spending most of next year in New York more tolerable.
But more than any of that, he says, the "Queer Eye" experience has helped his family, "a fairly conservative Republican operation" from the Indianapolis suburbs, come to terms with who he is and how it fits into society.
"They were, to put it mildly, not at all happy about me doing the show," he says. "Now they're pissed off when we run reruns. They're fans. My mom e-mailed me an Andrew Sullivan column about gay marriage, in favor of. And she was sending it around to her friends.
"It was a huge evolution. My mother was affected by the show in the same way that a lot of people seem to be."
She was part of a spreading of the show's popularity that Allen noticed anecdotally, even as the Nielsen ratings were demonstrating it statistically.
"First it was the gay guys in Chelsea," he says. At a restaurant, "people would stare or ask us to talk to someone on their cell phone. And right about the same time, it was the single women. Then we started hearing from ladies my mother's age, you know, around 60.
"Now we're starting to get high school boys and college guys, straight guys, in airports coming up to us and saying, `Dude, thanks for that shaving tip, man.' `Dude, 6 ounces, 10 minutes, 400 degrees, to make a filet of fish. I did it on this date.' And they're just like the straight guys on the show. They're proud of it, and they want to tell it.
"And it's just so -- God, the power of television compared to the power of magazines."
When he decided to audition for the show, Allen had been writing about 13 years and was looking to add something. The casting notice, brought to his attention by a New York friend, mentioned "Will & Grace," makeovers and an Esquire magazine sensibility.
"It's probably the most ridiculously specific TV show that I could ever have a prayer of being right for," he says, but he pursued it as aggressively as he did the Esquire job.
And the executive producers, David Collins and David Metzler, liked him from the start, they say.
"The first time we met him we got really excited," Metzler says. "We loved his intelligence and how that translated into a really smart humor."
They also loved Carson Kressley, a New York fashion stylist and lightning wit who delivers most of the show's killer one-liners.
Allen and Kressley are the only two Fab Five members who made it from a test episode into the final cast, partly because they balance each other so well, Kressley as an embodiment of flamboyance and Allen with a more down-to-earth and conventionally masculine demeanor.
"He's been the professor, and I've been Mary Ann," says Kressley, before amending the playful dig at the show's oldest cast member: "I'm much more of a goofball, but he's got an amazing, dry sense of humor, and it's always great working with the elderly."
During auditions, Collins says, "We knew that Carson and Ted were kind of absolute opposites, so we stuck them on the ends and figured out who was going to fit in the middle of them."
As this was going on during the spring, Allen's partner was a touch skeptical, he says. "It was one of those concepts that was all in the execution," Rice says. "It could be funny. It could be horrible. I was wary about it until I saw the pilot."
The show turned out to be sweeter in tone than the use of the edgy "queer" in the title would imply. And while it certainly exploits stereotypes of both gays and straights, it also undercuts them, Allen says.
"People concerned about the stereotype question totally miss the subversive, accidental, best aspect of the show, I think, which is that we're taking those stereotypes they've made fun of all these years and teaching them to them in order to help them get the girl, which I think is kind of hilarious," Allen says.
It's also, straight up, a service. "We all want to know how to dress cool," for instance, he says. "Everybody does. And it was not acceptable for us to ask about it. You couldn't go into a men's shop and ask another guy, `Do these pants look good on me?' It was just way too `gay.'"
A hit TV show is far from the Lafayette, Ind., Journal and Courier, where Allen got his first journalism job, copy editing, after graduating from Purdue University with a psychology degree.
A journalism master's degree from NYU followed, and he tried larger papers but found a job at the small Lerner Newspapers in Chicago, starting as a reporter in 1990, making in a year what he now gets in two weeks.
"I'm pretty sure it was $17,700 something," he recalls, but it grew.
"This is really sad," Allen says. "I got a raise at Lerner because I was able to tell them the [legendarily cheap] City News Bureau had offered me job."
Freelancing for Chicago magazine (now owned, like this newspaper, by Tribune Co.) and editor Richard Babcock led to a full-time job there, where he has kept close contacts, even after moving to Esquire. He is on the masthead at both.
"To my mind, one of the unfortunate aspects of this great success he's had is it completely overshadows his real talent, which is he's a wonderful, wonderful writer," Babcock says.
Indeed, while much of Allen's writing career has focused on shorter, "front-of-the-book" service journalism -- a nuts-and-bolts approach he says he tries to bring to the show -- he has been a finalist for the prestigious National Magazine Award, for an Esquire piece on male breast cancer.
First things first
All of that is, by necessity, on hold for now. Yes, Allen has been keeping a fairly detailed journal, he says, with an eye toward writing about the experience some day.
But the shooting schedule, expected to continue through the next year, has the gang taping Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and then having meetings most of Mondays and Fridays.
It is, he says, grueling, but too unlikely a break to do anything but try to enjoy the ride, even the gossip that comes with it.
In one, apparently prevalent whispering, Allen says, there is said to be a non-gay man in the cast and as the "sensible, Midwestern" guy, "of course, I'm the straight one, which is a great rumor that I love to perpetuate."
He does, he says, "or did" like to chop wood, paint his own fences. And the sandwich he makes is more hearty than overly refined: focaccia, turkey, ham, tomato, greens, mayo and mustard, and, a key, fresh mozzarella.
It gets the straight guy stamp of approval.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune