Ted Allen, host of the James Beard Award-winning Food Network series “Chopped” and former food and wine specialist on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” is set to host the VIP reception at this year’s Garden of Eve event, Sept. 14.
The annual event benefits Howard Brown Health Center’s Lesbian Community Care Project is centered around chef tastings from Chicago area restaurants as well as live entertainment.
Allen, 47, is also known for his role on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where he was a judge for four years and his support for charitable causes such as Food Bank for New York City, where her serves on the Culinary Council and Dining Out for Life, for which he has served as spokesperson for five years.
Leading up to the event, Allen talks about his fondness for Chicago, how food has become a political force to be reckoned with and his own experiences with Howard Brown as young man in the ’80s.
Chicago Phoenix: When’s the last time you were in Chicago?
Ted Allen: Came to town for a signing — on the weekend of the NATO summit. It went very well. Chicago is my adopted-hometown. It’s a very good food town. It’s a city that’s big enough and has enough interesting ethnic roots, that it can support lots of great food. I managed to get into Charlie Trotter’s for one last meal. That was the first time I actually had to pay for it.
CP: Have you tried any of Graham Elliot’s new restaurants here?
TA: No, I haven’t. The last time I had Graham Elliot’s food was on “Iron Chef America.”
CP: Are there a lot of high-profile out gay and lesbian chefs?
TA: There are lots.
There are plenty of lesbian chefs. Not as many out-gay chefs. That might be the result of the professional kitchen. It’s a very macho place where women feel like they have to come off as tough. The vulnerability of coming out as a gay man might not work in that culture. The restaurant community — like theater and fashion — has always been welcoming to gays and lesbians. Running a restaurant is a theatre — you’re putting on a show every day.
CP: How important is it to support women’s health services such as the ones provided by Howard Brown — especially in the current political climate?
TA: This is a time — if you look at American politics and you see one party who has put forth a platform that is the most anti-gay platform ever written. They want to eliminate choice for rape and incest. It’s all about women’s health services — even more vital when one of the political parties is trying to take them away. It adds a special urgency.
When I see people like Log Cabin Republicans talking about supporting that ticket, it’s really shocking to me. I can’t see any educated gay person voting against Obama, especially when he has done so much in support of us. Republicans want to go back to DADT. It’s the party of the ’50s. Party of the .0001% and we need to get out and vote in this election.
Nobody said it was going to be easy to win our rights. The speed of our progress just seems to increase all the time. We have a sitting president that says that our comm deserves marriage equality.
But we’re standing at a crossroads. We’re close to getting gay marriage at a federal level. It aint’t gonna happen under a Romney administration or the Supreme Court justices that he would pick.
Women’s health issues are part of that.
CP: We saw another example of food and politics intersecting with the Chick-fil-A controversy in August. What do you think about that?
TA: This is a country where we have the freedom of speech and if you want to run a company and shoot your mouth off, then go ahead. There’s lots of companies that are run by conservatives. It’s their right to shoot their mouths off, and our right to not eat there. Chick-fil-A is junk food, so I really don’t care. If you’re really a serious food person to begin with — Chick-fil-A is junk food. I don’t want to eat it anyway.That guy can shoot his mouth off, and we can vote with our dollars and not eat there.
The politicians who came out and spoke out on our behalf during that, I appreciate the gesture.
CP: Have you always thought of food as a political force?
TA: Food has always been a political thing. It’s enormously inspiring that the First Lady planted a garden at the White House to encourage people to eat whole foods. The bottom line, you know, is you have corporations that in order to make money — you can’t make a lot of money selling just flour or wheat — you have to make it into a sugary cereal and then you can charge $6 for it. Publicly traded companies have to do that or else shareholders will run away from them. They’re basically forced to sell us sugary things.
Food is only going to get more political.
It’s very easy for food industry people to say that we have to eat more organic, but if you’re on a fixed income it’s very hard to go to Whole Foods and buy a $12 cantaloupe.
It’s a tough world.
CP: On a lighter note, what are you most excited about with food this summer?
TA: The one thing that I find amazing right now is the number of small entrepreneurs opening up shop with homemade pickles and ricotta cheese and sausages. People’s love for homemade products is increasing.
I live a block away from a store that makes only artisanal mayonnaise. I love mayo. Mayo gets a bad rap. It’s exciting because these products are available and it’s exciting because it shows a passion in young people for going and doing this stuff. Two butchers near my house opened up shot and they’re in their 20s and 30s, and more importantly, they’re cutting meat the old fashioned way. They’re learning the craft and the trade again. It’s not just wrapped in cellophane like at Jewel. That’s cool, that’s awesome. That’s what I’m most excited about.
CP: What are you drinking these days?
TA: I’m drinking a lot of rosè. Easy, refreshing, low alcohol. My all time favorite wine is pinot noir. I’ll probably get back into that as things cool down this fall.
CP: Are you excited about hosting the VIP Reception at Garden of Eve?
TA: Yes. I’m very excited about the performance by Meshell Ndegeocello.
CP: Do you see events like Garden of Eve happening elsewhere?
TA: I think they happen more so in the big cities. In places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where you have a large and committed, progressive LGBT community. It’s really tough in states like South Dakota, where I believe it only has one women’s health clinic. Women everywhere need quality heath care.
CP: What does it mean to you to support an organization such as Howard Brown?
TA: I have a real fondness for Howard Brown because when I was in my 20s, I would go there for HIV testing. I think it was free. To have the opportunity to come back and have the opportunity to be with them — i couldn’t turn that down.
Services have only increased there. People who are 21 or 18 or 16 were obviously not around when the first HIV/AIDS epidemic first happened. It’s very important to have groups like Howard Brown around to educate people. I also have a lot of affinity for Center on Halsted — it’s an amazing facility. Place for gay kids to go. I’m always thrilled to come back home. Chicago just gets more and more beautiful.
Garden of Eve 2012 will take place Sept. 14 at the River East Art Center, 435 E. Illinois St. For information and tickets, visit Howard Brown’s event website. Chicago Phoenix is a media sponsor of Garden of Eve.