On April 26, over 200 restaurants in the Delaware Valley — and many others across the country — will participate in Dining Out For Life, each donating 33 percent of their sales that evening to local HIV/AIDS organizations. In Philadelphia, proceeds benefit ActionAIDS.
Out food expert and celebrity chef, author and TV personality Ted Allen (“Chopped,” “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and “Top Chef”), along with actor Pam Grier and fellow celebrity chef Daisy Martinez, are national spokespeople for Dining Out For Life. Allen talked to PGN about how the event has grown and the hard work it takes to stay on top of things in the ever-changing world of food, chefs and restaurants.
PGN: Is the number of people and restaurants participating in Dining Out For Life growing?
TA: We’re up to 60 cities this year and 3,500 restaurants. Last year, I think it was in the low 50s. I spoke with someone in Charlottesville, Va. It’s their first year and it happened because an executive director of the HIV service organization in Palm Springs took a job in Charlottesville and brought this event with him. He liked it some much and found it effective. And really, what’s not to like? All of the money that is raised stays right in your own community. It’s an appealing part of this message and event. I just want to say this operation raises north of $4 million in a single day and all that money stays in your own community, not just in HIV service organizations but it also brings new customers into restaurants and supports local jobs.
PGN: When you come to Philadelphia, what restaurants do you like to visit?
TA: Philadelphia is an amazing restaurant town. You have all the Steven Starr restaurants. You have, of course, Iron Chef Jose Garces, who has also worked for Dining Out For Life in the past. I only get to go to Philadelphia for working for Dining Out For Life. The past year I have been working so much. I’m not really getting out of town except for when I’m working. We’re shooting “Chopped” now. Before that, I was writing my cookbook that comes out in May. Before that, I was shooting “Chopped” again. So I’m a bad person to ask for restaurant reviews. I’m usually working, then I come home and defrost something and eat it and then curl into a little sugary ball.
PGN: What is the biggest misconception people have about your work?
TA: One misconception people have about my work is that my friends and I are gallivanting around to glamorous restaurants in New York every night and whooping it up. We do get to taste a lot of great things and, when I do have time, I love sampling the wares of amazing chefs in New York and Philly and Miami and New Orleans. But I think one misconception people might have about television is they may not realize it’s long hours and hard work. And when you’re lucky enough to have that work, far be it from me to complain about it. The irony is, when you work for Food Network, you’re not getting good food unless you’re judging on “Iron Chef.” That’s one misconception to have. We’re just too busy. It’s a good problem to have.
PGN: What makes a restaurant stand out for you?
TA: One thing that really makes a restaurant stand out is chefs that know how to season their food — chefs who know how much salt is necessary on a pork chop. It sounds so simple but it’s actually one of the most important things about cooking, and it’s something that so many chefs don’t do right. Home cooks almost always under-season their food. People have an irrational phobia about salt. Food needs salt. What do I look for in a restaurant? Food that is cooked lovingly. And that can be anything from a hot dog to a 12-course, fancy French meal, as long as it is clearly made by someone who loves it.
PGN: Are there any shortage of chefs who want to compete on “Chopped”?
TA: Apparently not. We do run into a problem in that we started out with chefs from New York and New Jersey and we burned through a lot of those real fast. So we expanded to recruiting chefs from Philly, D.C. and Boston. We used up a lot of those. So now we’re casting in other American cities — New Orleans, Atlanta, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. It costs extra money to do that. We’re finding also that when we draw from fresh cities, we get fresh talent and the quality of the show improves. The show rises and falls on having good cooks and good characters.
PGN: Why do you think the popularity of food-related TV shows has exploded over the last decade?
TA: Across the country, and not just in the big cities, there are retailers like Whole Foods that have rekindled interest in fresh foods and herbs and artisan [products]. Food Network has recognized that there is a huge audience for shows like this even with people who don’t even cook. They are clever enough to take the act of cooking and make it visually exciting like a sport. Children even like the show. Our ratings are fantastic. We’re very fortunate.
PGN: Do you think it’s a good thing that chefs today have become extremely media savvy?
TA: It’s an essential thing these days. It’s interesting to watch how savvy they are. Chefs by nature are competitive in the marketplace, so to see them compete in these shows is a natural extension of that.
PGN: Now that anyone with Internet access and an opinion can become a food blogger, what separates their views from the views of professionals like yourself?
TA: That phenomenon is definitely a double-edged sword for chefs and restaurateurs. On the one hand, social media gives them an enormous amount of power to quickly communicate to an audience. Of course that means that absolutely anybody can trash your restaurant. Among professional restaurant critics, there is the philosophy that you always give a restaurant a few weeks to get their sea legs because it is so hard to open and run a restaurant — and expensive. To the general public, a regular person who is posting on Yelp isn’t going to think about that. I’ve never been interested in popularity contests among the general public. Zagat, for example: I would only use them to get the phone number of a restaurant. Not everybody is right about whether a restaurant is good or not. I tend to rely on advice from people who have knowledge on this subject. I have critics that I trust and, for me, that hasn’t changed.
PGN: What do you have coming up in the near future?
TA: I have a new cookbook coming out in May called “In My Kitchen.” It’s a collection of new recipes that I’ve cooked up in my own house. There are no new television projects because I just don’t have the time. On “Chopped,” with the success of the live Thanksgiving show, there is talk of doing more live shows. People really liked that.
For a full list of area restaurants participating in Dining Out For Life or more information, visit www.diningoutforlife.com or call 877-EAT4LIFE (877-328-45433).