Ted Allen’s new show, Food Detectives, premieres tonight on the Food Network at 9pm. We talked to Allen about the new show, Top Chef New York (his lips are sealed) and where he likes to eat in the city.
So tell me about the new show.
It’s called Food Detectives. We take myths and stories and old wives tales, and partnering with experts from Popular Science magazine, we test them out. The victims are my henchpersons, who do things like eat a whole bunch of habaneros and then we see what will ease the pain.
Milk products, right?
Well, I hate to give everything away, but it’s no accident that spicy cuisines from different cultures are served with dairy—Indian with raita, hot wings with blue cheese dip…there may be a good reason for that.
And then, the Popular Science people reveal the science behind that—it turns out that there’s a protein in milk called casein that binds to capsaicin, that element in peppers that irritates your tongue, and it literally washes that capsaicin out, and takes you back to happy land.
Has anything really surprised you so far? Anything that you thought was a myth that turned out to be true, or vice versa?
Well, we’re going to be taking viewer questions, but right now since we don’t have viewers, we don’t have viewer questions. So we set up a website for people to write in, and Bob from Iowa wanted to know if it was true that celery has negative calories.
The theory goes that chewing it burns more calories than is in the celery. And I was surprised to find that while that’s not exactly true, the fact is that celery is so fibrous that it takes lots of energy to digest, so technically it does result in slight negative calorie advantage.
I guess I should eat more celery!
[Laughs] Yeah, you know testing the ‘five second rule’ is not going to win us the Noble Prize, but it’s funny and different, a strange mix of realism and fantasy and craziness. It’s less about the end result and more about the journey being fun and funny.
So who are your unfortunate henchmen? Are they people viewers will recognize?
They are actually people who do not speak on the show, and no, viewers they won’t know who they are. In a way I wish I could bring on known guests chefs, because I’ve met so many great people in the last couple years, but this is not one that Anthony Bourdain is going to want to do.
Well, he’s a brave guy, but he’s not going to want to stick his head in a disgusting refrigerator to see if baking powder really works to absorb odors. Maybe one of these days.
Speaking of refrigerators, what’s in yours that might surprise people?
I have 19 different kinds of mustard; I love Coleman’s; I love hot mustards and horseradish. I like a lot of spicy stuff; I love Sriracha. I like things that have really intense flavor.
And they’re not in my refrigerator, but I love tomatoes. They’re only really edible for about one and half months each year, and that time is about to start. I’m going to the Greenmarket this weekend to get my hands on some great tomatoes. It’s the best culinary moment of the whole year. I’ll make a caprese and drizzle nice olive oil over it. I’ll take that over a truffle any day.
Where do you like to eat out in the city?
In my neighborhood, Clinton Hill, there’s a wood-fired pizza place called Graziellas [232 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-789-5663]. I love it. They have a roof top deck, and super thin, crispy crust. They don’t do delivery, because it’s the kind of thing you have to eat in five minutes, and after that it turns into something else. Some of the best pizza in the world is in New York, and it’s all about the crust.
I’m a little behind on basic New York restaurant literacy, because I work all the time. But one of my favorite things about doing Top Chef and Iron Chef, is meeting these chef-heroes, and getting their cell phone numbers. I always try to go to Lidia Bastianich’s or Alfred Portales’ restaurants, and having met them and gotten their cell phone numbers makes it easier to get a reservation!
Meeting those chefs is really my favorite thing about working on food T.V.
Can you tell us anything about the Top Chef that’s shooting now in New York?
[Laughs] I’m not at liberty to say! They’re crazy about secrecy. With any of these shows as they get more popular, there’s increased scrutiny from blogosphere. With The Next Food Network Star, there were people literally stalking the production.
Anything else you’d like us to know about the new show?
Once we get into regular showings on Tuesday nights, viewers will write in with questions they want to have answered, and it might be really fun to do one on what really is in a hot dog. So it’s not necessarily just about myths—there are only so many myths around for us to debunk—the format is flexible, it’s about interesting stories and going behind the scenes. And you know, hot dogs, we’re all a little afraid that there really are snouts and tails and eyeballs in there, but it would be nice to be able to have a Nathan’s hot dog every now and then.
And even if it is snouts and tails, maybe it’s still not that scary?
I’m kind of on a rampage lately to never eat processed foods, not just because they’re full of fat and preservatives, but industrial food just freaks me out. And we now have access to so many great organic, local products. Industrial producers will do anything they can to make it cheap; it’s worth it to spend a little more…
I’ve been doing food T.V. now for 5 years, but it’s all been reality shows like Queer Eye, or judging. So it’s an interesting challenge, because for Food Detectives I have to learn lines! But it’s nice to have a little bit more control over the language and the jokes. This one really indulges my geeky interest in the science side of food, but also has a lot of opportunity for humor. I think it’s a lot of fun.
Is your show influenced by Alton Brown’s Good Eats?
That comparison is inevitable, because both shows deal with science and food.
If Alton were here, he would draw a diagram showing that where we intersect is at food and science, and where we diverge is that Alton is actually showing you how to cook things, and I’m not doing anything that useful. [Laughs] Food Detectives is more comedic, and more about story. Nobody is replacing Alton! He’s a good friend and a great source of information.