Eating, Entertaining and Beyond: Expert Advice from the Food Network's Ted Allen

Ted Allen, host of the Food Network’s Chopped and Food Detectives and a spokesman for StarKist, doesn’t mince words when it comes to eating and entertaining—whether he’s talking about a holiday feast or a humble home-cooked meal


iVillage: If you were to give advice to a novice or first-time cook for the holidays, what would it be?
Ted Allen: A lot of people cook at this time of the year who don’t normally cook during the rest of the year. The most important thing for them is not to let the pressure of cooking and entertaining get to them. Novice cooks presume that they have to do things that are super-fancy and fussy, and that’s a big mistake. I always keep a helpful alliterative phrase in mind—“friends, family, flavor”—as opposed to “fussy.” I arrived at that idea one time when I ran into Bobby Flay on the street and said he should come over for dinner and realized the thought actually made me nervous—and then I realized some people are probably nervous about me coming over for dinner! But all you need to do is make a great bowl of chili that you put a lot of love into, as opposed to something that’s over the top. 

iVillage: What’s your secret to successful entertaining?
TA: Plan ahead. I try to do as much as I can the day or two before having people over. You spend most of your time in the kitchen chopping and peeling, so if you do it in advance you’ll be more relaxed. And I try to use my oven more than the stovetop, because the stovetop requires more attention, whereas everything that goes in the oven is completely prepped beforehand. Also, always serve some side dishes that are room temperature. Since they don’t need to be hot, you can make them in advance and you’ll save even more time.

iVillage: What’s your go-to gift for someone who’s new to cooking? 
TA: Kitchen stores are so packed with gadgets, but it takes a while to figure out the few that are really useful and versatile, as opposed to things like cherry pitters. I’ve fallen in love with a few specific tools that are very simple. One is a perforated fish spatula, which I started using only about six months ago. It has just the right angle and just the right curve for picking up fish fillets in the pan, but it’s great for hamburgers too. It can pick up anything, really—even vegetables. I’ve also invested in a whole bunch of really good cutting boards. On Queer Eye, we went into one guy’s apartment, and he had those nubbled glass boards that completely ruin knives—he might as well have sharpened them on the sidewalk. Cutting boards need to be wood or plastic so knives won’t be ruined. And you can use them for cutting different things—meat on one, vegetables on another and so on.

iVillage: Have you ever had a kitchen disaster of your own?
TA: One time, when I was working at Chicago magazine, the dining editor came over for brunch, and I thought it would be nice to make homemade cinnamon buns. But I forgot that as they cook they always gush sugar and cinnamon goo under the pan, and my oven caught on fire, and before you knew it the house smelled like burnt sugar. And the dining editor said, somewhat snarkily, but with a sense of humor, “Wow, maybe you should stick to reviewing restaurants.” 

iVillage: What do you always keep in your refrigerator or pantry? 
TA: We’ve just renovated our kitchen, and there’s room for an extensive array of mustards and tons of different vinegars and olive oils. Having all that in front of you is so great, like having lots of colors in front of you when you’re a painter. In the fridge we always have [opened] mustards, sausages, deli meats and fresh veggies from the weekly drop-off I get from the local CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] group.

iVillage: Do you have a foolproof dish for picky eaters? What’s your best advice for moms feeding a picky kid?
TA: A lot of mothers today are consciously trying to get their kids to eat something more than just fried chicken fingers and other foods that contribute so much to obesity. I really applaud them for it. Not all of us are good cooks, but if you make even simple food really delicious, kids are going to like it no matter what. I don’t mean to minimize how difficult it is to cook good meals regularly—my sister has three kids and I know how hard it is—but if you do have the luxury of time and can afford wholesome, natural food, I encourage it. If I had kids, my rule would be: “I’m telling you what we’re having for dinner tonight, and you’re going to eat it.” And I’d never take them to a fast-food restaurant. I’m into real food.

iVillage: You’ve recently developed some recipes for StarKist. A lot of finicky eaters don’t like tuna—so how do you make it taste great to non-tuna-lovers? 
TA: Just think of what complements tuna naturally. I like to encourage people to put fresh herbs in it, squeeze a little lemon into it and go easy on the mayonnaise. For a sweet note, add a little fresh red pepper; I also love celery salt and chopped celery in it. For StarKist I was challenged to create new recipes with a well-known product, sort of like on my show Chopped. The herb and garlic tuna, for example, lends itself nicely to farfalle pasta with a tomato vinaigrette. I cut grape tomatoes in half, add a little red wine vinegar, then add the tuna to a saute pan and toss. It’s simple and natural. Tuna is a great source of protein, and the brightness of the tomatoes works with the fish and the pasta. A dish like that captures what good, fresh food is all about.

iVillage: Speaking of pasta, why salt the water after it starts to boil? 
TA: Salt changes the boiling point of water. Water takes longer to boil if you salt it first. But you must salt it. The pasta needs it!

iVillage: What’s the one ingredient you’d always splurge on?
TA: Organic ingredients in general. Food sold in grocery stores is made cheaply and just isn’t as nutritious or flavorful for the most part. If you care about food and are lucky enough to have organic food—if you cast your vote for organic food—you’re improving the world. I find that very empowering. Plus, I just happen to like really good cheese.


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