Ted Allen on Dining Out for Life 2015

Written by | Food

Since 1991, Dining Out for Life has produced an amazing, but amazingly simple, day of HIV fund-raising: Eat out, fight AIDS.

In 60 cities across America, restaurants will donate a portion of their proceeds to local AIDS service organizations. That’s more than 3,000 restaurants putting over $4 million into their community’s HIV/AIDS charities. Your job? Just eat!

This year’s event is on April 30. All you have to do is find a participating restaurant in your community and get dinner. (And drinks and dessert, too!)

Ted Allen is host of the Food Network series Chopped, and is of course beloved my many for previous stints on Iron Chef America and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He’s also spokesperson for Dining Out for Life. He chatted with us about this night of good eating — and told us what to do with a bone-in leg of lamb next time we’re on a cooking competition.
Interview by Matt Gurry

by Peter Ross

You’ve been attached to Dining Out for Life for several years now. Why is it so meaningful to you?
It hits several perfect buttons for me, as someone who works for Food Network and is out and gay. Dining Out for Life is a really elegant, low-overhead fundraiser. In a single day it raises well over $4 million all over the country to fight HIV and AIDS, and at the same time propels people out into the restaurant scene in their towns, so it’s also great for chefs and restaurants. And, all of the money stays right in your own community, going to HIV and AIDS service organizations right in your own town. So for me it’s such a win-win-win, and that’s why I keep doing it.

It’s growing, too. I heard about it last year, but I don’t think there were any New York restaurants participating then. [There are this year, though!]
And that’s a good problem for New York City to have. New York was obviously the first city to respond to the AIDS crisis. While I think Dining Out for Life has made some great strides in getting involved in New York, I also think there are lots of people doing great things for HIV care and prevention.

In other cities, Dining Out for Life was a real pioneer. I first did it in Chicago which has a great infrastructure for fighting HIV and always has. I remember participating as a diner 20-something years ago. I still remember the restaurant we went to.

What was that?
It was called Bella Vista. A beautiful Italian place in an old bank building on Belmont Ave. It’s not there anymore. That was my first brush with Dining Out for Life.

Obviously the real heros are the volunteers, activists and researchers, the people who devote their whole careers to this. What’s great about Dining Out for Life is it’s something anyone can do — you have to eat anyway. It gives you a great excuse to actually have dessert, maybe order a slightly nicer bottle of wine, and still make make a truly meaningful impact, in terms of raising funds.

And one of the cool things about it is that you can ostensibly be contributing without even knowing if you’re just eating somewhere.
Yes. The participating restaurants pledge a percentage of their income for that day to Dining Out for Life. So yes, you can be a screaming, homophobic, terrible person and unwittingly help to fight AIDS. That would be fine with me.

We’ve talked about New York and Chicago, both cities that do well with HIV fundraising. Are there restaurants participating in towns you don’t often associate with HIV/AIDS?
Absolutely! Dining Out for Life is in 60+ cities across the country, 3,000+ restaurants. Many of those towns are indeed medium-size and smaller cities that you certainly don’t associate with a big, well-known, outspoken gay population. But of course, as you and I know, we’re everywhere. It’s something that more of the country is realizing. There are even gay people in Indiana. A lot of them!

OK, when people in the office found out I was talking to you today, they immediately told me to ask you questions about Chopped. Would you mind fielding some questions?
Sure! That’s great!

How much do the Chopped competitors know in advance?
They don’t know anything! After we introduce the competitors, there’s a moment where I tell them where the rules are and then we stop and turn them around, and then we reposition all our cameras so that their lenses are trained on their faces because we want to see the looks of shock, and sometimes horror, on their faces the second they open the baskets. That surprise is a big part of the competition.

The longer the show’s been around, have you noticed chefs’ composure getting better under the stress?
Actually, I think there’s a modest trend where the longer the show’s been around, the more chefs have kind of thought it through, on how to strategize and do better. But a modest trend! It’s so hard; there’s not much you can do to prepare.

One thing you can do is to be aware of how short 20 minutes is. Make every decision based on: What is the fastest way you can cook something? We’re always trying to trip you up. We’ll give you, say, a bone-in leg of lamb. The classic mistake is to try to cook that the way you normally would. But a seven-pound hunk of meat with a bone in it is not going to cook the normal way. You can’t salt and pepper it, sear off the outside, and finish it in the oven for two hours. You don’t have two hours! So it often forces chefs to do things that are totally counterintuitive. Take a beautiful leg of lamb, carve a couple medallions off it, and sear it in the pan quickly.

This is helpful. You do know people play this at home, right?
Oh yeah! Sometimes people even tape it, put it online and send it to us. We get a huge kick out of it. A lot of people even do it with their kids. You can buy chef jackets for kids for not very much money, and it makes for a great birthday party.

I think when people play at home, they figure out really quick that it’s actually very difficult to do this. For us it’s a 12-hour shoot day—

How many episodes do you get out of that?

Wow! OK. Well before you go, where will you be eating on April 30?
Well, honestly, this year it’s a little tricky — it’s a shoot day. What I really would like to do, but I don’t think I can, is to go to Philadelphia where Dining Out for Life began. It’s also just a great restaurant town. But I will figure out something.

Dining Out for Life 2015 is on April 30. Find a restaurant, grab some friends, and savor every bite of your HIV fund-raising!

Last modified: March 16, 2018