It's been six months since Ted Allen, the Emmy-winning Food Network host, set foot on the New York City set of Chopped.
"I've actually been cooking a lot," Allen says, "you know, just different soups and chicken dishes. It's funny, though — now that I think about it, I've never had a break long enough to really miss the day-to-day action of the show."
It's one of the longest hiatuses he's had, but he's itching to resume work on the fast-paced cooking competition, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this past January. "Last year when we were shooting, we amassed enough footage to shut down and resume in 2019," he says. "Don't get me wrong — it's been a wonderful break. I went to Lisbon and Havana, but now I'm ready to get back into the show."
Allen, who won a James Beard Award in 2012 for his work hosting the Food Network competition show, has led more than 500 episodes of Chopped since its debut in 2009. He's witnessed thousands of chefs from across the nation battle one another to create their best three-course meal using baskets of mystery ingredients, which often include unconventional items such as gummy bears and pickled pig lips.
"There will be a chef looking for an ingredient while his caramel is burning on the stove," Allen says. "All you want to do is say something, but you have to just sit back and watch. Or when somebody drops a piece of fish or meat on the floor and they still decide to serve it. We've seen it all, and I think that's what makes our show so unique."
Ask Allen his favorite Chopped episode and he'll tell you that question is impossible to answer. What he will say is no matter how many hours he shoots, he never grows tired of the series.
"It's really a privilege to have a show that's been on this long," he says. "It generally takes around 37 days to edit every show. We have at least 13 to 14 cameras, which are all shooting about 12 hours of footage. It's a lot. But at the end of the day, the show creates this suspense and tension that is so addicting to watch."
Allen doesn't watch the show much at home because he doesn't want to subject his friends and family to his job, he says. But when it does appear on his TV set, it's difficult for him to turn away — even though he was physically there.
"I think people underestimate how ridiculously hard it really is," he says. "You're basically at the deep end of a pool, and all eyes are on you. It's a different skill than being in your own kitchen, where you've lovingly picked out your ingredients and worked on a recipe for months and months. Chefs generally need control, but our show takes all of that away."
This month, Allen will dive into the next season of Chopped and also travel south for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, an event he looks forward to all year.
"I don't know how many times I've attended, but all I can say is it's been a lot," he says. "All of us from New York, for obvious reasons, love the festival. But besides the beaches and the weather, it's really special to have a festival dedicated to the fans."
This year, for the first time, Allen will host Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown, where he will lead a late-night evening of Polynesian flair and tiki-inspired cocktails. At the Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel, some of the best bartenders in Florida will compete to be crowned King of Tiki at the end of the night. Allen will join a panel of judges to evaluate the contestants' rum-centric drinks, while attendees sip the entries and enjoy bites from local restaurants.
During the competition, he'll seek a fresh take on the classic rum-based drinks that were made famous in the 1930s at the California bar Don the Beachcomber. "What I look for in a tiki drink is something that has visual style and decorative flourish, with bamboo, coconut shell, flowers." The perfect cocktail, he says, is something "delicious and intriguing-tasting and especially not stupidly sweet."
Competing bartenders should heed his final advice: "Make the drink fresh and modern, not like something from a cruise ship circa 1980."
Savvy celebrity spotters might also spot Allen lounging on the beach during
Art of Tiki Cocktail Showdown. 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, February 22, at the Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel, 1717 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $95 per person via sobewff.org/tiki.