Ted Allen talks college, cooking, careers — and Garcia’s Pizza
In discussing his thoughts and feelings about life, work, food — and his student experience at Purdue University — alum Ted Allen entertained a packed Loeb Playhouse.
The host of the Food Network’s “Chopped” earned his degree in psychology from Purdue in 1987. He has gone on to a charmed and variety-filled career as a national-class writer, Emmy-award winner, professional foodie and host of a popular television program.
With humor and a down-to-earth style, Allen talked about growing up in Carmel, Indiana, and choosing Purdue for his undergraduate degree. In addition to an excellent psychology program, he wanted to attend a large university that had everything. “I wanted cultural opportunities. I wanted limitless courses to choose from.”
Fun fact: one of Allen’s most memorable classes was Entomology 105, Insects: Friend and Foe. The class was taught by Tom Turpin, Purdue’s renowned entomology professor who was in the crowd for Allen’s talk. “I do remember Ted as a student,” Turpin said. “The class was just getting started and had a small number of students. Later, when I saw him on “Queer Eye,” I realized he had taken my class a few years prior!”
A School for Art Lovers
For Allen, who sang in a rock band in college and whose fantasy job (still) is to be a rock star — it was important to have opportunities in the arts. “One of many things I loved about my college experience is that Purdue brought in amazing artists, authors and musicians.” He recalled the thrill of seeing rock band REM in Elliott Hall of Music and attending concerts by Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and the Pat Metheny Group — right there in Loeb Playhouse.
Allen’s fans in the audience nodded in appreciation. Carrie Darland, an undergraduate in electrical and computer engineering technology, enjoyed hearing a famous alum talk about this little-known aspect of the University. “Usually when people think of Purdue, they think of Neil Armstrong and engineers. Ted Allen shows that there’s really another side to the school. I think that’s important for people to know,” Darland said.
Allen is proud that Purdue was home of many astronauts, even some who landed on the moon. He joked, “I might be the only alum who is a game show host.”
On Choosing a Career
Like many college students, Allen did not end up pursuing a career in his college major. “I finally accepted what is a good principle for most people: if you are good at something, and you love doing it, you should try to make a career out of what you love.”
Teachers and professors had always told him that he was a talented writer. In his final year at Purdue, he gave up the education-heavy goal of psychologist and decided he wanted to write. He applied for a job as sportswriter at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, where, he laughed: “They quickly figured out that I didn’t know anything about sports. But they put me on the copydesk — where I excelled.” And, it is where he fell in love with journalism, he said. Allen went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.
Building a Network
Allen allowed that he has had a “charmed career,” but his anecdotes illustrated his natural drive to build networks and hustle. He urged students in the audience to follow his example. “If you have a connection to somebody in a position with authority and knowledge and power, that can help you down the line,” he said. “Stay in touch with a favorite professor. See if they have connections who can help you.”
Turpin appreciated Allen’s perspective. “He represents achievement in a career that you might not have expected from his Purdue degree. I was especially impressed with Ted’s advice about how to be aggressive in developing relationships in the education and work environments that might be helpful as you move through a career.”
On Coming Out
Allen described the surprising way he landed a role on the Queer Eye television show, a role that rather forced him to come out as gay publicly. And he credited the show’s creators for bringing a cast of five openly gay men into all kinds of American living rooms, including to people who had never known gay people except as caricatures. Allen said that despite the seeming superficiality of the show, for the “straight guys” it was a profound experience to have five successful, sincere, loving, caring people devote so much energy into making his life better.
“Our show played a small part in easing — not that it is easy — but in easing the road that LGBTQ have today,” Allen said. “And our culture deserves applause for that, too.”
Love of Food
Of course, Allen has a deep appreciation for food and the food industry. He especially admires chefs, which he described as hard-working, typically underpaid individuals who have a calling. Although he generally avoids discussing food trends, he sometimes tells people that the next big food craze is goat meat, just to see if they believe him.
But Allen does like discussing the food revolution that’s taken place the past 30 or so years. Just a few decades ago, he reminded the audience, people had to be in New York, San Francisco or Chicago to experience fine dining. Today, Allen marvels that just about any city in the U.S. can have a thriving, exciting restaurant scene. “We demand that our grocery stores carry fresh herbs and multiple brands of olive oils. We all want to know where that lamb came from, what its name was — and what its sign is,” he laughed.
Even at large scales, food today is better, he said, citing the award-winning food at Purdue’s residence halls. “Purdue’s dining services are in the top 20 in the country. Not bad!” he said.
Toward the end of his talk, which included a 30-minute Q&A, he reminisced with several audience members about the deep-dish pizza slices from Garcia’s Pizza, one his favorite Chauncey Hill eateries, now gone.
“Taste is so evocative of memory. If I have a slice of coconut cake with seven-minute frosting on it, I’m immediately transported into my Grandma Daisy’s kitchen in Orlando. And I’m 12 again,” he said. “If I could taste that Gutbuster slice from Garcia’s, I bet it would evoke more memories than walking through the halls on campus.”