Ted Allen of Food Network's 'Chopped': 'This has never been a better country to be a food lover in'


In an era where Instagram influencers, online artisans and countless other new-age jobs are proving to be both popular and extremely lucrative, it’s clear that the job market is changing.

There seems to no longer be a staunch emphasis on tried and true traditional roles that require a four-year degree, but rather a shift towards finding a career or role crafted around ones direct interests and skills — regardless of how many years of education or professional experience are required.

This new career option is being refereed to as ‘new collar,’ a job type that more and more of Gen Z is erring towards choosing, and in no industry does this ring more true than the restaurant industry.

Rob Gifford, EVP of The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, elaborated on this emerging trend:

“This generation is more conscious of taking on student debt, especially knowing that the future of the job market can be hard to predict. However, with unparalleled opportunities for on-the-job training and rapid advancement, employment in the restaurant industry is on track to outpace the nation’s overall job growth for the 19th straight year. Gen Z is going beyond traditional blue-collar and white-collar jobs and defining their own career paths, their way, with “new collar” jobs - positions that require specialized education and skill but not necessarily a four-year college degree. The younger generation is finding ways to combine what they are passion about with a way for them to make income – when they see young chefs and business owners such as Daniela Soto-Innes, they think ‘Hey, can I do that, too.’ These young students are bold, fearless and ready to own their future. It’s incredible.”

In the spirit of continuing giving restaurant hopefuls the chance to tap into these ‘new collar’ roles, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation hosted its 17th annual National ProStart Invitational, where over 400 high-school aged students competed in culinary arts and restaurant management in hopes of winning a slice of the more than $200,000 in scholarships that were awarded.

Take a look at the competition in action below:

Gifford sees a clear link between what the competition can offer students and the future of the industry:

“By the year 2027, there will be 1.6 million new restaurant jobs created, and ProStart students are the ones who will pave the way as creators, entrepreneurs, and restauranteurs. The ProStart program gives these students a solid foundation for their careers, who will go on to secure entry level positions in the industry. In fact, 8 in 10 restaurant owners started their industry career in entry level positions so we’re excited to see where our students’ careers take them.”

Surprising the competitors this year for a Q&A session was Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ and author of cookbook ‘In My Kitchen.’

We had a chance to chat with Ted in the midst of all the excitement at the competition about everything from where he sees the restaurant industry heading to the most ‘vicious’ basket he could ever dream up for the show:

AOL: How did you tap into the food and restaurant industry? How did your career point you in a direction that led you to what you’re doing today?

Ted Allen: “I’ve always loved cooking … I think it took a much more serious turn when I got a job at Chicago Magazine as an editor, because city magazines have always played a big part in covering the restaurant scene of their city — it’s an important part of the city’s life. I took [my role] a step further and asked if I could audition to be one of the food critics … I started doing that and I really enjoyed it, really took it seriously … it’s so complicated, it’s such an interesting puzzle to figure out which dish is better, which restaurant is better.

I always say every job I've ever had was necessary for the job that I have now. I still walk into work in the morning and edit my own script — I’m still an editor! When we’re shooting ‘Chopped’, I’m interviewing those chefs, I’m asking them questions — there are skills involved to being a good interviewer … I still use a lot of the skills I went to college for. It wasn’t a waste mom and dad, I swear!”

AOL: What differences do you see in the restaurant industry today versus where it was decades ago?

TA: "One of the great positives towards things happening in the United States these days is that this has never been a better country to be a food lover in. It’s better than ever — back in the ‘70s, you would go to a grocery store and if they had olive oil at all, they had one kind. Today, if you go to Central Market in Dallas or any of their other locations, they’re proud of the fact that they have hundreds of different kinds of olive oil. We, as Americans, have learned an extraordinary amount about food in the last 20 years.

I think that Americans have become much more educated about food. At the same time, that interest is being reflected in the marketplace. You see burgeoning food scenes in Louisville, Nashville, both Portlands (both Oregon and Maine) … Portland, Maine claims to have more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country, and that may be true! I’ve had incredible food in Columbus, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana, the two cities I grew up in. It used to be that the good, creative artisanal cooking was only happening in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco — that is so not true today. It’s happening everywhere, and that is as an incredibly exciting thing.

AOL: Why do you think this ‘new collar’ trend is emerging right now? Why is it particularly prominent in the restaurant industry?

TA: "This speaks to another market force that we see happening, which is that restaurants are desperate for staff. That’s the biggest problem in many cities. In Portland, Maine, it’s a huge problem particularly because Portland has so many excellent restaurants but they don’t have the population to staff them. And this is why I think you see this ‘new collar’ trend emerging, where instead of focusing on … getting a four-year degree, people are going to two-year colleges (community college is playing a really crucial role in this as well) and people are finding themselves getting into the workplace sooner as a result, where they are desperately needed … restaurants need people, and people are finding ways to get there faster.

It may be that the best path for your career is to go to a two-year college and either get the rest of the education later or get the rest of the education out of the marketplace in the real world.

I think it helps when people like Michelle Obama are advocating on behalf of community colleges and seeing them as important parts of the educational system for people who need to learn, but also need to work."

AOL: The restaurant industry is notoriously brutal. What are some traits that those aspiring to succeed in the industry must have?

TA: "In order to pursue the culinary arts, if you’re talking about being in the back of the house and banging pots and pans around, you need to have a deep personal love for the craft and you need to have a tenacity and stick-to-it-ness.

All of the judges that I work with are so steeped in their -- almost obsession — with the craft of cooking, with their love of food.

Imagine a shark biting something with rows and rows of teeth and refusing to let go no matter how hard it struggles — I think you need that kind of ferocious devotion in order to work 16 hours a day, six days a week (maybe seven days) in order to pursue this dream. It’s extremely competitive, but for the right people, it’s incredibly fulfilling.

I think also that you need to have not just a love of food, but a love of people, and appreciation for the fulfillment that comes from filling somebody up and making somebody smile. And I think all of those ingredients are essential to making it in this business because it is not easy.

Even though I work with chefs all day long, they know I’m not a chef — they know I’ve never banged it out on a line and for that reason I always feel like it’s clear that I’m not a real member of the club — I’m not! I’m a friend of the club and we respect each other … I feel kind of left out actually!"

AOL: Speaking of those chefs, when — if ever — do you foreseesee the celebrity chef phenomenon starting to dissipate from our day-to-day life?

TA: "Never. It’s not going away — it has become an integral part of our culture. It’s not so much that it’s the fame that’s important, the reason the fame is happening is that Americans know so much more about food. And they want fresh herbs, they want great olive oil, they want to taste food from other cultures. It wasn’t like that in the ‘50s or the ’60s or really the ‘70s. It’s a permanent shift in Americans’ values and interests, and that’s nothing but good news.

Martha Stewart, for example, who actually is not officially a chef … has taught me more about food than any chef alive — speaking directly and intelligently to her audience (me) about things that I knew nothing about in food — how to sear a duck breast properly, I learned that from her."

AOL: What parts of the ‘Chopped’ kitchen experience differ most greatly from the real experience a chef would have cooking in a restaurant?

TA: “There are things in common between ‘Chopped’ and cooking in a restaurant but they are very decidedly not the same thing. For one thing, we choose the ingredients, not you. You don’t know what they are, you don’t get to practice … you have no way of knowing what’s in the basket. So, that makes the situation completely artificial and utterly unlike a restaurant. When you’re a restaurant chef, you spend months developing a menu, practicing the hell out of it until you get it perfect and you just don’t get to do that with us. We’re taking away the crucial ingredients of time and control over ingredients.”

AOL: What differences do you see in the technique and attitude between the amateur and professional chefs that come on the show?

TA: "On one hand, a professional chef that went to culinary school probably has a lot more range than an amateur. But on the other hand, if it’s a professional chef who has specialized in their cooking early on and has been cooking only Italian food for 15 years and you get fish sauce, soy sauce and stuff they just don’t work with, they could be at a disadvantage. And this is why we always say the basket is the great equalizer.

We had a woman who ran a falafel shop beat somebody who was an executive chef at a Gordon Ramasay restaurant. And part of that is luck of the draw — maybe we put something in the basket that worked really well for her that the Gordon Ramsay chef knew nothing about, maybe he didn’t know how to use that dried Thai rice paper that you hydrate in order to make a spring roll … maybe a Gordon Ramsay chef doesn’t use that product, he’s sort of up against it.

There’s a certain amount of luck and a certain amount of randomness that affects all of this — sometimes we have to ‘chop’ a really good chef who just got the wrong basket. And that’s part of the drama that comes out of this competition. I think that speaks to how well-designed the competition is in the first place."

AOL: What’s the hardest ingredient you’ve ever seen put in a basket?

TA: "In a world where we’ve seen everything from pickled pig lips to eyeballs (literal eyeballs — so gross), it’s too hard to pin down because there have been too many thousands of ingredients to put it to just one. But overall, I would say the hardest ingredients are the ones that are already cooked. Like if we give you a key lime pie — that’s not something any chef would ever use as an ingredient to something else. And it’s already been cooked, so there’s only so much that you can do with it.

I remember we had one leftovers challenge where one of the ingredients was a slice of pizza. And one contestant put the slice of pizza in a blender and we though ‘Oh, this guy is lost’ and it was delicious! He made some kind of sauce out of a slice of pizza.

My sentimental favorite ingredient is the cold chicken in a can because it’s so uniquely revolting to me, especially with the jelly that forms inside of the can … why do we like to torture chefs so much and crush their dreams, I don’t know! I’m sure we’ll pay for it in the next life!"

AOL: If you could make a basket for the contestants (one where you’re really trying to get them) what would your four ingredients be?

TA: “Raw pig tails, pecan pie, Cool Ranch Doritos and Jalepeno-infused vodka — that’s a vicious basket!”

AOL: Any advice to those wanting to tap into the restaurant industry?

TA: "You should try to befriend somebody who runs a restaurant and see if they’ll let you work for free for a little while. Just go in there and peel vegetables and get a sense of what the environment is like, see if you start making friendships and see if you feel the energy and see if you want to be a part of it.

Restaurant cooking is something that a lot of people get into as a second career … having a chance to work for free, doing the more grunt work of a restaurant, is where you’re going to begin because that’s how it is with any job … you have to do that part of it.

You should really try to work at every station in the kitchen … you have to know what you want before you get it and that’s how you go through the process of finding it.”