There was a time when Judson Todd Allen made delicious food, and made it look easy.
The Chicago chef who dubbed himself the “Architect of Flavor” invented recipes for a trendy Fulton Market restaurant, evangelized about “powerhouse” flavors on the Steve Harvey show and whipped up signature dishes in front of the cameras while vying to be the “Next Food Network Star.”
Allen, 36, might not have won the Food Network challenge, but he seemed almost certain to become a celebrity chef. It’s hard to say what might have happened, had Allen not died last week of a heart attack, his close friend Emmanual Nunn said during a eulogy Saturday at Valley Kingdom Ministries International in Oak Forest.
But, recalling one of Allen’s early attempts at a dinner party, Nunn said his college friends got to see the passion and work ethic that made Allen a success even before they matched his skills in the kitchen.
“We were the experiments that led to the ‘Architect of Flavor,’ ” Nunn said, drawing laughter from the crowd of several hundred gathered in the south suburban church’s cavernous chapel.
While a student at University of Illinois, Nunn had invited his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers for dinner. After much hype by the future student at Le Cordon Bleu, they arrived expecting to feast on Allen’s homemade fried chicken. They left instead with an amusing anecdote.
“The chicken was still raw. It was literally still bloody,” Nunn said. “You’re gonna be a chef, and you just served us raw chicken!”
Allen’s death of a suspected heart attack last week stunned friends, who knew the South Side native for his good humor as well as his emphasis on healthy eating. Allen had looked at photograph from his U. of I. graduation, noticed the double-chin and ample cheeks under his mortarboard, and decided he would learn to cook healthy cuisine.
Six years after graduation, Allen had shed more than 160 pounds, and developed some of the recipes that would become part of his Spice Diet.
Despite his youthful jowls, Allen had tried to eat healthier even before devoting himself to being a chef, recalled childhood friend Kourtney Gray.
“We would got out to Burger King, and he would eat the veggie Whopper, and this was before being vegetarian or vegan was big,” Gray said.
But healthy eating didn’t come naturally —the veggie burgers of the day lacked flavor. Allen’s cuisine centered on using spices to make up for the calories that were missing from healthier fare.
This year, his book “Spice Diet” was published, and he toured tirelessly to promote it, showing the charisma that turns great chefs into celebrities, said Don Thompson, a former McDonald’s CEO who became Allen’s business partner at the restaurant Taste 222.
Allen regarded meals as journeys a chef took with the people at their table, and he introduced a self-proclaimed “hamburger guy” like Thompson to Ethiopian-spiced salmon, and healthier takes on mac and cheese — even the joys of kale salad.
“If there is food in heaven, I know right now, Judson is cooking for Christ,” Thompson said. “And it may be the first time Christ has been on the Spice Diet.”
Nicole Pittmon, a friend who helped promote Allen’s book and restaurant, said Allen showed none of the prima donna behaviors that can make working with a great chef a chore.
“For all his talent and energy, it was like a family,” she said. “There was no screaming, no arguing in his kitchen. He was supportive and happy all the time.”
Sharone Anderson, a high school classmate of Allen’s at Chicago Agricultural High School who would become his close friend and sous chef, said that Allen’s goals went beyond fame and a branded line of cookware or the other modern accoutrements of culinary success. Along with his book tour and TV appearances, Allen and Anderson hosted students from their old neighborhoods, mentored young cooks, and taught classes for the Chicago Food Depository.
“If we were going to do a branded line of frozen meals or something like that, it would only be because Judson wanted to completely reimagine what those meals could be, to find a way to make them healthy and flavorful,” Anderson said. “Our goal was to change what people thought about what a chef could do.”