Judson Todd Allen doesn't shy away from challenges. Never has.
As a youngster growing up in Chatham, on Chicago's South Side, he entered a church baking competition that included his grandmother with her famous chocolate brownies. He auditioned four times before landing on Season 8 of "The Next Food Network Star." When talk show host Steve Harvey decided to lose weight, Allen helped him lose 25 pounds. And recently, Allen earned kudos for his cooking at a celebrity-packed benefit at the LA home of actor Jamie Foxx.
Most important, though, Allen didn't back down when he challenged himself to lose weight.
"I saw myself in my graduation photo in 2003 and I said, 'Oh Lord, I've got to make a change,'" he remembers. "I had this degree in food science and nutrition. There was no excuse for me not to make the change."
Making that change and losing more than 135 pounds then keeping them off did more than affect Allen's physique. It shaped the 32-year-old chef's career and helped him pursue his dream of working in food, entertainment and business.
In 2007, he established Healthy Infused Cuisine LLC (personal chef services, event cuisine, etc.), branded himself the Architect of Flavor, and this year launched a bottled habanero hot sauce.
"Healthy Infused Cuisine is based on my personal mission to transform the way people think and feel about healthier food," says Allen, who first had to retrain his own palate. "I thought anything in a brown paper bag with grease stains on it was flavor."
"My grandfather's from New Orleans — New Orleans equals flavor — and when I thought about food, there was no way I was going to survive a healthy lifestyle change without having food that was pleasing to my palate. I was able to design these foods that changed the way I thought and felt about what healthy food was."
So instead of using fat and salt, he layered herbs, vegetables and fruits to build flavors. He reworked his granddad's fried catfish into one of his most popular dishes, baking catfish coated with a mix of Creole spice, Parmesan cheese ("a little because a little goes a long way and it's pretty salty"), fresh lemon juice and zest, herbs and crushed pecans — or sunflower or sesame seeds for people who can't eat nuts.
A self-taught cook, Allen's interest in food and cooking was deeply influenced by his family.
"Whether it was getting together for Sunday catfish and grits or getting together for grandma's array of desserts, it was something that we always made a family event."
Grandad Judson was a cook; Grandma Julia, the baker in the family. She helped her 5-year-old grandson Judson make his chocolate pound cake for that church competition. It placed second to her brownies.
"I think there probably were only three people in the competition," jokes Allen.
Allen, who now lives in Oak Park, graduated from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, earned a degree in food science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a master's degree in public health at the university's Chicago campus, then earned an MBA in entrepreneurship from DePaul University. There was some traveling in Europe (part of his school curriculum), with some cooking classes (Le Cordon Bleu in Paris among them) that he organized on his own.
It is Allen's play with flavors, layering them and building them up, that drives the creativity at his Healthy Infused Cuisine and led to the development of his Less Hot More Flavor Habanero Hot Sauce that he began selling this year (judsontoddallen.com).
"I wanted something that would bring flavor to my food without all of the fat and the calories," he says.
If it sounds as if Allen is busy, he is.
In addition to Allen's Healthy Infused Cuisine clients, there's talk of TV projects, and there is his work with young people and communities (he mentors culinary students at his former high school and did a food demo at this summer's Taste of Chicago). And there are events such as that recent LA benefit for Hollywood casting director Robi Reed's Reed for Hope Foundation, where Allen served his signature arugula and roasted pepper topped flatbread as well as the delicate corn bisque topped with pistachios and flowers.
Roasting the vegetables "brings out their sweetness and natural flavor," he says. The pureed cauliflower and light coconut milk, rather than cream and butter, add richness. Pistachios add flavor and texture, though roasted shiitake mushrooms work well too, he adds.
Creamy corn bisque
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Servings: 6, about 6 cups
Note: Adapted from chef Judson Todd Allen's recipe; he suggests pureeing the soup to the texture desired, either chunky or smooth. He also likes to use his habanero hot sauce, but you can use another type.
4 to 5 ears fresh corn, shucked, cleaned
1/2 medium Vidalia onion, in quarters
1/2 poblano pepper, in quarters, seeded
1/2 small head cauliflower, broken into florets
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 can (13.5 ounces) light coconut milk
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
1 to 3 tablespoons habanero hot sauce
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup pistachios, coarsely crushed
1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place ears of corn, onion, pepper, cauliflower and thyme on a large, parchment-lined baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over vegetables. Roast in the oven until vegetables are caramelized and golden brown, 20-30 minutes.
2. Allow corn to cool. Cut kernels from the cobs. Place roasted vegetables in a blender. Add coconut milk, broth, hot sauce and sea salt. Blend until smooth. (You may need to work in batches.) Transfer bisque to a saucepan; simmer over medium to meld flavors. Serve warm or lightly chilled. Garnish with crushed pistachios.
Per serving: 182 calories, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 591 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Watch Judson Todd Allen prepare his more heathful twist on a corn bisque at chicagotribune.com/judsonallen.