On his Cooking Channel show “Cheap Eats,” Ali Khan, author of the blog “Bang for Your Burger Buck,” has 12 hours and only 35 bucks to find the best deals for breakfast, lunch, a snack and dinner.
We caught up with Khan ahead of the show’s season finale on November 7th. Check out our exclusive interview below:
The Knockturnal: How did you get involved with Cheap Eats?
Ali Khan: I have been writing about cheap eats in various forms for years. I served as Senior Editor for BlackBook Magazine’s Dining and Nightlife guide to Los Angeles with a focus on foods in South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley – two areas where cheap eats thrive. I also worked in food television, including a similar series for Food Network called $24 in 24 with Jeff Mauro, where I was tasked to find cheap eats all over the country. My blog, Bang for your Burger Buck, started shortly after I finished working on that show because I loved the idea of focusing on finding buzz worthy meals that didn’t break the bank. Similar blogs followed later such as Sandwich Spotting, and LA TACO. So Cheap Eats has literally been seeded into my resume, it’s a major theme in my body of work. The actual show came about when I approached the production company, Sirens Media about doing a food show(I have been pitching food shows for literally years) and we shot a presentation called “the Food Khannossuer” (get it?). Part of that package was showcasing “cheap eats” but it wasn’t entirely price specific. When the presentation came to Food Network/Cooking Channel – Karen Berrios of the network along with myself and Sirens Media created Cheap Eats. It’s always been my motto that great food comes at multiple price points. Food Network and Cooking Channel helped focus that philosophy into the show you see today.
The Knockturnal: What’s your best advice for eating good while on a budget?
Ali Khan: Understand food costs. Meat is expensive. Produce, fruit and grains less so. I live in Austin which is a BBQ capital and there are amazing places to get BBQ but you are not going to get a plate for less than $10 that’s worth it. If you do find a place, the quality suffers. It’s all about finding the right balance of quality and quantity and knowing which food genres can be notoriously cheap. Tacos, Dim Sum, Bahn Mi, Ramen, burgers, sandwiches, cupcakes … I mean, people can scoff at a $5 cupcake all they want, but when they see the price tag of a full cake made by a premium bakeshop . . . that $5 cupcake seems like a steal. Don’t be scared of a plate splitting charge either, more often than not the portions we get are simply more than enough. Oh and I avoid fries unless they are totally awesome (there are a lot of sucky fries out there). More often than not, chips and guacamole is a category 5 rip off. If I had a dollar for all the stale chips I got . . . maybe I could afford the chips and guac! Oh and drink beer – beer has never been better and it’s way cheaper than drinking wine. Embrace the food truck. If you like sushi, watch it with cold sake, bluefin tuna and sea urchin. BYOB. A busy Indian grocery store with cooked food in steam trays beats the all you can eat Indian buffet every time. I could go on but you have more questions . . .
The Knockturnal: What was a highlight for you on the season so far?
Ali Khan: In general, what I love about a show like Cheap Eats is that it takes you the places you don’t always think about and uncovers a young food scene that’s about to explode. For me, this was especially true in St Petersburg, Florida. I lived on the West Coast for 20 years so when I think East Coast, I think the Northeast (I mean I got my warm weather fix) so I don’t always think Florida, let alone the Gulf side. Not only did we find great meals and deals but I met chefs who were genuinely excited about what’s to come for St Pete. After we shot our dinner segment at Red Mesa Cantina, Chef Chris Fernandez took me out to meet some of the other chefs doing fine dining, and I, of course, sampled the goods. I was so blown away that in addition to blogging about the 4 restaurants we featured on the episode, wrote a second post on just on the fine dining, including a pasta dish with subtle hints of Mexican and Japanese cookery, that was served at the James Beard Foundation! I mean, if I’m eating food good enough to be served at James Beard- that’s worth making a trip anywhere for – let alone an affordable beach town like St Pete.
The Knockturnal: What do you love about working in TV?
Ali Khan: I feel fortunate to say that my passion is also my profession. I was born a ham and love the stage, so being put in front of a camera to entertain is second nature, I feel at home on set. Of course, it takes a village to create a TV show and I’m mindful that everything I do is just a piece of the puzzle that camera operators, editors, producers, and the director all contribute to, so just collaborating with creative people alone is what I love about working on TV. That’s the entertainment side. Then there is the “real”. Most people assume that my job is the greatest because I get to eat all day. This is true, but even more important to me than eating all these awesome meals is getting to tell the stories of the people who make the meals. The restaurant business is a tough one and it takes a special breed to succeed. Whether it’s a family business that somehow survives decade after decade, generation after generation or a guy who sat in a cubicle, dreaming about making creative hot dogs on a street corner – I’m honored to share their stories. It is a privilege I won’t ever get tired of.
The Knockturnal: What are your favorite restaurants in NYC?
Ali Khan: My biggest problem with NYC is that I don’t live there! And my list of places to try trumps my go to’s. That being said: Russ and Daughter’s, Joe Junior, Knickerbocker Grill, Defonte’s, Eataly, Sfoglia, Brindle Room, Uncle Boons. – Check back with me – the list is always in flux!
The Knockturnal: What else do you hope to do in food/entertainment career-wise?
Ali Khan: I would love to take my passion for food stories to a Late Night Talk show format. Also, I have a personal passion project where I would do a series where I go back to the rural villages my parents grew up in, in Bangladesh and use food as the focus. And I have been toying with podcast that merges my passion for food with comedy – so myself and comedians. Because food can be funny as well as delicious and engrossing.