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Alton Brown on Being a Vessel, Next Iron Chef, and His Faith

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Photo: thekitchn.com

Traditionally Alton Brown has been the friendly if didactic presence on Iron Chef America, a sort of smart man's John Madden. He's also the host of the Food Network show Good Eats, where he is less manic but no less avuncular. But on the new season of The Next Iron Chef — which premieres October 3rd — Brown plays stern. I recently spoke to him by telephone from the set of Good Eats, which he films near his home in Georgia, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

You have a number of different on-air personalities. The most stylized seems to be on Iron Chef America. How much of the show do you think of as performative? Certainly the chefs are actually cooking but, for instance, the Chairman is not actually the chairman.

The Chairman is part of the series' DNA. In the original Japanese version of Iron Chef there was so much theater, so we always wanted to have that in our mythology. It does carry over in a small way. He's only in two episodes of The Next Iron Chef. He actually gives what's called the "Chairman's Challenges" in each episode, but it's done by tape. It's in order to keep a thread of the mythology, but to use it in a purposeful way. I would say the series is 85% hard core cooking. When it starts veering away into being a reality show, I scream and jump up and down and pull down my pants and holler. I'm not interested in reality television in any fashion, way, or form. If it's a cooking show with commentary, then I'm okay with that.

When you are talking to the contestants are you conscious of playing a role?
I'm a hybrid of myself. I'm not Alton Brown on Good Eats, which is the real me. I'm my Iron Chef persona which is a little different. I am an agent provocateur and a critic. It's a different hat but the same guy. When the chairman is there, I'm playing another role, of subordinate, which chafes me just a little bit. It's a fine line, and I never actually know if I get it. I really don't know how I come off.

There's a moment in the first episode wherein the chairman walks by, and he does this Hollywood martial arts bow and you subtly incline your head.
That sounds like something I would do. There's a shot in one of the shows where he walks by and he pinches my ass. Neither one of us played it up, but it ended up in the cut. Mark Dacascos, who plays the Chairman, is one of my top ten favorite people on Earth. He's not like the Chairman at all. It's funny: I'm playing me and he's playing another person. We're just having fun to the best of our ability, especially concerning the amount of business that's going on around us.

As opposed to many other culinary reality shows, the contestants on The Next Iron Chef are very well-known and very well-respected. Marco Canora, for example, here in New York is a rock-star. Is there a thought that you need to respect them as something more than mere pawns for good television, but actual professionals?
The Next Iron Chef operates on two principles. Number one, respect for the food. Number two, respect for the chef. Nothing is ever about wanting the chef to fail or wanting to see the chef fall down and have a nervous breakdown. I don't want to see that. I'm not interested in that. What I want to do is make sure that the last chef standing is the right one for this job. I have a real vested interest in Iron Chef America being successful and continuing to be successful. I don't want to muddy it up with bad cooks.

Turning to Iron Chef America, I've always been curious what's on those screens you're looking at. Are you checking Facebook?
What I'm seeing on one monitor is four cameras from the left-hand side of the kitchen: One robocam, the main jib and two handheld cameras. I'm seeing the same mirrored on the other side. On my laptop I generally have open a very, very big database of ingredient information that I keep, and then I have an iPad in my left hand that is generally online so I can look up an ingredient online. I'm flowing between all those things. At the same time I'm getting a constant feed in my right ear from the culinary producer in the booth who's being fed by two culinary spotters on the floor.

You are a vessel.
I have to be a vessel that people pour things into because I can't make it through the hour. While I'm repeating something somebody upstairs is saying to me, I'm actually reading online. I can shut my mouth off from my brain. I can read one thing while I'm saying another. It is my only marketable skill.

That might be the defining skill of our time. Is it a stressful hour?
It's a kick. It's a rush. Is there stress? Yes, but it's good stress. I dig that hour.

Does everybody goes from Kitchen Stadium to grab a beer after the show wraps?
Well, if they are, they're not inviting me.

I know you are a born-again Christian, though I don't know if that is a term you use.
Yeah, "born-again" is kind of an odd term because that's like saying a see-through window. But yes, I am a Christian.

How does your faith and religion play into your professional life?
I hope everything. One of the things I pray for on a daily basis is that whatever God wants me to be doing, it's reflected through my actions, how I deal with other people, the way I do my job. And I hope I do it in a way that pleases Him. Like today, I'm in an eleven-hour shoot-day where I'm the writer, the executive producer, the host, and the director. It's a lot of stress. Tempers can flare. Words can be said. So there's one whole level on a day-to-day basis of just trying to act the best one can.

As far as other decisions, my wife runs the company. We try not to make any big decisions about the direction of this company or my career without praying about it. We try to listen to what God says to us pretty hard and we say no to a lot of things because of that. We're not rich and that's because if we don't get a clear feeling for what we ought to be doing, we don't do it. We turn down endorsements. We say no to things. You know, none of this is mine. For some reason I am being trusted with it and I take the stewardship of it really, really seriously.

Do you find the Food Network world and culinary world is an awkward place to bring up your faith?
I'm not a spooky snake handler because I live in Georgia and I'm Christian, that I believe in the Bible, that I travel with the Bible, that I read the Bible everyday. I'm still me. I'm still a guy doing a job. I find, actually, that people ask me a lot about it. I don't hit people over the head with the Bible. I don't speak in tongues. But I will tell you yes, we live in an extremely materialistic society. Food people, I think, tend to be more spiritual, but it is very tough to be in media.

When I go to New York and I tell people I am going to church tomorrow, people take a couple of steps back from me. What I've learned to do is go ahead and take two steps forward. But yeah it's tough, and there have been times when I've broken out in a sweat a little. I still feel a funny little tinge in my stomach when I'm out to dinner with my wife and daughter in New York. We'll go to dinner and we'll be sitting around the table and we'll say Grace. You know what? People are going to stare at you. I used to feel really self-conscious. But I've gotten to a point where I think, nah, I'm not going to feel bad about that. I'm not going to apologize about that. But it is interesting. It's never the food part of it, it's the media part.

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