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Alton Brown on the Next Iron Chef and Future Plans

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Season four of the Food Network's The Next Iron Chef premieres October 30 (see a preview), and this time around it's called "Super Chefs" because the lineup includes the likes of Anne Burrell, Spike Mendelsohn, and Marcus Samuelsson. The didactic and always surprising Alton Brown returns as host. Here he talks about the show, his future plans (a couple of new series on the Food Network, digital cookbooks, and documentaries), and what, exactly, a "Kardashian" is.

The first three seasons had contestants that were maybe not in the national eye — they were really well-known, respected chefs in their own cities — but this season is different. The competitors are either homegrown Food Network talent or what people would call "celebrity chefs." Did you have a hand in that?
Well I don't have a choice. I was just given a list. Of course, the first thing that struck me was: wow, people with something to lose. Before, it was, people with something to win. Now, it's flipped on its head a bit, because none of the people need to make reputations. So I would say, in almost all cases, they have more to lose than gain. I mean, there's a lot to gain, because I still think being an Iron Chef is a big deal. It's a legit title. But man, going down, used to be, anybody who was on Next Iron Chef, it was like, look, you're here. Even if you go mid-show, you were still on Next Iron Chef. Now, ahhh, it's not quite the same dynamic. You can certainly sense that during taping.

The thing that made this run so much different was the structure of the show has been reworked. So every episode has what we call The Chairman's Challenge in which everybody participates in, and then everyone is judged, but the last two in the bottom have to face each other in the secret ingredient showdown, one on one, one dish, with all the other chefs watching. And that changes everything, that mano-a-mano business, it's really pretty gut-wrenching.

In the past couple of seasons, the contestants were forced to judge each other — is that gonna happen again?
There is still some of that, it is not used all the time. It is an element in game play that can be used strategically, it is not something that everybody has to simply endure. You know, when that was done before, there was never a consequence from it. Yeah, a winner got an advantage, but other than that, there was no price to pay. It's a really different dynamic this time, because of the structure of the competition, but most of all because of who's involved.

And what's your role on the show? Are you a producer?
I'm the host. I have input as to how the show runs, and I'd like to thing that I'm one of the steering forces but I'm not one of the producers.

You previously told Eater, "When it starts veering away into being a reality show, I scream and jump up and down and pull down my pants and holler."
Well let's put it this way: If I smell anything that seems like producers are producing the results? I want whoever wins, to have won fair and square, above all. My job is to oversee things, but then also during the judging I want to make sure that everything's on the square, that they're not being affected by outside forces, because there are a lot of people around. But you know what? The truth is I've never seen anything like that happen on the show before. If anything funny's happened, it's gone on behind my back, and I know all these judges relatively well. I like to think that I'm there policing their wishes, but the truth is, I'm probably not needed.

There are gonna be some shocking reversals of fortune. I'll be really honest: Working on that show was really freaking stressful. Because a the end of the day, I'm the one who was to look at somebody and say, "Sorry, you're not going to be the Next Iron Chef." And most of the people I'm looking at could cook me under the table. And that's stressful. More stressful for them, I know, but I'm hoping that some of that comes across on television.

Right now you're doing the book tour for your latest book, what's next for you?
Well I've got a couple of shows in development with the Food Network that are taking shape. One is a mini-series that's got a historical bent to it called Foods That Changed the World. I'm having a tough time with it, because I'm trying to keep it to six episodes that tell stories of particular foods, and it's a real challenge to decide what foods to look at and how to tell that story. Because food is connected to everything else, and filling out those wires is kind of tough.

I'm also working on another show called Food Files, which is going to be either done quarterly, or maybe monthly. It will be just kind of a fun investigation of a particular food topic. You know, why can't we stay on a diet? How are we going to feed 9 billion people? What does "sustainable" really mean? Why do women, when they're pregnant, eat such weird stuff? Things that can send me on a course of investigation and experimentation.

And I'm also getting ready to launch into a series of enhanced e-books. My last paper book is probably the one that I'm touring right now. It's a frontier. And it's incredibly open, as far as I own a video production company, so how I'm going to approach that is probably going to be different than someone who writes cookbooks. What can really be the role of a tablet-style computer in the kitchen, as an information and entertainment source? So I'm going to spend some time, and not a small amount of money, trying to figure that out.

And what about that project about the history of cookbooks?
I'm really interested in two historical lines. I'm really interested in the history of cookbooks, and I'm really interested in the history of cooking shows. I'm still hoping to be able to do either a documentary or a book about the history of cookbooks. You've got to go all the way back to Apicius. You've got to go back through at least some of the court receipts and documents from the Renaissance and on. You've got to look at Rome, England, the courts of France, and the real development of cuisine between Italy, France, and England, and the origination of the modern cookbook. I've have to say it's an English phenomenon, the idea of a homemaker, a home cook, which is of course originally the servant. Having these documents is a very English thing, dating back to the 17 century. I'd love to figure out a project that would make that fun. And I think now that we're seeing a real interest by chefs in old food, food from antiquity, maybe there's gonna be enough spark to get that going.

And if I can get the rights to enough old cooking shows, I would do a documentary on the phenomenon of the cooking show, going all the way back to the early days of TV, when every TV station had their Home Ec. person. But getting the footage is remarkably difficult. Most of it has been destroyed. And then getting a hold of things like Julia Child and whatnot, I don't even have to tell you about the legal nightmares of getting all that kind of stuff. And then of course there's Food Network, so dealing with them legally is not always the most fun thing in the world. I don't know how that project's going to come together. I might have to be retired from my TV career before I dive into that one.

And what's your take on food television today? There's a fair amount of food reality television?
A fair amount? Are you serious? Gosh, when I look at all TV in general, I think that food shows have simply mutated along with the pack. Most networks run for profit as far as I can tell, PBS notwithstanding, and you have to make programming that people want to watch. I'm not a fan of reality television, and of course I have to spend a lot of time talking myself out of the fact that I'm actually on a reality television show, because there's no other way to think of Next Iron Chef. I like to think of Iron Chef America as an athletic competition and not reality show because it's really driven by cooking, and not the chef. I mourn the loss what I think to be good, instructional cooking shows. I've had Good Eats on the air for 13 years, I think that if I pitched Good Eats today, I wouldn't be able to get it made.

Right, it'd have to be on YouTube.
Yeah, I would probably make it underground-style on YouTube, but I wouldn't have the money to make it. That was a relatively expensive show to make. Single camera, a lot of props, a lot of characters. When we shot the show the pilot in 1997, finally got it on the air in 1999, managed to get enough momentum and fan base to keep it on for 13 years. But if I went and pitched that today, there's not a chance in hell I'd get that on the air. That may be because I'm older. I'm not young eye candy. I'm 49 years old, who am I kidding? I'm too old to be on freaking television, although I'll go out kicking and screaming just to prove a point.

But I don't need to see people fighting with cupcakes. I don't need to see dueling food trucks. I'm not entertained, I'm not educated, I'm not comforted. I'm not the average TV viewer. By any stretch of the imagination. If I was, the word "Kardashian" would mean something like a Slavic slaw that you put under a pork saddle. I look at people that are on TV in whatever scope, and still expect, crazy me, to see talent, skill, or something important to say. I'm whacked that way, and I know it. There's still incredibly smart food TV being made. I'll watch No Reservations until the cows come home. I think that probably Anthony Bourdain is the last intelligent voice on food on television. I still think that Andrew Zimmern does a really good job. On PBS, Christopher Kimball still does a really good job. Those guys are the last hope, I think.

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