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Alton Brown on His Tour, Food TV, & Culinary School

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Photo: Food Network

Television host Alton Brown continues to be as busy as ever, juggling a weekly podcast, a brand new Food Network show, a thorough website revamp, and a live tour launching in October. In a telephone interview this week, Brown explained to Eater his plans for "a very large semi-explosive food demonstration" on his tour, why he views Cutthroat Kitchen more like a game show than a culinary competition, and how he's done pretty much every genre of show that the Food Network offers over his past 14 years working with them. Inspired by one of his podcast interviews with Chopped host Ted Allen, Brown also reflects on the effect food TV has had on culinary school applicants.

Your tour kicks off next month. I understand there is a poncho zone. What is that? How is the tour preparation going?
The poncho zone may be required. There are two food demos, one of which is fairly explosive, I guess would maybe be the word to use. Not as in explosives, but there could be some liquid sprayed around a bit. So the ponchos are for the first two zones just in case they want to have a little extra protection. The second big demo is not nearly as messy. My whole goal is to put together food demonstrations that are things that people would not have ever seen done before. And, in fact, I doubt anybody has seen this before because we made up some pretty wacko stuff.

Such as?
I can't give anything away. Let's just say that there are two food demos that are things that I'm pretty sure have never been done before.

What else do you have in store for audience members?
The tour show is pretty interesting because I have a trio that will be performing five of my food songs. So it's the first time that I'll be singing and playing various instruments in front of an audience since I was about 18 years old. There's a lot of other stuff that I don't want to give away. But those are the two things that people wouldn't expect out of a culinary show: a very large semi-explosive food demonstration and live music. That's kind of scary. But that's come together pretty nicely.

What's it like putting the show together?
I've been doing live shows for almost 10 years, but never as a touring show. So I've done a lot of things on stage and I like that venue a lot. Coming up with a show that you can take down and build night after night, pack in a truck and get out again is difficult because it's got to be really robust. One of the demos requires a very large piece of custom equipment — over 12 feet long, 7 feet high that draws huge amounts of electricity. So when you build for a show like this, you've got to make sure it's going to work in every single theater that you're going to play, which gets kind of complicated sometimes. So it's just taken a lot of planning. But it's something that I've wanted to do for, gosh, six or seven years, seriously, and just have not been able to take the time to do it.

So kind of like your dream show?
It is. I won't lie, it's all stuff that I've wanted to do for a long time in front of audiences. I've been writing food songs for myself for years never thinking they would be performed. Then finally I thought some of these are actually not bad, most of them are kind of funny, and a couple of them are going to get me into a little bit of trouble. One of them in particular. There's a song called TV Chef, which is probably going to raise a couple of eyebrows. That's okay. It's all satire. You can get away with anything if you're making a joke or singing, right?

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Alton Brown practicing for his tour. [Photo: Facebook]

Exactly. I saw you mentioned at your show in Charlotte this Spring that you're going to be revamping your website as a subscription-drive site, and I see it's still under construction. Can you shed any light on what you're doing there?
We're completely rebuilding the site from square one. It's three months behind. It's nobody's fault but mine. I keep playing around with the subscription piece. We have shot a bunch of new video content that is very much the kind of thing where if you were a fan of Good Eats, you would like it a whole lot. All shorts, all under five minutes. At first, I had made them to go onto the subscription site because they actually [had] higher production values than Good Eats had.

But then I realized wow, these things are really expensive to make. Can I continue to fill a subscription site as often as everybody says I need to fill a subscription site? Other people wanted me to put them on YouTube, but they're way too expensive. On YouTube you've got to to put a new video up every week. I can't afford to do that with these. So I'm looking at a couple of other options. We're probably putting them together in almost like a video album, if you will, and selling them on iTunes for like $3.99. I've got an hour of material that I'm really, really proud of that's hard to figure out what to do with because I really like making high-end production stuff. Hopefully by the time the tour launches [the website] will be up, but I can't make any promises.

Got it. I mean, in the meantime you're pretty busy. You've also got Cutthroat Kitchen.
I know that I'm doing at least one more season of Cutthroat Kitchen because we start shooting [another season] on September 11. So that'll be another 13 [episodes] that we do. What'll happen after that, I have absolutely no idea.

How has that been for you?
The thing about Cutthroat Kitchen that I like is that it's an actual game. It's not a competition like most culinary competition shows like, okay, here's this many chefs and you're going to cook these ingredients and you've got this much time and then some people are going to taste your food and somebody's going to leave. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something that was an actual game that had to be played. Yes, you have to cook, but it's more important that you play the game. For me, that makes Cutthroat Kitchen interesting and potentially fun because it's a lot more about how you work the options and what you do to your opponents than just the food that you make. At least when I'm there watching it unfold, I find it fun.

It's a little on the devilish side, which is a role that I try to play, but hopefully it still comes across as relatively good clean fun. Is it the end-all be-all of culinary creativity? Only if you look at what people have to come up with to get through a challenge. Is it silly to watch people have to make all of their utensils out of aluminum foil? Yes. Is it interesting to watch how they come up with things they do with it? Yeah, if you let it be. So there's actually a lot more room for creativity than you might think in a game like that as long as people get their head around what the game actually is.

You're on record as not being a fan of reality television but view Iron Chef more like an athletic competition. So is that and the game aspect of Cutthroat Kitchen sort of exceptions to you?
Well, unfortunately, anytime a show starts being driven more by produced interviews, the less I like it. Almost all competition shows have that to some degree now. I preferred Iron Chef America when it was like ABC's Wild World of Sports. It was literally — it still is — a one-hour competition. And I got to be a sports commentator, just like calling an NFL game. I liked that from a participant standpoint and as a viewer. I don't really need to hear a bunch of outside interview kind of stuff. But then, I'm 51 years old. I'm not of the generation that likes that stuff. I understand that people want stories to be all tied up and for characters to drive things. For me personally, I would rather just shut up everybody and play the game. That's just me and I'm but one small player in this.

I listened to your podcast with [Food Network executives] Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson and you asked their thoughts on the evolution of the Food Network over the last 20 years. But how has it changed since you started with them?
Gosh, that was 14 years ago. And for a long time, I didn't really pay attention much. When I started making Good Eats, I stopped watching all other food shows because I tend to pick up stuff like Velcro and I was afraid that I wouldn't make an original show if I started either responding to what other shows were doing or trying to not do what certain shows did. So I quit watching. I basically didn't watch another food show for a decade. If I didn't produce it, I didn't watch it.

So I really don't know how much the network changed. I can only say that, for my part, by the end of this year I will have taken part of every genre of television that network makes. I've done documentary because Feasting on Asphalt my motorcycle show was a documentary. Iron Chef America was and I still think is an athletic event. Reality? Definitely Next Iron Chef is a reality show. A judge because now I have judged on Food Network Star, which is the only show that I've judged on. And now a game show with Cutthroat Kitchen. So I think that's all the genres. And that's a challenge as a performer. It was a goal of mine to try them all, to see what I could actually do as an on-camera person as well as a producer.

I have another documentary mini-series that will be coming out next year called Foods That Made America that's going to be a historical documentary about the foods that America would not have ended up being America without. That's going to be my attempt at kind of big non-fiction storytelling. We'll be shooting the entire month of December.

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Alton Brown and Ted Allen. [Photo: Facebook]

Cool. And switching topics, I was listening, again, to your podcast where Ted Allen talked about the effects of food TV on culinary schools and the way they are filled with students who are more interested in being on TV than actually cooking. What are your thoughts on whether culinary school is worth it?
I can only speak for myself. Culinary was worth it for me because I was already in a career and needed to acquire a new skill-set. I had spent a decade in film and television production and needed to get a very deep, very concentrated culinary background, so I went to a culinary school with a two-year program that was a lot like medical school, basically six days a week and a hard program. I was like the old guy at 34 when I went. I don't know that I could have gotten anywhere without it.

But it's not for everybody by any stretch of the imagination. And what I really don't like is seeing kids skip college to go to culinary school. I don't think it's a replacement for college. Maybe for some it is, but not for everyone. And I do think there are a lot of people that go to culinary school because they want to be TV stars. I've had them in my kitchen. I basically don't take interns anymore because everybody doesn't want to work real hard and they want to know where their show is. I don't know who's been promising them that.

I'm sure there are a lot of good things about culinary school, but one of the things that has certainly changed in the last 15 years or so is more and more culinary schools are concentrating on science. When I went to culinary school, it wasn't even taught. Not really. I mean, there was some kind of flirting with science, but it was still mostly a French-driven culinary school where it was more about, "This is how you do it. Go do it. Don't ask why you do it. Don't ask how it works. Just do it." Now, culinary schools are far more into scientific programs and scientific understanding of cooking, which I'm not going to argue against. I think it's probably a good thing. But it isn't for everybody. Is it worth it? I think that's like saying is college worth it. I don't think you can make that generalization. I can't.

Yeah, I agree.
Thank you for listening to my podcasts, by the way. I appreciate that.

Oh of course, they're really fun. What do you have coming up?
Well, tomorrow I'm going to be interviewing Julian Van Winkle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. I've got one coming up with Valerie Bertinelli pretty soon, that was a lot of fun. I've got Simon Majumdar coming up. I've got another 20 in the can ready to go. I'm doing three for Thanksgiving, three consecutive weeks that are nothing but answering questions from fans. I think we've got podcasts through next April. I'll keep making them until the money runs out, I guess, because we have no sponsors. So eventually I'll probably not be able to afford to do it anymore.

It's something I've wanted to do for a long time and I just didn't make it happen. I do not plan the interviews at all. They're just conversations. There are no questions, there's no preordained anything. That's the fun part for me.

How do you decide who to interview?
That's a good question. It's typically pretty organic. I started by thinking about people that I knew who I thought had something interesting to say. And then I started meeting new people and had several interviews with people I'd never met before who have interesting stories to tell. You'll just kind of stumble upon an idea. I try not to go after people that I don't have some kind of connection with. Luckily, I've met so many people doing shows like Iron Chef America, even if they're not in food professionally. And I like that. I like talking to people who aren't known for food about food. Sometimes it's nice to talk to people that are in food about things that aren't food. One of my favorites so far was with Bobby Flay, who talked about horses for an hour. It's nice to see that other side of people.

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