YOU KNOW him as the affable food geek from Iron Chef America, Good Eats, Food Network Star, and Cutthroat Kitchen.
This Monday night, Feb. 9, you’ll also know Alton Brown as a stage performer and ringleader of his own ambitious “culinary variety show,” hitting the Johnny Mercer Theatre as part of a nationwide tour after eight months of rehearsal and fine-tuning.
We spoke to the gregarious Georgia native about the show and his experience as one of the Food Network’s mainstays.
You and I are old UGA grads, so I have to ask if you get back to Athens much.
Alton Brown: Do we have to say 'old?' (laughs) I actually just rekindled a lot of stuff with Athens, because the last leg of the tour launched there. We rehearsed new stuff there for five days. I gave the spring announcement there a few years ago, and I won a Peabody Award, which as you know is based at the journalism school there. I certainly don't run around to Athens every weekend, but it's still one of the places I think I could live on Planet Earth.
My time at the University of Georgia was incredibly formative. I got my start as a filmmaker because of the music scene during the ‘80s in Athens. I shot an REM video, and had a very, very bad social life. (laughs).
I found out if you want to be friends with someone and they’re maybe not as eager to be friends as you are, if you offer to cook for them they’ll reconsider everything.
You’re known as the guy who combines cooking and science. Was that an effort to brand yourself apart from other TV chefs?
Alton Brown: It never, ever has to do with brand building. Building a brand requires strategy! I simply pursued the work I wanted to do. I wanted to make films about food. Good Eats gave me 14 years of that.
I like doing what hasn’t been done before, finding unique, innovative ways of doing things. I wanted to do a live culinary variety show onstage. Nobody’s done it before.
But how long have you wanted to go on tour with a live stage show? How did that really come about?
Alton Brown: The stage show has been brewing for a decade. Over the years I've done a lot of live shows, speeches talks, live demos and the like. But that kind of thing takes money—money that's only generated by touring. To bring all the pieces together you need to do a real, full-length variety show. That's a semi truck and a couple of buses full of people.
It takes discipline. For example, if you do any more, you’ll need two trucks, and two trucks are impossible to get into some venues. You have to think about things like that.
So tell us exactly what’s in store.
Alton Brown: It's a two and a half hour culinary variety show. With everything from comedy to puppets to audience interaction to live music. And food songs! Funny food songs. Hopefully people will think they're funny, anyway, because I sure do. There will also be very large, very unusual culinary demonstrations.
Like... like Gallagher?!
Alton Brown: Gallagher made a mess just to make a mess. One demonstration we do, we give the front two rows ponchos. There are good reasons. The experiment depends on air flow. Let's just say it can, uh... deposit particulate matter on the first few rows.
Tell us the truth: Were you ever concerned about overexposure on the Food Network? That seems to be the main complaint, that it's the same few faces 24/7.
Alton Brown: Sure, I've been concerned. There was a time when Good Eats, Food Network Star, and Iron Chef America were all on at the same time. That was a big percentage of air time I was eating up. I think someone measured that at one point I was 19 percent of the Food Network's prime time output. So yeah, I was concerned.
But I worked very hard in trying to make sure I was very different in each one of the shows. I didn’t want it to just be the same me on TV all the time. I wanted to make sure I played different angles than just myself. If you have just one personality, you’re going to burn people out.
I think of myself more as an actor playing roles, as long as I play each role differently enough. I approach all this more as a performer than a brand.
A lot of it is that the TV scheduling game changed a lot over the past decade. I call it the Law & Order Paradigm. If your audience likes Law & Order at 8 p.m., then just show them more fricking Law & Order!
It definitely became a strategy to just make the night one show. Give them four hours of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. You might lose some people, but you sure won’t lose the audience that enjoys that show.
Does it work? Yes, in one way. In another way, you’re like, holy smokes, every time I turn on my TV I see the same person.
I always thought my dream job would be as The Chairman on Iron Chef. He always looked so good and so in charge, doing basically nothing.
Alton Brown: Hmmm, I wonder what Mark Dacascos would think of you saying he does 'nothing!' First and foremost, Mark is an actor and a martial artist. He actually takes playing The Chairman really seriously. He's not just walking around up there. Even when he seems to be doing nothing, he's doing a lot.
Also, he’s an amazingly good comedian. That whole over the top character of The Chairman? He invented that. That’s all him. He makes it look easy, but that’s because he’s an extremely talented actor.