Playing With Your Food: A Q&A With Alton Brown

Ahead of his show at Purdue University later this month, we chatted with the mad scientist of cuisine about Julia Child, food science, and the good eats he enjoys on the road.

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You may remember him from his kitchen antics on Good Eats, where he extolled the virtues of kitchen scales and probe thermometers. Or you might know him from the more recent Cutthroat Kitchen, where he reduced contestants to cooking meals in cages with lobster claws on their hands. However you know him, Food Network host and culinary celebrity Alton Brown is bringing his zany brand of food science, music, and humor to Purdue University’s Elliott Hall of Music on Sunday, October 22, as part of his Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science tour. For additional information and tickets, visit altonbrownlive.com.

Indianapolis Monthly: Probably more than any other TV food personality, you’ve made your career out of not just telling home cooks that they could cook but that they could understand the science and processes behind what they’re cooking. Do you get the sense that people really are cooking more in their homes because of the Food Network?

Alton Brown: It’s true that there is a much larger portion of the Food Network’s audience now that simply watches the shows and doesn’t cook the food. Back when Julia Child was first airing shows in the ’60s, it was certainly the case that a lot more of her viewers were actually cooking her food. But that’s what happens when you go from very niche television to mainstream media, as the Food Network has. Many more people are watching for the entertainment value of the cooking competitions and travel shows such as Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Despite that, I’m confident that more people are cooking, because people tell me all the time that they’re cooking at home. They’re definitely more informed about food.

IM: What episodes of Good Eats do people ask you most about?

AB: You know, that’s a funny question, because it’s a total mishmash of what shows people remember the most. Of course, many people remember the hour-long shows, and a lot of people made their first turkeys because of our Thanksgiving show (“Romancing the Bird”). But beyond that, it seems that everyone has a different favorite show.

IM: Do fans bring you things from your shows for you to sign?

AB: Oh, of course. They bring me all sorts of gadgets that appeared on the show and other things they’ve concocted on their own because of watching me. Some bring their kitchen knives. Some have brought the covers off of the backs of their KitchenAid mixers. I’ve even had people bring in whole smokers for me to sign.

IM: You’ve been on the Food Network for almost two decades. How do you account for your enduring appeal?

AB: I don’t know if I’m the one to answer that, but if I could put my finger on anything, it would be that I’ve constantly evolved from the early days of Good Eats to when I was the host of Iron Chef to having my own shows such as Cutthroat Kitchen. I have seen where food television is going and have adapted what I do to what audiences want to watch. That said, I’m planning a reboot of Good Eats that will be looser, more obtuse, and more for the food enthusiast. There’s a teaser of the show on YouTube.

IM: What kinds of things does the stage show allow you to do that TV shows don’t?

AB: I often say at the beginnings of the night that my show is two and a half hours of what no one will let me do on TV. And I don’t mean just the food science stuff. My show is definitely a variety show in the old sense. It’s a mix of comedy, magic tricks, and even music. I mean, no one wants to hear Alton Brown sing on TV! Also, on TV, what I make has to be reasonable for the home chef to make as well. With the shows, what we do doesn’t have to be replicable, and we have a lot of fun with that freedom.

IM: What are some of the challenges of taking a show on the road?

AB: We’ve been touring for two years now, and we’ve learned that you have to design a show that can fit every stage. But once you’ve got the technical specs down and you’ve got a great crew to work with, there shouldn’t be all that many problems, and the shows generally go off without a hitch.

IM: What things can’t you do?

AB: Theater managers don’t like fire. They don’t want to hear about anything that has to do with fire. But that’s a limitation that has actually led to innovation. Because of it, we’ve developed the Mega Bake Oven, which is essentially a giant Easy-Bake Oven. It’s how we deal with the need for heat on the show, and it’s become a fixture on the road show.

IM: How much do you get to enjoy the food and culture of the cities you visit?

AB: We do a program called #abroadeats on social media leading up to every show that’s all about getting out and finding the best food of the cities on the tour. Fans can go online and post their suggestions of places they think we should go. A lot of what I’m doing during the day of the show is tabulating the results, and that leads me to where we go for breakfast, lunch, coffee, etc. It’s really the best way for me to customize the show and celebrate the local foods and ingredients of the places we visit.

IM: Purdue University is routinely ranked in the top Food Science programs in the country with a concentration in food chemistry. Do you feel daunted when there may be some of the top food scientists in the country in the audience?

AB: Of course, I know the reputation of Purdue University’s programs. I’ve met and worked with many of the graduates of their Food Science programs. But on any given night I do not assume that I’m the smartest guy in the room. And I’ve been corrected a few times by knowledgeable audience members. What I hope, at least, is that I’m on the good side of my audiences, no matter whether they’re experts or not.

IM: What should people know who want to attend your shows?

AB: I think that people should know that even though the show can be pretty zany at times, that it’s definitely a family-oriented show—and it’s very interactive. We try to get everyone involved, and probably half of the show is with audience members that we choose completely at random up on the stage. But it’s as much a show for 5-year-olds as it is for 90-year-olds. And I sure hope that I spark an interest in some of my younger fans that will make them lifelong food lovers.

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