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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Apr. 17, 2017 2 years ago

Dinner and a Show: A Conversation with Alton Brown

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With his touring live variety show, ‘Eat Your Science,’ the chef and T.V. personality blends his two passions — performance and food.
by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

Before Alton Brown was teaching “Good Eats” viewers to build makeshift cooking tools from hardware store supplies — before he was subjecting unlucky “Cutthroat Kitchen” hopefuls to culinary obstacles as bizarre as they are challenging (prepping beef with four-foot chopsticks; making meatballs in a ball pit) — he was studying theater in college.

Unsatisfied with the quality of cooking shows available, Brown went to culinary school and set out to create his own.

As the evolution of his Food Network programs reveal, the chef and television personality not only knows his way around the kitchen — he’s always had a flair for the theatrical.   

Now, with his second live tour, “Eat Your Science,” Brown is combining his two passions onstage in a way he says television simply would never allow.

“There’s not a network on Earth that would let me play funny food songs on guitar; use puppets or put on giant, over-the-top food demonstrations,” he says. “But I enjoy those theatrical aspects, and the audience does, too.”

We caught up with Brown to dish on combining his two passions, the science behind food and just what he would do if he were a food god.

Courtesy of Alton Brown

"THIS IS MY SECOND TOUR; the idea came out of the fact that I always enjoyed live demos in cooking. In the media world, I started doing that about 15 years ago, and I always wanted to make them bigger and work theatrical things into them.”

 

"I STARTED DOING different one-offs, but you can't distribute the cost of a really big performance onto just one show, so I thought it would be cool to do a touring show. Variety shows as an art form are near and dear to my heart — Carol Burnette, Sonny and Cher, even all the way back to vaudeville. So that’s where these ideas started to come from.”

 

“THESE ARE ALL THE THINGS I don’t get to do on T.V. Or maybe they’re things nobody would pay me to do on T.V. The demos I do are very large and unusual, and they wouldn’t be practical. The ones I do on T.V. are always practical for the home cook. You might have to go to the hardware store, but you can do them.”

Photo by Sarah DeHeer. Courtesy of Alton Brown.

“I HAVE A PROLONGED RANT. There’s a big section of the show where I wonder: If I were a food god, what would I do with all that power? I call it a rant. It’s only comedy if someone laughs at it — that’s an important distinction, to be sure. I incorporate things that are better for a theatrical environment. It would be easy to say, ‘Oh, let’s do “Good Eats” live.’ But that doesn’t really work.”

 

“IN A CASE LIKE THIS, you’ve got to take same DNA used to create one critter and remix it to come up with something else — something that walks and talks differently.”

 

“I’M ALWAYS TRYING TO FIND the edge of the envelope. Food is an endless subject that fascinates people, brings them together and sparks their curiosity. You can approach food through scientific ideas, from a cultural standpoint or just the sheer joy of cooking and eating. So I ask, ‘Can I do this with puppets? With songs, playing guitar? What can I get away with in the name of food? The rush for me is to discover new territory within the known realm.”

 

“I DO SEE SIMILARITIES between food and performance. With both, you can never know it all. In fact, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. To me, cooking is performance. Why do you think we watch people do it? It’s an act of performance, but also of hospitality. It’s a personal and public act — that’s why we all have kitchens and we like to spend time in them, sharing. Ultimately, food brings people together.”

Photo by Sarah DeHeer. Courtesy of Alton Brown.

“THE SCIENCE ASPECT of food became a passion for me when I realized it was the key to cooking. After that, I became far more literate in that sense and began looking at food through that lens. It’s only then that you really start to understand scrambled eggs.”

 

“THAT MADE ME CURIOUS enough to go find these things out. Why do we do things this way or that way? Why does this ingredient act this way? The answers to that are almost unilaterally scientific.”

 

“THE SHOW IS BASED IN SCIENCE, but first and foremost, it’s meant to entertain. I have no interest in lecturing people. I want them to have a good time, and a little later on, maybe they’ll think about something in a new way.”

Photo by Lamar Owen. Courtesy of Alton Brown.

“T.V. WORK IS FUN, but it’s relatively unrewarding. Too much of it will slowly suck your soul out of your head through your eyeballs. A theatrical audience gives it back. If do it right, I leave with more energy than I went onstage with. It’s a beautiful kind of exhausted.”

 

“#ABRoadEats is something that’s important to me. It’s about connectivity and creating a greater sense of community before get into the theater. As I travel around, things start to blur together if I don’t get out and soak up some local juice. With this hash tag, we let people talk and brag about their favorite local food, then we tally the votes and stop in to eat at a local place. We’ve had some great discoveries and hidden jewels.”

 

“IF I COULD COOK FOR ANYBODY, it would be Orson Welles. I believe him to be one of the greatest American filmmakers who ever lived — an absolute genius and pioneer of theatrical production. And he loved his food. I’m pretty sure there would have to be a cheeseburger in there someplace. It would be a big meal.”

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