At Alton Brown’s L.A. show, he’ll have demos and songs about food
According to Alton Brown, “Eat Your Science,” his live show at the Pantages Theatre on March 17 and 18, sprung from an intense boyhood obsession with variety shows. And is there a better explanation for why else this bespectacled nerd scientist with the restless mind and affinity for culinary MacGyver-ing would find time to wedge in a nationwide tour amid his many cooking competition gigs (“Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Chopped” and his new reboot “Iron Chef Gauntlet”) and promoting his latest cookbook (“EveryDayCook”)?
In the follow-up to his 2013 “Edible Inevitable Tour,” Brown promises a decidedly singular mix of fast talk, big laughs, chemistry, large scale demos, audience participation, a live band and self-penned songs about food. When it comes to Los Angeles, he also sees the two nights as a sentimental do-over. Brown, who was born in North Hollywood, but moved with his family to Georgia when he was 8, has only the gauziest of memories about his last time on the stage in 2013 at the 80-year-plus landmark theater.
“I was as sick as a dog,” Brown admitted during a recent phone interview. “I was so heavily medicated just to be able to function. I’m taking better care of myself because I want to remember the Pantages this time.”
Describe “Eat Your Science” to someone who has never seen it.
It’s a culinary variety show. When I was growing up, I was addicted to variety shows on TV – everything from “Sonny and Cher” to “The Smothers Brothers.” Variety shows are nothing but modern vaudeville. I’ve always enjoyed doing live culinary demonstrations, but I always wanted to do more and bigger. Then I had the opportunity to build [my first] touring show, “Edible Inevitable Tour.” It ran for two years, and played in 120 cities. It was a mixture of everything: music, very large, unusual culinary demonstrations, audience interactions, volunteers on stage and puppets.
When that was done, I thought, “I want to do that again.” Then I had to write a completely new show because I didn’t want to recycle material. So that’s what “Eat Your Science” is – it’s my new culinary variety show. But there’s more pieces this time: There’s a game show component and there’s a dance number, which I often have said was a line I would not cross. [Laughs]
In your latest cookbook, “EveryDayCook,” you have a recipe for Salisbury steak that calls for an instant ramen flavor packet. Is that just a delivery system for MSG?
Actually, MSG and other industrial flavors of goodness. I’m not going to lie. The inside of that ramen flavor packet? I would snort that at a party. It’s frickin’ delicious. Is it mostly MSG? You betcha. I have no problem with that. We all go on and on about umami. That’s all that it is. When I first started making that dish, I kept thinking, “There’s something missing from my childhood” and I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I realized, “Wait a second. My childhood memories of Salisbury steak” – which I adore – “were all Swanson TV dinners or school lunch.” So I went back and did some research and realized, “I know what I’m missing now – I’m missing industry.” The night that I was working on it, I was at home, and I hadn’t been divorced very long, and was living in an apartment and didn’t have that much food. All of the sudden, there was this package of ramen looking at me and I broke it open and got out that little packet and that was it. And guess what? It’s delicious.
How did you convince your publisher that you wanted to shoot the entire book with an iPhone 6?
I’m going to be honest here: I’m at a place in my career where I enjoy not having to talk people into things. I just tell them what I’m going to do. I do wish I waited for the iPhone 7 because the camera is so superior than the one of the 6s plus. Part of using the iPhone was very much wanting to use a populist tool, the sort of Kodak Brownie of our generation – and that was part me also trying to say something about Instagram.
Are you referring to the Instagram that you seem to love? Or the Instagram that you sometimes disparage?
I love Instagram – but I question constantly its influence on the food world. There are firms now that do nothing but design Instagram-friendly lighting for restaurants. I worry sometimes that people are too busy taking pictures of their food. I know people who decide where they’re going to eat and what they’re going to order by whether it will Instagram well. I don’t know how I feel about that.
At the same time, I know a lot of small restaurants or even ingredients that wouldn’t be as well known if it weren’t for Instagram. So like so many things in our media age, it’s a two-edged sword.
Let’s talk about your podcast, “The Alton Browncast.” Some of the best episodes are ones where you are interviewing your staff. Why do you think that is?
If you’re a creative person, you’ve got two sweet spots. You’re either completely isolated and alone, which I am a lot of the time, or I’m with people that are creatively orbiting with you. I was a huge fan of “The Tonight Show” when I was a kid. It wasn’t put together by publicists. It was just people talking. No one was pushing a new movie. So when I started the podcast I thought, “I know that I’ll have to do food stuff in the beginning, but what I really want is to talk to people.” And then I started doing it and after 40 or 50, something was still bothering me. I was over-researching and planning too much. I had questions. So there was an agenda: I needed to get my questions answered. So I stopped prepping. At all. Not one bit. I sit down with someone and we talk. For me, it’s delightful. No one is on their own or tweeting. We’re just talking.
Speaking of your many and far-flung projects, aren’t you planning to open a coffee shop in your hometown of Marietta, Ga.? If so, why?
I’m addicted to coffee and to coffee shops. And I can’t get a good cup of coffee around here. I want to open a coffee shop that is extremely simple. There will be excellent WiFi, you can come hang out for as long as you want. There will be jazz music playing and there’s not going to be any drip coffee. It’s all going to be pour over or espresso. I like hanging out at coffee shops. I like the art on the wall at coffee shops. For me, it’s about the coffee, yes. But it’s also about the shop. It’s basically going to be curated like it’s my second living room. And occasionally, I will come in the back door in my pajamas or a robe and get a cup of coffee and sit down and read the paper.
Recently you’ve been talking about reviving “Good Eats,” and distributing it yourself. Explain.
I made “Good Eats” for 14 straight years. If I was awake, I was working on “Good Eats.” The reason I stopped doing it wasn’t that I got tired or that the network didn’t want it. It’s that I sensed the shift in media consumption. At the time, people were starting to cable cut and live in a strictly digital realm. I wanted to see where that went. I wasn’t on any of the platforms at the time. Now I am at the point where I think I get it and I think I know where my audience has gone. It’s interesting: Food Network decided to let Netflix have access to “Good Eats” episodes. In fact some young people think I made “Good Eats” from Netflix. And it gave me a whole new bump in interest in that kind of entertainment. Many people started asking for it again. That’s when I realized, “OK, it’s time.” But it’s not going to be on television. It’s going to be digitized because that’s where my fans are consuming a majority of their media. But how do you shoot things for that medium? It’s different from making television. So it’s a new frontier in a way.
On a recent episode of KCRW’s “Good Food,” you mentioned that you almost appeared on “Breaking Bad.” Was it in the role of Walter White’s erudite meth-cooker, Gale?
Yes. It’s based on me. So it wasn’t going to be Gale, but something else. I wanted to do it so badly. I’m a huge admirer of Vince Gilligan, who is a big “Good Eats” fan. I want to be Vince Gilligan when I grow up. But my ex-wife, who was my business partner at the time said, “You can’t cook meth on one channel and eggs on another.” And she was right. I was like, “Damn it. She’s right. I can’t have kids watching me make cupcakes on one channel and be a criminal on another.” So I didn’t do it.
You are part of the creative team behind a six-episode Food Network “Iron Chef” reboot called “Iron Chef Gauntlet.” How is it different from past iterations?
What I wanted desperately was to reboot that franchise in a new way – almost like rebooting a Marvel comic into a movie series. I wanted to start over and do it the way I wanted to do it.
I’m the Chairman now. It is a very culinarily aggressive show now, scarily culinarily aggressive. One where the best chefs will say, “If you really want to see what you’re made of, that’s the one you want to go on.” It is 150,000 times about the food and the cooking. There’s no reality BS or personality BS. It’s the FOOD. The six episode arc of “Gauntlet” I think is the most culinarily aggressive thing I’ve ever been involved with and I’m really happy about that.
“[Iron Chef] America” had a lot of smoke and moving lights. This is less theater, more food. We’ll see how audiences react to what I think and what Food Network is thinking about the state of food competition shows – which is that it’s time to hit the re-set button.
You’ve said that your 50-pound weight loss caused a rift between you and food. Explain.
It’s a whole other subject, and an odd one because I’m just starting to come to terms with it myself. I spent most of my life heavy and when you’re in front of a camera, there are days where that’s all you see. So I created this diet and I lost 50 pounds. And you know what? I wasn’t any happier. And, in fact, I didn’t like the way I looked or felt. But I thought, “I am finally thin. I can take my shirt off at the beach now.” And I was freaking miserable. Did I enjoy wearing the skinny Italian suits? Yes. But jeepers, at the end of the day I wanted a cocktail and a hamburger. So food was not my friend for a while and testing recipes was a pain.
Then I turned 50, and I thought, “... this. I don’t want to weigh 170 pounds. I want to enjoy life and when I am enjoying life, my body is heavier.” So I put 20 pounds back on.
Is that why five years passed between “I’m Just Here for More Food” and your latest, “EveryDayCook”?
“EveryDayCook” is a result of me being single again; most of the food was concocted at 2 a.m. I was by myself in an apartment, cooking again for myself for the first time in years. In a way, “EveryDayCook” is very much a self-portrait of the author at a particular age. This is me at 53. I try to watch what I eat and I exercise, but I ain’t going to be skinny ever again. So I’ve come out the other side in love with food again.”
2:22 p.m. This article has removed the reference to a cowboy waltz about GMOs. This song is no longer a part of the show.
This article was originally published at 9 a.m.
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