I love Alton Brown. I love him with every dorky, food-loving bone in my body. Not just the Brown from nowadays, when he’s narrating or judging every televised cooking competition in sight and seeming oh-so-officious in the process. Give me some old-school Alton Brown when he’s hosting Good Eats, the science-based cooking show that’s like a Bill Nye/Julia Child hybrid (and for my money the best cooking show that’s ever been). It’s a circus act of a program, each episode usually focusing on one ingredient or cooking method but somehow bringing together skits that could have been written by a fifth-grader, interns dressed as molecules, Brown with a pointer at a meticulously illustrated chalkboard, food nerd terminology quipped full speed, history facts popping up on screen — always culminating in the most precise, and typically on-point, recipes you’ll ever try.
What Brown does works well and, even though his Eats show grew markedly more polished in the 14 seasons it ran, the Mr. Wizard act never waned and never tired. Tragically, though it can still be seen in syndication on Netflix and the Cooking Channel, Good Eats ended in 2011. Brown went on to host TV Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, Camp Cutthroat and Iron Chef America, all with a stern delivery starkly contrasting his previously wacky flair — he went from Bill Nye to Dan Rather seemingly overnight. Luckily, though, Brown didn’t completely leave the science nerd behind. In 2013, he began a live touring show, “Edible Inevitable”, which was such a hit that he’s breaking out the tour bus again for “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science.” The first show had puppets, comedy bits, songs, even a “poncho zone” for those close enough to Brown’s scientifically-driven culinary experiments to be soiled by them. And this new show, which kicks off in Charleston at the Gaillard Center on April 6, promises more of the same antics, plus lots of new ones, all ratcheted up about six more levels. Brown doesn’t want to give much away, but he promises “therapy-inducing sessions” during audience participation segments.
Therapy-inducing food science? Be still my twisted heart. When I heard I’d get to interview Brown, I wanted to ask him umpteen questions. I prepped for my dream of an Oprah-type interview where we’d hash out his life story while debating scientific theory and flipping omelets. Then maybe he’d jump on the couch declaring his love for Katie Holmes and everybody would win a car. But, alas, it was not to be. I found out a few days before our interview that Brown is a very busy man with lots of other journalists to speak to — especially with his new tour kicking off. Plus, the James Beard award-winning author is gearing up for this fall’s release of his new cookbook Alton Brown: Every Day Cook, a collection of more than 100 personal recipes punctuated with bits of science and history. So I’m only allotted 10 minutes over the phone during the junket to ask him … well, whatever I can squish in. But it’s still golden because, typical of Brown, he manages to use those minutes to full effect.
City Paper: Hi Alton, how’s it going?
Alton Brown: Oh, I’m great. Busy, but great. Working from the home office today.
CP: It’s only 8 am — is this your first interview of the day?
AB: Not even close. I’ve been at this for hours already. But I love to talk, so it’s really not so bad.
CP: So, doing this big junket, only 10 minutes to talk — you’re quite a star and have been for a while now. Is there anyone you’re still star-struck by?
AB: Let me think…well, Entertainment Weekly does this party every year, quite a big deal with a lot of big name stars. I was invited; I talked to a lot of nice people. But then I turned around and there was an actor standing four feet away by the name of Peter Capaldi, who plays Dr. Who from the BBC show. I basically wet my pants and ran away. I was so star-struck that I couldn’t even approach him. I hid behind a wall. (laughs)
CP: Tell me about a wild result from one of your science experiments.
AB: Most experiments, if you work everything out on paper beforehand, aren’t surprising. The thing about any kind of science is that you formulate a hypothesis, then you create experiments that hopefully prove your hypothesis. Very rarely do you go into it thinking, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, let’s just do it!” You could blow up an entire building, you know? Wild doesn’t happen that often. Mildly disappointing, however, happens quite a bit. You’re often thinking, “Well, we built this device and it didn’t really do what I thought it was going to do. Shoot.” And then you just feel mildly depressed for a day. The stumbling across “Oh my God! That’s wonderful!” just doesn’t happen much anymore. In this day and age, we don’t really have the time or the resources to free experiment, so you’ve got to really, really plan. But on my last tour, we invented a machine called the Jet Cream that used two office water cooler bottles and two fire extinguishers to make a gallon of chocolate ice cream in 10 seconds. And I thought it would work, we made it work, but the eureka moment was that, by doing it this way, the ice cream was actually carbonated. The cream mixture froze so quickly that it encapsulated and trapped the carbon dioxide. So that was one of those great moments that I did not see coming. It wasn’t my goal, but I’m happy to take credit for it now.
CP: That sounds delicious, wish I could have been there to try it. I was in grad school during your last tour and basically couldn’t afford ramen noodles, let alone a ticket. I’m coming to see this show and I’m so excited about it.
AB: Well it’s bigger and better and different. I didn’t want to repeat any of the last show because I did it 110 times.
CP: Yeah, I noticed that your schedule is furious. I know of rock-stars that don’t tour that hard-core. You’re hitting 40 cities in nearly as many days.
AB: We actually kind of keep the same schedule as lots of rock stars. Of course, the biggest bands travel by private plane or something, but I ride on a tour bus with the crew. We even play the same venues that bands do. So do we kind of live that life for a number of weeks.
CP: Do you have groupies too?
AB: (laughs) In any given city I will have a number of extremely devoted fans, which is lovely and always takes me by surprise a little bit. After the show there are people gathered around the buses that want to meet me, and I try to meet everyone and do pictures and the whole nine yards. But it still always takes me aback; I never get used to that.
CP: You’re on TV a lot — you’re probably sick of seeing yourself. So what do you watch when you tune in?
AB: I binge watch a lot of shows on Netflix and the like. Right now, I’m watching Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey. Kind of a yin and yang effect, gives a nice balance. I try to find a way to editorialize my binging, but I’m a big fan of binge-watching. I won’t even watch a show until I know I can see at least 30 or 40 episodes at once. I didn’t even start watching Mad Men until they stopped making Mad Men because I wanted to immerse myself in the experience.
CP: Plus, no commercials.
AB: I don’t mind the commercials, maybe because I spent so many years directing them. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ’70s. But I don’t even fast forward through the commercials when I’ve DVR-ed something.
CP: You directed TV commercials? That’s a pretty cool job. What’s the first job you ever had?
AB: My first paying job?
AB: I worked in a barbecue house in Georgia when I was 14. I eventually got fired for being underage, and then I went on to other jobs until they’d kick me out. I’ve always worked since I was that age.
CP: Why is that? Have you just always wanted to have money in your pocket, or is it something more than that?
AB: I don’t know. I really don’t. I guess I’ve just always been a worker bee. Some people say I’m a workaholic and I guess I am, but I’ve designed myself and my life by the product of my work. So I’ve just always been that way.
CP: As far as the upcoming show goes, you’ve been keeping pretty quiet. Can you give a little teaser?
AB: Well, I’m obsessed with trying to conquer different genres, so this time we have a lot of different types of songs. We’ve got a Sinatra-style number, a ’70s rock anthem, a folk song, and there’s an ’80s synth pop song. As far as the culinary demonstrations, they’re very large. They’re very unusual. One focuses on heat, another focuses on cold. I’m not going to tell you what foods we’re making, but I will tell you this: you will see things that have never been seen by human eyes, I promise. Also never done on a theatre stage, certainly.
CP: Is there significance behind kicking off this tour off in Charleston, or is that just a happy coincidence?
AB: That was definitely not by accident. For one thing, you’ve got a really great theater there at the Gaillard that came available. The other thing is, I adore Charleston. So if I’m going to mount a show and be someplace for the better part of a week, I want it to be in a city that I love. I’ve often thought about moving to Charleston at some point in my life. But I haven’t gotten to spend much time there in the past three years, so for me it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know the city again in what little spare time I have. Starting there was completely on purpose.
CP: Well, I know you’re on a tight schedule, and I’ve been timing us. Our 10 minutes is up. I wish we could talk all day, but it was an honor to talk with you just now. I hope we talk again in the future.
AB: Yes, and I hope you’ll come to the show.
CP: Oh, I’ll be there sir. With bells on.
AB: Great, glad to hear it! Have a great day, Jessie.
CP: You too. Bye Alton.
“Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science” launches in Charleston at the Gaillard Center on Wed. April 6 at 7:30 pm. Call 843-242-3099 or visit gaillardcenter.com for tickets.
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