Food Network’s Alton Brown dishes about TV food shows, cuisine, future of restaurants, more
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Alton Brown is the quintessential foodie. He talks about food, writes about it, cooks it, ponders it. And he also gets up on stage and has fun with it.
And through multiple media outlets he has helped make food accessible for anyone who is interested. He created “Good Eats” and always served as an entertaining moderator for “Iron Chef America.”
The foodie-author-TV personality will be bringing “Alton Brown: Live! Beyond the Eats” to PlayHouse Square’s State Theatre. His touring show is at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 19.
We chatted with him recently about all things food:
Talk a little about the show. You’ve been on the road before. What are you trying to accomplish with this current show?
All my stage shows, all my live shows, are primarily to be entertainment. They’re based on vaudeville sketches, culinary variety shows. What I try to do in each iteration is mix up brand-new comedy with brand-new songs, brand-new ways to integrate the audience. And brand-new culinary demonstrations which are usually, well, always large, unusual and potentially dangerous. … everything from playing songs with my band, long form storytelling. In this show, we do something different in that I’ve always wanted to have my own culinary quiz show. We’re actually staging an entire game show inside one of the acts. … We tend to build large things to cook food in an unorthodox manner. So in the end, this is entertainment. If you’re a ‘Good Eats’ fan, an Alton Browns fan, whatever – that’s great. And I want you to be entertained. But I’m also batting for those who have never heard of me and don’t even like food. And if in a few days after the show, somebody realizes they learned something, great. Couldn’t be happier. But that’s not my main goal.
From having seen you moderate “Iron Chef America,” you think on your feet. I’m guessing that ability is a huge help when dealing with a live audience.
Well, I’ll tell you this, I sure do enjoy it. My main TV work is highly scripted. On “Iron Chef,” I’m acting more like a sports commentator, I’m calling action as I see it on the floor. … This kind of show throws in a complete unknown. I do not know any given night what the people are going to be like when they come up on stage. And that’s what makes every night completely new, completely unexpected, completely surprising. And there have been a couple of nights where things were tricky. We did a show in Charleston, where we ended up with somebody on stage who had been drinking pretty aggressively. And although the guy was hilarious, there was the authentic feeling of ‘This could go sideways so quickly.’ Every town, every house, every person who comes up is different.
You’ve been a mainstay on TV for quite a while – multiple shows. How do you see the future shaping up for television food shows? I mean, 25, 30 years ago, you had PBS and that was it. Now you’ve got an explosion of shows. Are we hitting a wall? Are we going to see more, and what will they be like?
I think the future of food entertainment and food shows will be in two places. One, it will be in complete user-controlled spaces like YouTube and in streamers like Netflix – places where you can do longer-arc storytelling, which is certainly going to be my future. I’m really not interested in making half-hour TV shows. … Although I think networks are very invested in the culinary competition space, I think that’s starting to be anti-creative. In a way, I think it’s actually starting to kind of be detrimental to food. I don’t mean professional competition shows like “Iron Chef America;” those are professionals. And those people were doing things that you could see and watch and learn and be inspired by and apply at home. But I think that a lot of other culinary competition has just kind of dumbed food down. I’ve quit watching food programs entirely. And that’s not because I think they’re bad. It’s just because I’m at a point of evolution in my career where I’m working on the next thing. And when I’m doing that, I kind of go dark. … I’m obsessed with originality, and I cannot stand replicating things unless I can make them original. And so the best way for me is to just kind of go on a diet, you know what I mean?
With Covid restrictions affecting the industry, how do you see restaurants evolving? Are we going to be seeing more casual, more formal, more creative use with cuisines? Are we going to see more closings or more openings on the horizon?
I don’t have a crystal ball. And I don’t have the insight of actually owning a restaurant. I’ve never owned one. I’ve never wanted to work that hard. But I am married to someone who designs restaurants. And so I’m very connected to the world through Elizabeth. I think we will continue to see closures, I think we will continue to see new places opening. I actually think there’s going to be a resurgence of fine dining of evenings out. I think they will be smaller. I think there will be jewel-box restaurants that (have) highly designed menus. It’s going to be more special-occasion, people (saying) ‘We’re going to go out, we’re going to go out once a month or once every other month, and we’re really going to make something of it.’ Do I think fast casual is still growing? Yeah, of course. But what I’m seeing is people really miss the experiences of what they can have in a restaurant or a bar. And I think they’re going to become more a little bit pickier about that.
What is the biggest mistake restaurants or for that matter foodies are making? I’m asking because food shows to me have taken on a double-edged sword. On one hand, they brought a really needed attention to food, the restaurant scene and cooking, they do a good job of explaining different cuisines and presentations. But on the other hand, a lot of chef wannabes out there are captivated by the romance of celebrity-chef syndrome, and they think that’s what the profession is all about.
I think there are a few things that we really have to look at. When you look at the food industry and culture, restaurants and chefs are very much in the spotlight – a spotlight they didn’t used to have. There are chefs who have used that wisely. There are chefs who have perhaps used it not as wisely, some have gotten perhaps a distorted view of their place in the world. My biggest concern is actually things like Instagram, which has allowed us to fetishize food and to make imagery of food more important than either the experience of eating it or the experience of sitting down across the table from someone. The most important people in a meal are the people sitting down eating it. And the person across the table from you is more important than anything that’s on that plate. … I think that we are idolizing imagery of food in a way that is taking away from the real experience of what food and eating are supposed to be.
What’s your impression of Cleveland’s food scene?
Cleveland’s food scene has been gangbusters ever since the early 2000s, you know, with Michael Symon and people like that. … I think one of the great things about Cleveland is that the population supports so much innovation, a big kind of explosion of food there. It’s a foodie town – not because of who is doing the cooking but because of who is doing the eating.
You have many interests. I read that you’re a scuba diver, a pilot, you get into motorcycles, you’re a dog owner. What’s on your horizon for any future projects, food or otherwise?
I’ve got a new book coming out in April, the fourth and final ‘Good Eats’ book. I’ll be working on this tour for another month. I’ve got another TV project announcement that’ll be coming out in April. And that’s, perhaps, going to kind of be a game changer. So I’m kind of lying low, but I am developing a new series for a streaming situation.
When it comes to a favorite cuisine for you, if you’re stuck on the proverbial desert island and can eat only one thing, either a type of food or from a specific restaurant, what’s your choice?
I never gets tired of Japanese cuisine. I think that’s because I don’t cook it very well. So I find myself just constantly drawn to its flavors and textures and colors and aromas. I’m not saying that’s the only thing I’d ever want to eat forever, but it’s up there.
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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