Alton Brown is a TV natural. Focused, funny and at times evilly maniacal, Brown makes good TV about food that sneaks in a lot of science and information along with entertainment. With two shows airing on the Food Network right now, "Cutthroat Kitchen" and "Cutthroat Kitchen Superstars," plus endless reruns of his first show, "Good Eats," running on the Cooking Channel, Brown is using the time off to appear live, all over the country, in his touring stage show, "Edible Inevitable Tour." It comes to the CenterStage's Carpenter Theatre on Nov. 5.
Style: What made you interested in food? Did it come from your childhood or is this something that came later in life?
Brown: It came from trying to get dates in college.
Did it work?
You know, girls who would say no if I asked them out to dinner would occasionally say yes if I offered to cook for them. Back then, in the '80s, [men's cooking] wasn't the norm. For girls, it was still a little flashy, so I started learning how to cook to get dates, and in the end, I just ended up cooking by myself a lot.
You started in the film industry -- were you working in commercials?
I spent 10 years directing commercials.
What made you want to make the transition to in front of the camera?
I watched a lot of cooking shows, because I definitely was an amateur cook -- it was my hobby -- and I thought, "There's something missing here. I want to make a food show. There needs to be a food show that's different than all these food shows." But no one was going to let me do that without a stronger culinary background, so I quit [the film business] and went to culinary school at the ripe old age of 34.
How did you pitch the show (that ended up being "Good Eats") to the Food Network?
I did not even pitch them. I actually raised money and made two pilot episodes -- two full pilot episodes -- which are still aired to this day. And they still wouldn't even look at it. It took me a year to get anybody at Food Network to see the show, because at the time, they produced everything in house and weren't interested in commissioning outside work.
How did you finally convince them?
I didn't. I finally gave up. Oddly enough, we shot our first two episodes on film, not on video. That's what me and most of my crew knew. At the time, the people that manufactured the film, Eastman Kodak, liked what we did so much, they put some of it on their website. Back in 1998, that was still a pretty big deal. And a programmer from Food Network happened to see this clip on Kodak's website and called us up. I came very close to making a deal with another network, but decided that when the Food Network called, I would take the meeting since I'd tried so hard to get at them. And we came to a deal almost immediately -- that's how it happened. Sometimes you have to let go.
How did the live show that you're doing right now originate?
The live show originated in a way with my theater degree -- my college degree was in theater -- I've always enjoyed doing live performances. I've never been able to do anything of scale because that really does require a tour to cover costs. I knew about 10 years ago that I'd eventually do this. It was a matter of finding the time and I didn't have that as long as I was making "Good Eats," -- and I needed to find partners to produce it, which I found by way of my buddies on "Mythbusters." It really was about timing and connections. But I needed to get through what I thought was the useful life of "Good Eats" before I could take the time to develop it.
What should people expect from the live show?
It is a true culinary variety show. There is something for everybody. If you're a "Good Eats" fan, there will definitely be things you recognize; there are puppets, there are very strange, very large food demonstrations, the likes of which you've never seen before (unless you've seen the show before). I'm sure of that. We've come up with ways of doing things that haven't been done before. There's live music -- I do about four of my food songs, so it'll be the first time people will have had to put up with my singing and guitar playing. I think they're pretty funny. We aren't traveling with a band for this leg of the tour, but we've added a rap number, which I'm very excited about. It's a rap song called "TV Chef" which is a satirical look at my industry -- loving, but satirical. It's really constructed to be a variety show for the whole family. We'd love it for families to come with kids and grandparents. We want to make sure they have a really good time without boring or insulting anybody.
Do people sitting up in front still need to wear raincoats?
We give out ponchos. One of the demos tends to emit particulate matter. That's all I'm going to say. It's not designed to -- it's a byproduct of the demonstration. We got tired of people complaining and all of the dry-cleaning bills. In some cities, it's been very messy indeed. I don't try to make a mess. Sometimes, the mess just happens.
A few years ago, you lost weight. …
I dumped 50 pounds.
How did you do that?
I discovered there's a direct correlation between your mouth and your ass, and things you put in one often end up on the other, so it was about designing a diet with things I should be eating and staying away from the things I shouldn't be eating. Most diets are about not eating things, my diet was about things I had to eat. And it's effective but not easy. It requires a good bit of grocery shopping, a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruit, not a lot of red meat, very little alcohol and only one dessert a week. And I will admit that I have not, this year, been faithful to it and as a result, I'm carrying around an extra 10 pounds I'm not very happy about.
Is it hard to maintain on tour?
The tour is extremely weather-dependent. I really like running and walking and hiking, so when the weather is good, I get out, because I have a big chunk of free time in the middle of the day. But when we played Greeley, Colorado, last winter, when we got out of the bus, it was 23 below zero. You're not going to do a lot outside. The other thing that you've got do is stay away from certain foods. When you walk in the theater and there's a big plate of doughnuts, you've got to keep walking, you know? There are certain things you just don't do. The most dangerous time is right after the show. When you get back on the bus, you're still pumped full of adrenaline and it's really, really easy to reach for alcohol and pizza. It's really, really, really easy and that -- that's that. Every now and then, it's OK, but you have to monitor it.
Tell me a little bit about the show you have now, "Cutthroat Kitchen." Why a game show this time around?
I adore game shows. I was raised on game shows; I've wanted to host a game show for a long time. However, I don't much like competition shows. Most of the culinary competition shows are based on people not knowing what's going on and not giving them much control over their fate in that show other than to cook what you can cook and hope the judges like it. "Cutthroat Kitchen" is an actual game. It has rules, it has play, and you've got to play the game to win. Yes, your food is still going to be judged. And yes, you have to cook, but you can only win by playing the game. That's what I like about it so much. It's a lot of fun. And the longer it's on, the more people coming to it will know the game already and will have developed different ways to play it.
How does that fall on the continuum of food shows? What about "Iron Chef America?"
"Iron Chef" is a sporting event. To me, it's an athletic competition. This team vs. this team -- one hour, go. That's different to me.
When you shoot "Cutthroat Kitchen," do you shoot several episodes in one day?
Oh, my gosh, no. It takes a full day to do just one. Especially because the sabotages have gotten bigger -- we have to reset the kitchen three times. And we do a Web post-show at the end of the day. It's a solid 12-hour day just to make one.
What's been your favorite sabotage so far? What gave you the most evil glee?
For me, it's really the simple stuff. It's watching people get around very, very simple things, like cooking on a crepe pan that's been wrinkled and wadded up like a big ball of paper. Or [figuring out] how to cook with no salt or how to do a pasta dish when you don't have any pasta. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. The big sabotages just mess with your mind and mess with your time management more than anything else. I like the ones that really push people as cooks.
You have a 14-year-old daughter. Any advice for parents of picky eaters?
Here's my rule: Never negotiate with terrorists. When they get hungry, they will eat. When my daughter was young, and there was something I really wanted to make sure she ate, I wouldn't give it to her. She would ask, "What's that?" And I'd say, "Oh, that's for grown-ups." "Well, I want to try it!" "No, no, no. You're too young for this." "No! I want to try it!" By the time you finally give it to them, they're too embarrassed to admit they don't like it because they begged for it so much.
I wish I'd known that when my children were younger.
Here's my other tip: Never, ever, ever allow your child to eat off a children's menu at a restaurant. Ever.
When you're at home and your family isn't there, what's your go-to dish that you make for yourself?
Well, I don't make anything that's just for me, but while I'm travelling, the first thing I always make is hummus. I can live off of hummus. And if it's just me, I tend toward stuff that can be eaten out of my hand. If I can make it into a burrito, or if I can make it into some form of quesadilla that I can walk around with -- I tend to want my food to be mobile.