It’s very large.
It does something that no other cooking device really can do.
And it makes a lot of a particular food in a relatively small amount of time.
“I’m not gonna say anything else,” Alton Brown says. “No. Nope.” I’m trying to get Brown – the superstar TV chef/host, author and general renaissance man – to give a little more info about the “very unusual demonstration” that’s part of his latest touring culinary variety show, “Beyond the Eats.”
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As fans of “Good Eats” – the hit Food Network show that made Brown famous – know, he’s fantastic at alchemizing new contraptions that do cool stuff with food. In addition to putting that talent on display once again, live onstage, the two-hour-ish “Beyond the Eats” shows involve comedy, live music and a ton of audience participation. There’s even a game show that takes place in the middle of the show.
“We try not to bring anything out on stage that we don’t know how to control,” Brown says. “The people? You don’t know. And that’s what makes it fun every night.”
On a recent morning, Brown called in for a phone interview from his tour bus, before a “Beyond the Eats” stop in Greenville, South Carolina. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Alton, you studied film at the University of Georgia. What’s a specific way that background impacts what you do onstage and on TV?
Well, I studied film, but my degree was actually in theater, and I spent a fair amount of time doing stage work as well. The film work drove me to cinematography, which then drove me to directing TV commercials. Then I wanted to make food shows, so I quit and went to culinary school so that I could end up making the show “Good Eats,” which kept me employed for a couple of decades.
So for me, it’s kind of coming full circle. I mean, if you if you remove the cinema aspect but leave everything else, you’ve got yourself a live theater show. And I started doing these in 2013, mostly because I was daring myself. It was like, this is something I haven’t done – nobody’s ever done a culinary variety show, that I know of – and would that work?
And that first tour, which was called the “Edible Inevitable Tour,” led to the “Eat Your Science Tour” and then “Eat Your Science” led to “Beyond The Eats.”
With “Beyond the Eats,” what’s the biggest disaster you’ve endured onstage at one of these shows?
We had one about a week and a half ago, they got called up to be on our quiz show, not knowing that this individual was plowed. I mean, fully intoxicated. And once they got there I realized, oh OK, I have to control this situation. I have to try to make it entertaining for the audience, and also keep it safe.
I’ve read on Twitter where you’ve mentioned “Beyond The Eats” being your farewell tour. How serious are you about that? Or are you just like (the rock bands) Kiss or The Who serious about the farewell thing?
Exactly not like Kiss. [Laughs] No, I always said that I would do three tours, and this will be it. I’m not saying that I’ll never appear in front of a live audience again, but I will never undertake something of this scope and scale. I’ve got other stuff to do that I need to kind of move on to try to get done before I wrap up life on planet earth, so to speak. So this is it. And I’m saying that to people to make me live up to my promise. It’s almost like I now have to honor that now that I’ve said it.
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Being someone who’s from and still resides in Georgia, what do you think’s an underrated aspect of Southern food?
Vegetables. This whole Southern food thing that’s all about “Woo! Let’s eat some fried food and fried chicken and have us some bourbon” is pretty much what’s been made up by people that are stereotypically Southern, which I am not.
My DNA goes back so far in north Georgia that our family crest has a propane tank on it, so we are most definitely Southern and, I’ve got to tell you, most of Southern cuisine is agrarian. It comes out of vegetables. It comes out of crops. And people don’t think about that or sometimes remember that. Our pickling traditions are as deep as some of those in Eastern Europe, and I wish that people paid a little bit more attention to that. Not everything’s drinking bourbon out of mason jars. Some of us actually like glasses.
What are three items you always keep in your home fridge?
[Nine-second pause.] Mustard. [Five-second pause.] Vermouth. [Six-second pause.] And sauerkraut. I have too much damn mustard. I’m kind of a mustard fanatic – both my wife and I are huge mustard people. Her DNA is Polish so we’ve got all kinds of spicy stuff and a lot of pickled things in there, and I always keep vermouth for martinis.
The fast food you eat most often?
A chain? I don’t do it. I haven’t had any fast food in a decade, probably. I seek out small family-owned restaurants and one of a kind restaurants.
Can you remember the last fast food place you ate that, then?
No. I also haven’t had a cup of Starbucks coffee in five years, which I’m especially proud.
Yeah, that’s easier for me to do.
People expect that everybody has some kind of fast food thing that it’s like a secret passion or something. I don’t. I adore french fries and I adore hamburgers, so I don’t eat them in fast food chains, because I really like them. And I figure you only get so many hamburgers in your lifetime; you only get so many french fries in your lifetime. I think that the quality of chain food in this country is really not very good, to my tastes, so I try to find my food elsewhere.
If you were going to be known for just one of your TV shows – whether that’s “Good Eats,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” other things – like if someone who had no idea who you were, what show would you point them to?
Oh, it would have to be “Good Eats.” I mean, I created that show. I directed over 200 episodes of it. I wrote every single script. It’s more like a child than a TV show to me. If somebody wants to know who I am, there it is.
On “Good Eats” you made a lot of these makeshift cooking devices. Back in the day, were you also pretty resourceful in constructing impromptu bongs out of objects?
No, I never started building hacks until I got into food. It’s always been cooking. I never attempted to build other things previously in my life.
When I think of people who are very well known, like food celebrities, there’s you and then another one would be Anthony Bourdain. Back in the day he (Bourdain) had some quips about TV chefs. And you had some replies back (in the press) about you having done a lot of cooking on TV and him maybe not so much, but then you also talked about liking his writing and he (on Twitter) said your work was the smartest stuff on Food Network. After his passing, what do you think is Anthony Bourdain’s greatest legacy?
First off, I worked I worked with Tony a few times. And I spoke with him fairly often, although I didn’t hear from him probably six months before he passed away. But he had helped me plan a trip to Japan that I took my daughter on.
And I think that his greatest legacy is that he opened the world in such a way, as a traveler, that was very different. And it remains and always probably will be very different from anything that anybody else did.
Tony’s job was not to teach us how to cook. It was to teach us how to see and feel other people and other cultures through cooking and through their connectivity through food.
So he was he was a wanderer in the classic sense, and he made the world feel big but also comfortable at the same time. I think he was really a cultural anthropologist more than he was anything else. And he was a fantastic wordsmith, an amazing writer, an incredibly eloquent individual, and I am I am sorry that we do not have him anymore.
Earlier we touched on your background in cinematography. I read that you were the cinematographer for R.E.M.’s music video for their song “The One I Love.” Is that true? And do you have a vivid memory of the band from making that video you can share?
Well, it’s true. Yes, I was director of photography or the cinematographer on that, but I don’t have any stories about them. I lived in that town (Athens, Georgia) for a lot of years. I saw those guys, I heard those guys in clubs. I wouldn’t say that I was a fan. I was more a fan of the painter (Robert Longo) who was going to direct that video, which was the real reason that I wanted to be on that video. I didn’t have anything against R.E.M., but I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, R.E.M.” I appreciated what they were doing and, sure, I liked their music, but it wasn’t a religious experience or anything.
But I do remember it really well because it was something that I had actually moved back from Atlanta back to Athens to wait on, that video coming to town, because I had heard rumors that it was going to happen. So I very strategically put myself in front of that train. And just got very lucky that I had enough skill sets under my under my belt by that point in my life – I was only 25 – to be able to pull it off.
If you were able to pick your last meal, what would it be?
I think probably duck confit because it takes three days to make.
Alton Brown’s “Beyond the Eats” tour comes to Huntsville, Ala.’s Von Braun Center Mark C. Smith Concert Hall, address 700 Monroe St., 7:30 p.m. March 3. Tickets are $35 and up, plus fees, via ticketmaster.com. More info at altonbrown.com.