Alton Brown was scheduled to call me at 2:15 PM. Beforehand, I made sure I put my notes together with a list of questions to ask during the interview. I’ve never done an interview as formal as this or with someone as widely known as Brown. I start to get a little nervous.
The phone rings at 2:15 PM on the dot.
On the other end of the line I hear, “Is this George?”
I say hello and ask if he minds that I put him on speaker. As I’m adjusting the sound on the recording kit I mention I’m a little bit nervous.
He says, “That’s OK! Don’t be nervous. I don’t want you to be nervous; whenever I talk to journalists I get nervous because I always say crap I’m not supposed to say.”
I’m at ease already. We go on to talk about the tour, his hobbies, and even bands. Alton Brown has been working, both in front of and behind the camera, for over 25 years. In the 80s he worked as a cinematographer and director which included work as director of photography for R.E.M’s 1987 video “The One I Love.” Brown said he would watch cooking shows in-between jobs and decided he could do better.
The influential and critically acclaimed show Good Eats introduced to the world Brown’s wit and unique sense of humor garnering him the James Beard Foundation award for Food Journalism and a Peabody Award. Talking to Brown, it is easy to pick-up on his commitment to his work; he does what he wants to do, attempting to project his passion into his projects. Critics and fans alike do not fit into the equation. His philosophy is that if he stays true to his ideas and standards, the rest will follow.
Alton Brown has said in past interviews that his grandmother was a huge influence on him. He observed her in the kitchen and she nurtured his passion for cooking. Eventually Brown decided to leave the film business and enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After graduating and adding the title of “chef” to the mix, Brown went on to become a pioneer on Food Network.
After 13 years on Good Eats and various other shows, authoring books and hosting his new show Cutthroat Kitchen, Brown has kicked off a nationwide tour. Brown’s tour will be in Virginia Beach this Sunday, 10 November at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. The Edible Inevitable tour is a fusion of cooking, live music, and unintentional snacks (inevitable edibles?) for the people close enough to the stage. The show includes things Brown felt he couldn't do on television and should prove entertaining to those who attend.
Keep reading to see what Brown’s opinions are on Blue Crabs, oysters, and local vs. organic. The full interview transcript is below:
AB: Hi is this George
GC: Yes it is! Thank you for calling.
AB: Hi. How are you?
GC: Good, I hope you don’t mind I have it on speaker.
AB: You should probably just speak up a little bit and maybe slow down, because you sound really skitchy and really far away.
GC: Ok, I’m sorry, I’m a little bit nervous.
AB: That’s ok! Don’t be nervous. I don’t want to you to be nervous; whenever I talk to journalists I get nervous because I always say crap I’m not supposed to say.
GC: My wife says the same thing about me. All the time, so it’s ok.
AB: That’s what all wives say.
GC: I know. When I figured out I should listen to her, and do what she says, life got a lot easier for me.
AB: Yeah, I know that’s true but I still tend to buck the system though.
GC: Once and in a while, it happens. I guess you know that my name is George I run a local food blog here called I Heart Food. I see that you’re in Akron, OH right now?
AB: I am sitting in Akron, OH. Yes (laughing)
GC: A really good band comes from Akron.
AB: I haven’t had much time out in Akron yet. I’ve been out this morning to get a cup of coffee and that’s about all I’ve had time to do. I’m looking to get out later because I’ve never been here before.
GC: I was going to ask you…looking at your schedule—the 5th, 6th, the 7th—every single day you’re supposed to be at a venue performing show, so do you have much time to get out and do things?
AB: Nope. Very little. Typically…I mean we travel at night, we live on buses. We’re in hotels today because we’re off today, technically we’re dark. We don’t have a show until tomorrow night. But that’s not very…we don’t often have days off.
Typically we travel at night, we live on buses, we get to a venue in the morning. Spend the day setting up, me and my band do our sound check in the afternoon and then I typically do a VIP meet-n-greet, and then I do the show, and then we pack the show, and then we get in the bus and go to the next city. So…no I’m not catching—I’m not sipping up a lot of local flavor.
GC: Since you have a lot of time on the bus, there’s a really good band called The Six Parts Seven—super good band—I know you like music, you play instruments. If you have the time, check it out.
AB: I will. Of course Black Keys are from here as well…
GC: Exactly. Yeah, they actually did a split album since they’re both from the same town. So if you look up the Black Keys, it’s a double sided (album)…I guess it’s a CD now!
AB: I’ll check that out, I didn’t know about that.
GC: It’s real good. I know you’re busy and you’re calling other people.
AB: That’s OK, I set aside 15 minutes.
GC: I enjoy your shows, I’m sure everyone says that. They’re good, I always enjoyed watching Good Eats
AB: Thank you.
GC: The tour has been greeted by sold out crowds so far. Did you expect this? Is this something you were hoping would happen? Everyone has had rave reviews and seem really happy with the show. People are lining up to go to it.
AB: Nobody wants bad reviews. Nobody wants empty seats, no one can afford empty seats, but I didn’t put…you know what? I never ever, whether it’s TV stuff produce or this…I don’t think quite honestly, about the fans very much. I do what I want to do and I try to stay true to my vision for what I want to do. So I did that with Good Eats, I always believed if I was true to Good Eats and I made it the way I wanted, it would find an audience and I would honor them by staying true to that and not selling out and not—you know, I don’t know if “sell out” is not a good word for it, anyway it’s kind of the same with the show.
What I basically did was put together a 2-hour culinary variety show with all these things I wanted to do, that I couldn't do on TV—or didn't work very well on TV; and I’m making it absolutely, positively as good as I can. And after that, I’m not going to think about it. I can’t worry very much about, “Alright, am I going to sell out tonight?”, “Am I going to sell merch tonight?”, “Am I going to…”, I can’t think about that. All I can think about is design the show, polish the show, make the show as good as it is every night, and let the chips fall where they may. I can’t control the rest.
GC: Do you tweak it as all while you’re on the road?
AB: Sure. We’re constantly, constantly, every night it’s a little bit different. I finish up a show and I go fill out a notebook I have. “Ok, what worked tonight?”, “Where did this laugh fall?”, “What can I change here timing-wise?”
You’d be surprised, the difference and an audience response that can change because you take one more breath before you say something. Your polishing a show that’s no different than polishing a production of a Shakespeare play. It’s the same thing; it’s a 2-hour, well it’s 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission, it’s an experience. At the end of the night I want the people to walk out of that theater saying, “Dag gonnit! That was a great night. We had a really, really fantastic time.” That takes constant adjustment, constant polish. Otherwise, it gets sloppy. Nobody likes that.
GC: So you tweak the show and you’re not performing exactly the same thing every night—I heard something about a poncho zone…is this something you do every night?
AB: Well, I do the show. I do two large scale, very unusual food demos; that are not things people can do at home. One of which, sometimes gets messy. I don’t mean to make it messy, the point is not to make a mess, I’m not Gallagher, I’m from the Food Network. It’s just that, sometimes…sometimes things happen.
So yes, we provide ponchos to the first two rows. At a few other shows I had pay peoples’ dry cleaning bills. That gets expensive after a while.
GC: If anyone declined the poncho they probably regretted it later. Or sent you the bill.
AB: Ah. Yes. Potentially.
GC: What is the Edible Inedible…Inevitable? I’m having hard time saying that.
AB: The Edible Inevitable is simply a great deal of fun to say. When I wanted to name the tour, I kept saying it was inevitable that I do this. Inevitable is such a great word, what could I put with it? I thought Edible is a great word. So at first we started saying “Inevitable Edible”—well, that’s not as much fun as saying “Edible Inevitable”, because Edible Inevitable is harder to say—
AB: That’s why I name the tour The Edible Inevitable tour. It also heartens back to The Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour. It’s kind of a [a few words indistinct] of that show. It’s just—I wanted to give the tour a name, so that if I took another tour out later it would be Alton Brown Live so-and-so. I like the way it looks on a marquee too, we got some great photos. We played the Fox Theater in Detroit over the weekend, it was really great to see on a marquee “The Edible Inevitable”. You know, those are words that just don’t go together very often.
GC: Have you been to Virginia often?
AB: Yes! In fact I—it’s funny, I’m a pilot and I fly back and forth to New York a lot and I always stop somewhere in Virginia for fuel. So I stop in Roanoke a lot, I stop all around the state. So I’ve spent some time there, but mostly as on the aviation side, but not so much the culinary side of the house.
GC: You’re keeping up with the flying, I read you used to ride a motorcycle too.
AB: I do. Motorcycles are great, motorcycles are fantastic, but it’s hard to do a tour on them.
GC: I used to want to ride one myself, but when got older I thought about falling down and it probably hurts. So I don’t want to do it too much anymore.
AB: The issue is, it doesn’t hurt any more or less than when you’re young, you heal slower.
GC: That’s true.
AB: But, here’s the thing though, when you’re older you have better judgment. So there are a lot of trade-offs. I didn’t even start riding motorcycles until I was 40. I found I was much more mature and made much better decisions.
GC: So none of this “Here, watch me do this!”
AB: Yeah…I’m going to see if I can be doing 150 by the time I get to the on-ramp. Yeah, that kind of stuff.
GC: You said you have been in the region, I’m assuming you’ve had some layovers, have you had Blue Crab? Do you like to cook Blue Crab?
AB: I love Blue Crab, but it’s too much friggin work for me. I’m not good enough at it, I’ll leave that to pros. I’ll eat it, but I won’t pick it if I don’t have to. You’ve got to earn every morsel of goodness out of that.
GC: My mom likes to bushels over all the time and I’m like, “I gotta work Mom, I can’t sit there and pick crabs all night.” I’d be doing it till midnight.
AB: It’s fun to sit out around a picnic table covered in newspaper and drink beer and pick crab, that’s fun…but I got to tell you, I’m not that great at it. I don’t get that kind of yield—you gotta really practice, and stay in practice, to do that well. And, I’ve never been that good. I’m OK, but I’m not great. I love them, to me their still the best crab on Earth.
GC: Oysters are a little easier for you then, right?
AB: Well, I developed an oyster intolerance about 20 years ago, I can’t eat oysters. I still miss them and I still want them, but they make me super, super sick, so I can’t do it anymore.
GC: That was something kind of curious to me, I watched one of my favorite episodes of Good Eats, it's the oyster episode—
GC: You didn’t eat oysters on the show.
AB: Nope. I didn’t really. I did not actually eat the oysters on the show. It may have looked like I did, but I did not. Here is the thing: I can eat clams, I can eat mussels, but I can’t eat oysters.
GC: Oh, really?
AB: Yeah, that’s weird.
GC: I never understand how stuff like that works.
AB: My doctor says that intolerance, opposed to allergies, are not very well understood. They don’t follow the same kind of rules that histaminic reactions follow. My doctor basically said, you've had all the oysters you going to get to have. Your body decided it’s had enough. I used to eat a lot of oysters, a lot.
GC: I used to be in the army, I spent some time in Germany. When I came back to Virginia I started to get allergies. I don’t know why, that’ just the way it was.
AB: Yeah, it just happens. The human body is a funny thing.
GC: I had a couple of questions for you from people on my blog. Do you mind if I ask them?
AB: Go ahead.
GC: One of them was about molecular gastronomy. I've read a few things I thought helped me understand your ideas behind molecular gastronomy. On Good Eats, you did a really good job of explaining the science of food and cooking and you made it easy to understand for people. You could sit there and watch it and understand what you were saying in the programming. Sometimes now...it seems with the nitrogen, the molecular infusion of foods—the direction that food is going in some places, what do you think about that?
AB: It obvious that it’s going in that direction in some places, because people are cooking like that. That’s obvious. A lot of people cook with those ingredients. I don’t because I don’t care for them, I don’t like them, I don’t like the textures, I don’t like the foams, I don’t like spherification very much or if it’s called caviar, it’s just not what I do. I don’t care for it.
Yes, can I use methylcellulose? Yeah, I know how. Do I want to? Not really, I just don’t have a hunger for it. Nobody wakes up in the middle of the night and says gee, I wish I had some—I can’t think of a good example. The thing is you wake up in the middle of the night and you want a piece of pizza.
I will use those tools to get me what I want and yeah, I own liquid nitrogen because liquid nitrogen is a great tool. I can’t tell you where my sodium alginate is because I learned how to use it and forgot because I don’t give a crap. I just don’t care, it’s just not my thing. It’s not how I’m going to express what I do.
But understand something. I’m not a creative chef whose business it is to run a restaurant and come up with tastes and flavors, sensations and textures to satisfy customers. That’s not what I do.
GC: It just seems that cooking that type of food is inaccessible to the average guy at home.
AB: Why? Because you can’t buy the stuff at the grocery store? I mean everything you need, you can buy off of friggin Amazon. Anybody can learn these techniques. They take very careful, very precise measuring—you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to learn technique. Anybody can do it.
GC: I guess that’s true. You can setup a still or make beer at home.
AB: True! If you want to do it, you can learn how to do it.
GC: If you had a choice to buy local or organic, preferably the two would be together—
AB: Not necessarily. I do not think those things aren't mutually exclusive. I don’t give a crap about organics. To me the certifications are all screwed up. The government got involved; I know people that deserve organic certification but they don’t get to have it because they can’t afford the certification process.
I care about local. That’s all I care about, that’s what. The only food I bother to talk about is local. Local matters!
GC: I think so too. There is a huge local movement across the country. Do you use local ingredients in your shows when you show up in town?
AB: When I can get them. I can’t always get something local and my show is not built to celebrate local cuisine because I can’t change the show that much every night. We do have one demo that we do our best to secure stuff, but isn't always easy. It’s not always easy to get what is famous in that area, especially depending on the seasonality and things like that. We’ve...I think managed to get local ingredients into about 75% of the shows.
GC: I had one more: Are you planning your next tour? This one has been successful and some people might not have gotten to go to this one, will be looking forward to the next tour. Is there one in the works?
AB: We are planning a third leg. I've got a second leg coming up in the end of January, close to February, we’re going into another 23 cities I want to say. Then we’re going to be planning a third leg of essentially the same tour, just because so many people now want us to come to towns we didn't get to. The Pacific Northwest, we only got one date in Texas, Canada and other places, so we’re going to be going out again in the fall of 2014.
GC: I really appreciate you giving me a call and talking to me.
AB: Thank you very much. You were very well prepared and I admire that.
GC: Good luck on your tour and I’m looking forward to seeing you—
AB: Thank you.
GC: On the 10th, I’m going to the show next Sunday with my wife.
AB: Well good! Excellent, excellent. I hope you enjoy it.
GC: Great. Thank you. You have a good day. Bye-bye.
AB: Bye! You too.