Few TV personalities revitalized food culture as much as Alton Brown, the chef/scientist/musician who has gone from his ingenious cooking show Good Eats to cohosting the exciting Food Network spectacles of Iron Chef and Cutthroat Kitchen. At the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, March 15, Brown will encourage you to Eat Your Science, a food variety show combining cooking, science, and songs. I spoke with Brown about chemicals, competitive cooking, and martinis.
You’ve been on Food Network both as an educator and an entertainer. How do you balance those approaches? I can’t separate information from entertainment; they go together. If I didn’t have entertainment, I wouldn’t have anything to teach. I would like to think I keep adventuring into different ways of combining media, food, and information in different ways, and I don’t think I’ve burned it up quite yet.
Do you have an ingredient or technique you’re especially fascinated by right now? Gosh, that’s a tricky one. There will be a vegetable or an ingredient I’ll ignore for years, and then I can’t get enough of it. Right now, I can’t get enough of celery root. I keep playing with it, pushing it around, trying to find out what the edges of its capabilities are. I’m fickle, though. I could drop that and do rutabaga next week or some cut of beef that I’m like, if I take this one muscle out of a chuck roast, I can do this or I can do this. It’s not because I’m looking for trends or trying to fixate — I’ll literally walk through a grocery store and become obsessed.
Do you delve into the ingredient’s chemical properties? Only as much as that I’m trying to understand why it does what it does. I always like to have some understanding of the chemical properties. Whether it’s a spice or a vegetable or a spirit for that matter, or anything else — without that understanding, I’m unable to interact with that ingredient.
Which came first: an interest in food or the science of food? Food first, and then only when I realized I didn’t have the skill or talent to be a naturally great chef, which I don’t, I discovered it was only through science that I could be a better cook.
Are at-home cooks more open now to using more scientific methods, like molecular gastronomy techniques or sous vide? Not 100 percent. In the end, is sous vide any more exact than pressure-cooking, which has been with us for a long time? I think it tends to be. People who are scientifically minded are maybe more attracted to certain tools, but I think there’s science in all of the tools. I don’t have to understand the science of sous vide in order to use that methodology. I can just use it to follow recipes. Does it help? Yeah. Does it help me understand what I’m trying to do? Sure. These are methodologies, and sous vide is a more digitally controlled immersion circulator; the cooking in that allows for extreme precision. Although there’s no more science involved than pressure-cooking, there’s precision involved with what our inputs are, and because of the precision we’re capable of, it can change in so many ways what we get out of the other end. That’s what it really comes down to. It’s not that there’s more science; it’s that there’s more precision.
And a lot more self-documentation. What do you make of that? Well, let’s face it: A lot more people are generating content. So they’re using their experiences in the kitchen and their explorations in the kitchen to generate content, and one thing about content is that it is automatically self-reflective, and it involves record keeping. I think that in and of itself has the potential to make us all better cooks.
Do you write your own songs, and do you sing while you cook? I write my songs, to answer that, and how is incredibly organic. It depends. Sometimes the lyric comes first; I may want to write a song about a particular thing, and a great deal is born sitting on a sofa with a guitar, which is a more organic way. Do I sing when I cook? I do not, but I don’t think I can sing and cook at the same time, the same way some people can’t chew gum and walk at the same time.
Tell me about your Iron Chef years. We’re launching a new Iron Chef on April 16, something called Iron Chef Gauntlet. Finally, after all these years, I am now the chairman. I am getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is make this far more aggressive from a culinary standpoint. It’s only six episodes, a six-week arc, and it’s the highest order of cooking that I’ve ever been able to get on a competition show. But the challenge [with] Iron Chef is that it’s essentially a sporting event, so calling the action involves a huge amount of research on my part, and being able to work with real good culinary producers who can constantly feed me information so I can guide people through what they’re seeing as they’re seeing it.
Why are there more competitive food shows now? Because Food Network moved into the realm of no longer being an emerging specialty network and it moved into a mainstream network, and the mainstream thrust of TV entertainment for the last decade has been unscripted competition reality in order to compete for eyeballs. It’s simple competition. It’s the rules of the game: You make what people want to see.
Have competitive cooking shows influenced food culture offscreen? Yes, definitely, yes, absolutely. There are many chefs now that literally cook as though they are competing. It does change the nature of the food. It does change chefs’ struggle to be more original now, to be more artistic. It’s not enough to say, “I cook a really good steak” or “I make the classics,” and because of that, we’re losing touch of classic dishes. Originality and creativity are so much about what chefs have to do in order to not only compete for TV shows but compete for diners.
What’s been your go-to lately? Well, I’ve gone off of Manhattans and back to martinis. Classic: gin, vermouth, a little bit of olive brine, straight up, cold, three olives. I don’t screw around. And I have no desire to improve upon it.
Some things just can’t be improved … Oh, they probably can be, but some things shouldn’t be. Not everything is in constant need of improvement.
411 Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science is presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures on Wednesday, March 15, at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). See artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893-3535.