Nov. 06--When celebrity chef Alton Brown made the move from a decade-long career in cinematography to become the breakout star of everyman cooking show "Good Eats," his goal was to create the antithesis of what he considered plop and stir programming.
Starting with "Steak Your Claim," the inaugural episode that premiered on the Food Network in 1999, the spiky-haired mad scientist began cranking out zany, often downright subversive half-hours of television characterized by punny titles like "Mussel Bound" and "Ear Apparent."
He followed that series -- which concluded its impressive run in 2011 -- with "Iron Chef America," a spin-off based on the Japanese cult classic, and where Brown has provided colorful commentary as the exuberant, fast-talking host since 2005. It's not uncommon for the camera to cut away from the culinary action, granting him the opportunity to deliver a small lecture on, say, the various types of chili peppers and how to measure the heat in them.
Then there was "Feasting on Asphalt," a four-part documentary of sorts that featured Brown hitting the road on his BMW motorcycle, traveling from South Carolina to Los Angeles in search of down-home grub on the go.
In addition to a number of other projects -- including his latest Food Network offering "Cutthroat Kitchen," which debuted this summer and finds Brown leading fiercely competitive contestants through cooking battles chock-full of sabotage -- the best-selling author is bringing his brand of quirky humor and unpretentious take on familiar fare to a venue near you with the "Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour."
Employing a visual style that's a cross between the offbeat genius of comedian Ernie Kovacs and the step-by-step instruction of an "Ask Mr. Wizard" segment, the Los Angeles native will turn the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre into his high-octane mobile kitchen this Saturday.
"I'll be really honest. It's built completely on things no one would let me do on television," Brown said by phone last week from Georgia, where he wrote and produced "Good Eats" in a 5,000-square-foot facility housed on his sprawling rural compound outside Atlanta.
"What we tried to do is to design an actual, honest-to-goodness, culinary variety show. There's comedy. There are puppets. There are very large, and very strange food demonstrations that promise to ... well, at least, I find them to be pretty gosh darn thrilling. One of them is even, potentially, pretty messy, which is why we hand out ponchos to the first couple of rows. ... So there's, literally, a little bit of everything in this."
As if all of the above wasn't enough, the New England Culinary Institute alum's musical chops will be on display when he wields an acoustic guitar or, maybe, a saxophone during performances alongside the rest of his trio, which includes drummer Jim Pace and axeman Patrick Belden.
From "Airport Shrimp Cocktail," a country tune that Brown describes as a reflection on love gone awry, to "Pork Chop Blues," a 12-bar romp dedicated to any man who's had to choke down his mother-in-law's dry, flavorless meat, to "Cooking Lesson Lullaby," which he wrote to teach his daughter that preparing savory cuisine is harder than it looks, the tracks are meant to be a campy addition to Brown's professional oeuvre, not an advertisement for his melodic expertise.
"My musical side has been in hibernation for the last 30 years," he said. "And I think the music world is very fortunate that it's been in hibernation for a long time. No one who's a natural musician is going to be threatened by my skill set. The songs are funny and played with zest [laughs]. I think I can say that."
Brown sees himself as more of a vehicle that, through a mix of hyperactive wit and culinary common sense, can be used to school viewers on the mechanics of food. The 51-year-old's job is to unearth the chemistry behind it, while applying his own unorthodox methods -- crazy, custom-built models, hand puppets and general in-your-face hilarity.
"When we were putting together ideas for 'Good Eats,' way back in the early '90s when my wife and I first started working on it, one of the directives for myself was that it was going to be part Julia Child, part 'Mr. Wizard' and part Monty Python," he said. "It's easier to teach people when they're laughing. Laughing brains are more absorbent, I like to say. So comedy has just always been something that I tried to build into anything that I do that has an educational aspect.
"But I do not think of myself as a funny person, by any stretch of the imagination. My family would tell you, 'He's not really very funny.' I'm pretty grumpy, actually, and kind of curmudgeonly, at best."
Pages from any one of Brown's seven books suggest otherwise, like in his 2011 release, "Good Eats 3: The Later Years," where he details the infamous "Vomitron," a sea sickness simulator the set designers of his hit show made to test whether the lore that ginger can prevent motion sickness is true: "I got out of the Vomitron before I hurled -- but just barely," he wrote.
So he's not a total stickler. And if the Vomitron is any indication of the lengths Brown will go to in order to prove a point, then it's a safe assumption he's spared no expense to pull off an elaborate gag or two on "The Edible Inevitable Tour."
"We have one food demo that requires a device we've designed that is bigger than most New York apartments," he said. "And we're used to building things for television. You use it a few times, and it falls apart. OK. No big deal. You got the shot. You build something for a road show, and it's got to be loaded into a truck, taken out and used on a daily basis, maybe 50, 60, 70, 100 times. ... That's a specialty all to itself. So it takes about 25 people to build the show and really get it up and running."
Barely able to fit all the gear into a single 18-wheeler and two buses, one of which Brown calls home while traveling across the country, the long-time chef noted it's one of, if not the, largest production he's been involved in thus far. And he's not about to fuss over the accommodations.
"I'm going to tell you right now, I have a sweet ride," Brown said with a hint of genuine enthusiasm in his voice. "I'm riding in a bus that's about as good of a rock 'n' roll coach as you could want. I have my own bedroom, with a queen-size bed, my own entertainment center, my own shower. I'm livin' good. There are absolutely no complaints. Does it go bump in the night? Yeah, OK. Sure. But there's no actual hardship here [laughs]."
When asked whether or not he's throwing wild parties backstage, hanging out in clubs until the wee hours of the morning or engaging in the stereotypical debauchery that goes hand-in-hand with the peripatetic circus, Brown reminds me that it's not like he's out on the road with M tley Cr e.
"In the end, I make family entertainment [laughs]," he said. That's my number one job. And if I can translate that into a live stage situation where people come and say, 'Gosh darn it, that was a fun evening. We saw things that we never have seen before. We heard things we hadn't heard before.' That's it. That's all. That's what I want to do."
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