News Column

Alton Brown has a full plate [Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)]

November 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Cook, comedian, commentator and cinematographer.

These four Cs barely scratch the surface of food personality Alton Brown's career, which will lead him to the Star City on Saturday for his "Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour."

Brown, 51, was a cameraman, editor, cinematographer and TV commercial director for almost 10 years before heading to culinary school. He was later made famous by his television show "Good Eats," which aired on the Food Network for 13 years. He has been the commentator for "Iron Chef America" for 11 years, and most recently hosted a culinary competition series called "Cutthroat Kitchen."

Food aside, the Georgia native has more than a few other hobbies to occupy his time.

Eight months ago, Brown picked up a pencil and paper and started writing songs, a talent he said had been in hibernation for 30 years. His rediscovered musical passion will be on display in his upcoming Roanoke performance, which Brown describes as "a true variety show."

Before making his first trip to Southwest Virginia by land (he's also a skilled pilot), Brown talked to us from the comfort of his Georgia kitchen about his favorite holiday eats, why he's not watching other celebrity chefs and the real reason he started cooking in the first place.

You got your start in cinematography and film production. Is that still a passion of yours?

I made a show called "Good Eats" on Food Network for 13 years that I was executive producer and director of. So, I don't think I could have done that without it.

First and foremost, I'm a filmmaker. It just happens that I make films about food. A lot of people think I changed careers. I didn't. I simply advanced my career into an area that I wanted to make films about. But that's still my primary job.

Where did your fascination about the science of food, the history of food and food in general come from?

Food is like the switchboard of human existence. Everybody is interested in food. It is a constant wealth of great storytelling fodder. Almost all of human history is, [in] one way or another, associated or attached to food. I don't care if it's the rise of the Roman Empire or outfitting a nuclear submarine - everything's got food connected to it. People are connected to it. It is what connects people to each other and to their culture. ? Martin Scorsese likes to make movies about the mobs. I like to make movies about food. Because to me, it's just a source of infinite possibilities from a storytelling standpoint.

As for the science part - everything that happens in the kitchen, everything that happens with food, is science. And the more you understand about science, the more you understand food.

Where did you draw inspiration to start cooking?

My interest in cooking was almost all born during college, when I started cooking in order to try to get dates. ... I wanted to get girls, and they wouldn't go out with me if I asked them to dinner. So, I started cooking for them. And back in the mid '80s ... girls in college didn't often have guys cook for them, and that was my angle.

What did you fix for them?

I was very poor, so I had an entire range of meals based on how far along the dating process we'd actually gotten - ranging everywhere from about $7 to $35. By $35, I used to like to brag that the meal I was making, the ingredients could be left over for breakfast.

What chefs are you watching now on television?

I don't. I quit watching food shows a while ago. I don't watch them for a couple of reasons.

One, in my own professional life, originality is even more important to me than being good. I'd rather be original than good. I find that if I watch other food stuff, I start limiting myself. ... So, I just quit watching. Nobody that cooks on TV inspires me enough to want to watch them.

And that's not me being arrogant. I just don't care for the form, and I'll tell you why: Most cooking shows now are not good television. And above all, I want good television.

With the holidays just around the corner, tell me about a recipe you know you will be preparing.

My policy during the holidays is: I cook meat. If you want the meat that I cook, you better bring something. Because I'm not going to kill myself. I'm not going to wake up at five in the morning to make 17 things.

I'm going to make meat, and it's going to be really good, and if you want a place at the table, you're going to have to bring something. You're going to have to bring an offering, and it better not be potato chips or potato salad that you bought down at the deli, because that ain't gonna cut it.

I do turkey. At Thanksgiving, I will build my infamous Turkey Derrick, and I will fry turkeys. ... I make incredibly good fried turkeys. When Christmas comes, I will make my salted pepper standing rib roast. That's all I will make. And you know what, that's what I got to bring to the party.

Have you ever visited Southwest Virginia?

I'm a pilot and I stop off in Roanoke for fuel. ... Otherwise, I have never set foot in the town. But I'm glad because I'm going to have a half a day off to wander around.

What can people expect at your upcoming Roanoke show?

It is an actual two-hour culinary variety show. There are large and very unusual food demonstrations - things that you would not try at home. Potentially messy, which explains the poncho zone. Science can be messy.

If you??re a "Good Eats" fan, you'll be pleased there are plenty of puppets, which my fans tend to get into a lot. The kids like them, too, because my puppets tend to fart and burp a lot.

I'm doing a short version of a lecture that I'm famous for called "10 Things I'm Pretty Sure I'm Sure About Food," which is really just an excuse for a stand-up routine. There's a lot of audience interaction, and then my band and I will be performing about five to six of my food songs. It's a true variety show.

You're a commentator for "Iron Chef," where you are surrounded by gourmet, complex dishes. What is one of your simple food indulgences?

I have one food that I'm actually addicted to, to the point that I probably need some sort of rehab: hummus.

I'm a hummus freak. I typically have at least six different kinds of hummus in my refrigerator. I don't know what I love about the stuff, but I'm crazy about it.

Do you make your own?

I do. But I also buy it. I used to dip it. Now I just freaking eat it with a spoon.

Being around all that rich food all the time, how do you maintain your weight?

Number one: You don't eat much. And number two: You eat the stuff you need first.

You put me at a buffet, and I'm gonna go first and get veggies. Then I'm gonna wait awhile, and then maybe I'll get something else.

First, locate the colors that you know are good for you: dark greens, orange things like sweet potatoes. Things that are cooked simply, and really clean proteins, like fish, and complex carbs, like field peas, beans or quinoa.

I eat that stuff, then if I'm still hungry, then I'll go eat some meat or something. But above all, stay away from white. Especially when you are traveling on a bus where you're not getting as much exercise as you should, white's just a death knell. There is no freakin' reason to eat white food unless you are burning it, and burning it like right then and there.

What do you consider to be a kitchen essential?

Both of these will probably sound odd - two things that I wouldn't want to live without.

One: an electric kettle. Anytime I need to make any liquid hot, I use an electric kettle.

And another thing: I use a panini press constantly, but I almost never make panini. I cook other stuff in it. I'll cut up a chicken and put it in the panini press. ... I do whole meals in a panini press. It's like this time machine that allows me to save huge amounts of time.

Right now in your career, what are you enjoying most?

I will admit, especially during this tour, I'm having great fun and getting great joy out of the fact that I'm actually playing music in front of audiences, which is something that I did when I was young. I was a jazz musician when I was really young. I played sax, guitar in bands. Then I quit. I quit for 30 years. And then eight months ago, I started writing these songs. And so all the stuff we're performing [on tour] are originals except a spoof on a popular '60s song.

When you're suddenly like me and have an electric guitar in your hand in front of 2,000 people and a mic in your face, that wakes you up.

That part of my personality has been in hibernation for 30 years, so all of a sudden, being able to do that is a real kick. And to have people respond to it is the most fun I've had in years.

"Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour"

Where: Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $39, $59, $79

More info: Roanokeciviccenter.com, 853-5483, altonbrowntour.com

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