When Iron Chef America host Alton Brown shows up at the Gaylord Opryland Resort this week, it won't be his first time in Nashville. The frenetically nerdy host of Good Eats and author of I'm Just Here for the Food logged a lot of time in Music City in the '90s. That was back before the Food Network elevated EVOO to a household word, cooking to a spectator sport and Alton Brown to a multimedia star.
The University of Georgia graduate worked as a videographer for Nashville-based Thom 2 Productions. He filmed commercials and corporate films and hung out at "all the good places" when he was in town for work—though none of the names come to mind. As his filmmaking career led him to Chicago and ultimately to Atlanta, Brown caught himself frequently watching boring food shows during breaks in the action. Convinced that he could create a superior program, he left the film biz and headed to culinary school in Vermont, where he gleaned enough kitchen know-how to launch Good Eats in 1998. The next year, the Food Network picked up the show, which blends science, pop culture and humor in the kitchen to explore everyday foods from pickles to pretzels.
These days the former music-video cinematographer, whose credits include R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," lives in Atlanta, where he writes, produces and hosts every episode of Good Eats. A cornerstone of the Food Network's programming, the show has won a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcast news and airs 16 times a week.
The success of Good Eats and the popularity of Brown's on-air persona—a wacky, bespectacled foodie brainiac who could be the jovial offspring of Julia Child and Mr. Wizard—landed him the role of commentator on Iron Chef America in 2004. The stateside spin-off of the popular Japanese culinary showdown pits a challenger against a so-called Iron Chef—including Bobby Flay, Cat Cora and Mario Batali—in a one-hour contest to see who can best employ a secret ingredient, which is revealed at the opening of the event.
When the Scene hosted a similar—but decidedly non-trademark-infringing—culinary competition event this spring, entitled Iron Fork, we saw firsthand how difficult it can be to narrate such an event for a full hour. After hearing ourselves repeat things like, "Wow, they're still boiling water," with all the enthusiasm of someone who is still watching water boil, our esteem for Brown's gastronomic glibness rose exponentially.
In addition to the challenge of talking nonstop about low-glam actions such as sautéing, slicing and blanching, there's also the risk of belittling the culinary artistry by parodying it as a tongue-in-cheek spectator sport. With his multifaceted shtick as scientist-historian-chef-entertainer, Brown deftly balances the comedy and cuisine. "Most of the time, I just make fun of me, which is easy," Brown recently told the Scene. "But seriously, folks, I have gotten to know the Iron Chefs enough to know when I can work within their own humor range. I don't generally poke fun at the guests, because they have it tough enough."
In a series of emails, we hit Brown up for a few other tips on hosting a successful Iron Chef—or similar but decidedly non-trademark-infringing—competition. As the voice of Kitchen Stadium, Brown has seen chefs face off over everything from cranberries to purple asparagus, but one secret ingredient was more challenging than the rest. "Tofu," he said. "Hands down. Let's face it, compared to just about any other ingredient, it tastes like...nothing. So that's a toughie."
What ingredient would he like to see the chefs go to battle with? "Broccoli. But all the judges would have to be kids," said Brown, who is the father of an 8-year-old.
When asked about the worst foul-ups in Kitchen Stadium, he said, "Usually they have to do with burning some nuts or not getting candy temperatures right. Or it's injury related. We've seen some nasty cuts through the years. Good competitors always know how to adapt, though, to change strategies." As for his own stovetop blunders, Brown said, "I eat my disasters, thus removing any evidence."
In an era when practically everyone with a spatula and a Handycam aspires to host a food show, Brown has demonstrated broad appeal and staying power. In the decade since breaking out with Good Eats, he has lent his offbeat personality to four shows, including The Next Iron Chef and Feasting on Asphalt, a series that led him cross-country on a motorcycle tour of road food. He has also published more than a half-dozen books, including four spin-offs of I'm Just Here for the Food, a book based on Feasting on Asphalt, and Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen. An un-precious guide to cookware—or hardware, as he calls it—Gear displays Brown's near-Luddite preference for everyday tools that can be applied in the kitchen (think mortar trowel employed as pie server) over expensive specialty culinary gadgets.
You can expect to see plenty of unorthodox uses of cooking ingredients and hardware when Brown takes the stage at Gaylord Opryland Resort. While he's not going to give away any secrets beforehand, you can bet there will be liquid nitrogen involved, and there's bound to be a recipe that uses energy drinks.
But don't expect to see Brown dining out on the town afterward. When we asked if he planned to revisit any of his old haunts outside the Gaylord Opryland biosphere, he said, "Now, I'd just be lost. It's funny, though—everyone assumes that when I travel I must eat at all the best restaurants in town. But they forget that the best restaurants are usually busy and require reservations to be made several days in advance. I almost never know my schedule until the last minute, so those places are out. I also usually travel alone, and I hate eating alone in restaurants. So it's room-service club sandwiches for me."
Mr. Brown, we can think of a few restaurants that would find a table for you at the last minute. Some of them even have good club sandwiches. And if you need a dining companion, just give us a call.
Alton Brown will host a 90-minute cooking seminar 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16, at Gaylord Opryland Resort. Tickets are still available for $60, with overnight packages starting at $130 per person. For reservations, call 1-888-999-OPRY.
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