I'd always thought the Food Network was for bored housewives and stay-at-home stoner dads who like to pretend they can whip up a meal that doesn't involve poking holes in a plastic cover. But then chance intervened; during an excruciating marathon of the channel, my better half wrestled the remote away from me... and I was forced to watch an episode of Good Eats.
The cooking show was completely enrapturing, the ultimate how-to program. And at its center was host Alton Brown, one of television's best presenters. He's genius, he's funny, and most important of all, he teaches.
What's in store for this upcoming season of The Next Iron Chef?
A much tougher level of competition. The challenges are just gruesome—from a foodie standpoint this is just incredibly tough stuff. I'm not going to say [this season's competitors] are better cooks than we've had in years past, but I think this group is very well-matched to the challenges. It's much more fun to watch. It's frenzied and intense, but there's a positive atmosphere in this season that allowed more good stuff to happen. It's harder, but it's friendlier. It's more of everything, but it's less mean and snarky.
Where is the show headed this year?
There are three cities, all in the U.S. this time. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York. Those locations do affect what happens in the challenges, as far as the character and the nature of the challenges go. It's a very American season, and that's our theme. We wanted to keep it home and about the food of home.
What characteristics are most important for Next Iron Chef contestants to have?
You gotta have skills. You have to have the technical skills to do the work. You have to have a very, very refined sense of taste, you've got to be able to season your food properly. The basic things. And you've got to have your style, a style that doesn't get lost in ingredients, but also doesn't walk all over ingredients. The chefs that consistently rise to the challenge, you can taste their food and say, "Hey I think I knew who made this." But they never run away with the food, which is certainly something that a lot of chefs do. [Lesser chefs] conquer the food as opposed to craft the food. I would say [you need] style, adaptability, and flat-out skills.
Your demeanor on Next Iron Chef is strikingly different from your persona on Good Eats. Which personality is closer to the real Alton Brown?
I've got no idea. It's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Actually, I think I have three distinct personalities, because there's Good Eats, which is the goofy, Pee-Wee Herman side of me, there's Iron Chef America which is the Bob Costas me, and then Next Iron Chef is yet some other me that I don't know. The first couple of seasons were completely flavored by the fact that I was having to do something that I said I would never do. Which is that I would never be in a reality competition show and I would never send people home. I would never be the person to tell people bad news. And there I am, saying, "I'm sorry, you will not be the next Iron Chef." The first two seasons were all about me throwing up before having to tell somebody and then throwing up after I've told somebody. I never forge the first elimination; I had to look at Traci Des Jardins, one of the leading chefs in the United States, and say "You aren't going to be the next Iron Chef." What right do I, piss-ant Alton Brown, have to look at her and tell her anything? I hope if I have a demeanor in Next Iron Chef it's being an agent provacateur or being a respectful... bailiff. [laughs]
What were cooking shows missing that gave you the idea for Good Eats?
When I started watching food shows, they were boring. And I didn't learn anything. I'd watch a show and I'd have another recipe, but they didn't know why it worked. So I wanted to answer the question, "Why does this happen? Why do eggs do this?" And once you have that knowledge, how can you use it to make better eggs? But at the same time, I thought, "Can't this be done in a way that's fun to watch?" So my goal was to make a show you'd watch even if you didn't want to cook.
You even have a new book out: Good Eats 2: The Middle Years.
Good Eats 2, the continuation of the trilogy, picks up where Volume 1 left off. It must be around episode 84, I think it goes from 84 to 160-something. It's a continuation of the same thing, looking back at the shows, reworking the applications, retesting them, rewriting them completely from scratch. Trying to boil down and distill the knowledge we deliver in each show and encapsulating that into an easy-to-use form. And throwing in fun stuff for the fans about how we did this or that, but it's mostly culinary. We're making the recipes better, because I've never really liked the form that they take online on FoodNetwork.com—I've always thought they were oversimplified to some degree. So this is trying to make them the best they can possibly be. I'm actually two-thirds of the way through Volume 3.
Catch up with Brown on The Next Iron Chef, which premieres its third season on Sunday, October 3 at 9:00 pm on Food Network.