As a television personality, Alton Brown is an intelligent mobile unit moving humorously and educationally through Food Network series such as Good Eats (which he created), Iron Chef America and Cutthroat Kitchen (which he hosts), and their various offshoots. He has a successful podcast, the Alton Browncast, where he not only discusses culinary news, but style, music, and cinematography (in his former life, he lensed R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" video), Yet, it is in a live setting, as a storyteller and songwriting singer, where he is at his engaging best. The genial host returns to Philadelphia's Merriam Theater Sunday with the aptly titled Eat Your Science showcase.
You started behind the camera as a cinematographer. What made you believe that you could change food television? That’s confidence.
I actually still do spend most of my time behind the camera. The thought of changing what food television was at that point was based on my own personal passions and wanting to put together filmmaking, which I did then as a commercial director, with the thing that I loved doing most, which was cooking. This was at a time when no one was making food shows that were very entertaining, challenging or educational. As for being the person in front, that only happened because we didn't have enough money to get a professional.
Since that start, as you’ve maintained so many shows up through Iron Chef: Gauntlet, what must a program of yours have in order for you to find it — not perfect — but strong?
It's a good question, especially as I am incapable of perfection. I have a process for that decision, but most of it is gut feeling. I would like to think that there is a level of smart. I don't want to be involved in making dumb or insipid television. I want there to be a brainy aspect to things because, frankly, that's what I want to watch. Not because I am incapable of enjoying mindless entertainment, but when I'm looking at projects that I bring something to, there should be a certain amount of wit, entertainment and take-away – that there is a level of education to everything that I do. That's true of the stage show, too. Yes, it's a variety show, but I hope that I make people curious. You spark curiosity, partially by entertaining, and partially by informing.
Carol Burnett, Hollywood Palace, and anything of Dean Martin’s – those were my favorite variety shows. How about yours?
Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, though I'm glad you mentioned Dean Martin, who is so underrated. These were shows where anything could happen. We lost much of this in reality television. Those shows of the '70s were absolutely my inspiration for doing a stage show.
So where does the aspect of science fit into a variety show scenario? How do you make science live?
Science is frigging fascinating. I don't have to do that much to it.
Not every moment is a scientific study. I start off with a rock anthem, "Science," that my combo and I do. There are several large culinary demonstrations that are drenched in science, but hopefully not with a big stick to hit the audience over the head. That's just my DNA of storytelling. I'm not a professional scientist or have hindered myself with advanced degrees. I am, however, a gentleman scientist in the most Victorian sense of the phrase. Hopefully, I still get things right.
You mention the music. What’s your real background there?
Almost nonexistent. I played jazz tenor saxophone in my teens and early twenties. When I realized that I was never going to be any good at it, I quit. The only reason I picked it back up is if you're going to do a variety show, there has to be music. So I dared myself to write funny food songs. When I did the first tour, the songs varied from waltzes and country to a punk song about Easy-Bake Ovens. Now, there's a synth-pop song about popcorn. Music had to happen. I had to write and perform it because I'm a control freak.
Obviously, you made Eat Your Science bigger and more audacious than the last tour. Is it tough topping yourself?
Of course. If you're going to go out, it has to be bolder, which is why I decided that this is the last tour. Ultimately, I don't want to chase my own dragon. It becomes obsessive. Eventually thinking "bigger and better" wears a hole in the side of your head. Better to hang it up after this tour.
Wow, this is your Ziggy Stardust moment.
Yeah, I think so. To make a show bigger and better… I don't know that I can. Don't look the monkey in the eye and never second guess yourself. If you do, it will throw poop at you.
You gained back 20 pounds of the 50-some that you lost. Is that a positive or a negative when on stage?
It's terrible. I'm fat. I just have this problem called "my mouth" and the things that I like to put in it, such as martinis.
You have been through Philadelphia before. What do you make of this city’s food scene?
On one hand, you might have the sandwiches at DiNic's, then you turn around and have the fried chicken at Federal Donuts. Any city that has such amazingly deep culinary roots, ethnic roots, neighborhood roots as Philadelphia — then you add on a layer of innovators in terms of doing new stuff — that's a perfect storm for a great food town.