Alton Brown has come a long way from delivering pizzas in Athens.
The Food Network star was a theater major at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, first learning to cook because he couldn’t afford to take a girl to a restaurant on a date. After leaving school (he didn’t earn his degree until 2004), Brown had a decade-long career as a music-video and commercial cameraman and cinematographer, even working on R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” video when an artist friend introduced him to Michael Stipe.
The amateur cook turned pro in 1998. Tired of watching subpar cooking shows, he went to culinary school and, upon graduating, put together the pilot for “Good Eats,” a groundbreaking program that blended explanations of the science of cooking with a Monty Python-esque sense of the absurd. He went on to be the play-by-play announcer for the gonzo chef competition “Iron Chef America” for four seasons, create “Feasting on Asphalt,” a six-part miniseries about road food, and appear as a mentor on the “The Next Food Network Star,” among other TV gigs.
Brown currently hosts the reality show “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which is filming its fifth season in Los Angeles. As soon as that’s done, he’ll embark on the first leg of a live tour that kicks off Oct. 21 in Athens. His two-hour stage show is a family-friendly blend of stand-up comedy, music (sample song title: “Airport Shrimp Blues”), education, puppetry and who knows what else. (Cryptically, he warns that people in the first few rows will be issued ponchos, suggesting, perhaps, a few Gallagher-style stunts?)
Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased by visiting classiccenter.com, calling 706-357-4444 or going to the Classic Center box office at 300 N. Thomas St from 10 a.m.–6 p.m Monday–Friday and 9 a.m–1 p.m. Saturday. Tickets mostly range from $38–58, although a $105 premium package includes prime seats, a meet-and-greet with Brown and a signed photo.
Brown recently spoke to Flagpole about his college days, changes in the TV business and “Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour.”
Flagpole: Being a former theater major, do you feel like this live show is going back to your roots?
Alton Brown: I don’t like to think of it as going back. I’ve been doing live things for 15 years. It’s always been a pretty big part of what I do. This is just the first time I’ve been able to put it together into a road show, a traveling venture.
FP: What can people expect?
AB: I like to call it a culinary variety show. There is a little bit of everything. If you have an interest in food at all—heck, if you only have an interest in science or sock puppets—there will be something in it for you. There’ll be live music. I’ll perform some of my food songs. There are puppets. There are very large, very strange demonstrations, audience interaction. There’s one section that’s kind of a multi-media comedy thing. There’s a lot. I have a hard time getting it done in two hours.
FP: It sounds like an expanded version of “Good Eats.”
AB: Well, let’s put it this way, if you’re a “Good Eats” fan, you’ll recognize the DNA. This is the traveling variety show cousin, I guess. There are things I never did on TV, songs and things like that. But if you are a “Good Eats” fan, I do not think you’ll be disappointed.
FP: Why are doing this as a live show, instead of a TV show?
AB: Like I said, I’ve always done live performances, speeches and things like that, and I really love the live audience vibe. It’s so completely different from TV work. TV, at the end of the day, you’re tired, and with the live show, you have more energy at the end of the day than you did when you started, because you get energy from the audience.
I’m a perfectionist, and every night on a tour like this, you get a chance to try to do it perfect again. And you can never get it perfect, but you can come close sometimes. And that’s just a real thrill.
And there are a lot of things that don’t work on TV that do work in a live format—things that require an audience to participate. At least in my own TV work, 90 percent of what I do on television is very, very planned out, very, very premeditated. A lot of things in this show, especially with the audience interaction, the volunteers that come up and whatnot, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen.
FP: Going back to your time at UGA, where were some of the places you liked to eat?
AB: I was poor. In fact, you ask me why I got into cooking at all—I had a very, very pathetic social life and couldn’t afford to take girls out to dinner, so I learned how to cook so I could stretch my dollars more, so I could get better dates out of it.
So, you know, classic places like The Grill, Taco Stand. I worked at Sons of Italy. I would eat wherever I could scrounge a meal, get somebody else to pay for it.
FP: What about now, where do you go when you’re in Athens, and how has the food scene changed?
AB: First off, there is a food scene. In the ’80s, there wasn’t a food scene. There were just places where you got food.
I’ll admit, I’m usually there for only one evening. I’m probably going to go to Hugh [Acheson]’s place because I know Hugh, and I like Hugh, and I like his food.
But I will say this—I’m very fortunate that the relaunch of the tour starts in Athens, so I’m going to be there for four whole days, and I plan to spend a lot of my free time getting re-acquainted with the place.
Part of me wants Athens to be the same way it was in the ’80s, and part of me is shy about going there because it’s changed so much, and every time I go, I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to recognize it or find my way around. It used to be that I could draw a map of Athens from memory because I delivered pizzas for years there, so I knew every road, every back road, every cut-through driveway in town. Now, when I go, I’m not even sure I can get around anymore.
FP: Why did you choose to start the tour in Athens?
AB: Part of it came down to the availability of the Classic Center. I wanted to play in Athens if I had the opportunity to. It was the kind of thing where it floated around on the first part of the schedule, and then we realized that it was going to be a lot more reasonable to make it the very first show of the relaunch, which is great for me because it means I’m going to be in Athens for several days, instead of just one night, because we’ll rebuild the show and rehearse for a day, because I haven’t done the show since mid-April, I guess, so it gives me time. I’m making changes to the show, which I do every leg.
FP: Having gone from “Good Eats” to “Iron Chef” to “Cutthroat Kitchen,” have you seen a shift away from educational cooking shows to competitions?
AB: Yeah, it’s the trend of the last five years. There are only so many eyeballs out there, and what research shows and ratings show is what people want to watch is competition shows and long-story-arc shows like “Breaking Bad.” That’s what people want to watch, and so that’s what networks make.
My constituency is very much wanting more than that, which is why I’ve been putting new stuff up on YouTube. I did a 14-episode web series during the summer. I try to feed my fans what they want, which is a little more education mixed in with their entertainment. That’s certainly my brand. It’s something that next year, I’m planning on putting a lot of effort into doing, but it’ll be web-based, digital-based, not on networks.
I think it’s just too difficult to pull that off anymore. “Good Eats” was the last prime-time cooking show made and aired in America, and I pulled it because I was tired of making it after 14 years. I don’t know that there will be a resurgence of that in network television, but I’m not a network television executive, so it’s not for me to say.
WHO: Alton Brown
WHERE: The Classic Center
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $38–$105
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