Alton Brown had aired just two pilot episodes of "Good Eats" on the Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW before getting noticed and picked up by the Food Network. The year was 1999, before Paula Deen, Guy Fieri and all the other "Next Food Network Stars" would water down the informative characteristics of food TV. Brown's unique blend of quirky cookery, scientific experiments and madcap antics was a hit with viewers, airing for 13 years and 250 episodes before Brown put it to bed in 2012.
Of course, Brown is hardly gone from the Network, appearing nearly around the clock on programs such as "Cutthroat Kitchen," "Iron Chef America" and "Next Food Network Star." Lesser known, perhaps, is his itinerant live show titled "Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour," which kicks off its second circuit on Oct. 21. Brown will bring his interactive "culinary variety show" to Cleveland's State Theatre on Friday, Nov. 7.
The two-hour show is billed as "a blend of standup comedy, food experimentation, talk show antics, multimedia lecture and, for the first time... live music."
We chatted with the garrulous "foodist" about his upcoming tour, food television and his next project.
Douglas Trattner: I've had the "pleasure" of sitting through two tapings of "Iron Chef" and it's an exhausting eight- or nine-hour day. Is the beauty of a live performance that it's done in two hours?
Alton Brown: The thing about a live show, if you do it right, is that the audience will give you more energy than they will take. You do a show like "Good Eats" or "Iron Chef America" and you're pretty frickin' drained — there's no question about that. With a live show, very often, I leave the stage more fired up than when I went out there. That's what can be very addictive about live performing — you get to where you are literally addicted not to the adoration, not to the love of the fans, but the energy — you get addicted to the energy.
DT: I understand there's a lot of audience participation during the show.
AB: The audience is a big part of the show. I have very, very good luck with volunteers — who bring so much to the party if you let them — that a lot of people assume that they're plants who travel with us. That would be absolutely no fun for me. The volunteer aspects of the show are my favorite parts because those are the unknowns: I don't know what's going to happen; I don't know what they're going to say and allowing that to unfold is a real kick.
DT: For those who might have caught the show last year, is this one different?
AB: We've been to Ohio but this is the first time we play Cleveland. If people came to the Dayton show last year and think the Cleveland show will be different, it is not — it is the same show with some amendments. I change it every time we go out. New musical elements. I added a rap number written by me.
DT: I bet you never thought people would pay to hear you sing.
AB: They're not paying to see me sing. Trust me, nobody is ever going to pay to hear me sing. They're paying for the experience for us to hang out with each other for two hours. But they do seem to enjoy the songs and I enjoy doing them and I think they're funny.
DT: What's this I hear about a "poncho zone"?
AB: We do offer ponchos to the first two or three rows. One of the food demos tends to emit particulate matter. It just happens as a byproduct of the experiment. That's all I'm going to say. The cooking that I do on this show is not normal cooking with pots and pans. I'm using very large, unusual constructs to make food scientifically that wouldn't work anywhere but here.
DT: You've always been adept at edutainment — wrapping entertainment around education. With Food TV so heavily skewed toward culinary celebrities and reality show-style entertainment, where should budding cooks look for edification and inspiration?
AB: I can only speak for myself when I say that the future of educational, instructional culinary information is going to be web-based. My new project that I'm launching next year is web-centric. It's too difficult to try to do this kind of thing on television because you can't get to your audience anymore. I think the web is a far, far better way to do it.
DT: From your point of view, how is American home cooking these days?
AB: I think we've seen a serious upsurge of home cooking, but the problem is "home" is not that easy to define anymore. The lynchpin of food health for Americans is actually cooking their own food. A difficult thing to do, however, when the other side of the culture is telling you to constantly eat out and go to restaurants. That's a tricky thing.
DT: You're about to embark on a 46-city tour. Any eating tips for staying happy and healthy on the road?
AB: Eat as little as possible and eat your vegetables first. When I'm on the road I try to not even eat anything that passes for a meal. I try to snack and nibble and never let myself get loaded up.
Alton brown live Friday, Nov. 7, 8 p.m., 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.