Like Walt Whitman, Alton Brown contains multitudes.
Part TV host, part celebrity chef, part mad scientist, part Southern gentleman, part geek idol, part bow-tie enthusiast, part comedic raconteur, part evil mastermind – we could go on. The bespectacled Food Network star brings all his dynamic personalities to bear on his “Alton Brown Live: Edible Inevitable Tour,” which stops in for a bite at the Gallo Center for the Arts this week.
The host of hits including “Iron Chef America” and “Cutthroat Kitchen” has been traveling across the country with his “Alton Brown Live” production. The show is filled with what he describes as “large, potentially dangerous and impractical culinary demonstrations,” coupled with Brown’s signature wit, style and scientific adventurousness.
Billed as a culinary variety show, it features food, comedy, music, puppets and even has a “poncho zone,” where people in the first few rows are provided protective gear in case of what Brown has described as “airborne particulate matter.”
The 52-year-old Brown said he was inspired by the variety shows of his childhood.
“I was mostly a child of the ’70s. I loved ‘The Sonny & Cher Show.’ I loved how you could see a comedy show and then you could see somebody sing, and this is based on that,” he told Garden & Gun magazine last year when the tour kicked off. “I do some of my songs, food songs, which hopefully are funny. They make me laugh and so far they’ve made other people laugh.
“There’s also a mini-lecture/standup segment called ‘10 Things I’m Pretty Sure I’m Sure About About Food.’ And there are two very large, very unusual food demonstrations, both of which involve audience interaction. One tends to involve so much mess that we give the first five rows ponchos. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had working.”
Over the course of his on-camera career, Brown has undergone a rather public evolution. Many people will remember Brown from his first hit series, “Good Eats,” which debuted on the Food Network in 1999. For 14 seasons, Brown was a mix of Bill Nye and MacGyver in the kitchen, reveling in his nerdy side and exploring the science of food with his audience. As host, he had a fondness for spiky hair and oversize shirts, both bowling and Hawaiian, and an all-encompassing dislike for “unitask” kitchen tools.
In 2005, Brown began hosting “Iron Chef America,” the popular U.S. spinoff of the Japanese culinary competition. The role required him to button down and suit up as some of the world’s best chefs faced off for culinary supremacy. But the biggest changes came around 2009 when a slicker, slimmer host emerged after Brown lost some 50 pounds by changing his eating habits. His on-screen persona also traded in the luau gear for tailored suits and bow ties. To date, he owns more than 300 styles of the snazzy neckwear.
In 2012, his series “Good Eats” ended, but Brown quickly followed that up in 2013 with his new series, “Cutthroat Kitchen.” For that series, Brown plays the Machiavellian host who comes up with cruel and very unusual ways to make cooking torturous for experienced professional chefs.
Brown admits the nice nerd of “Good Eats” and nefarious instigator of “Cutthroat Kitchen” may seem at odds. But, he said, they’re all just parts of his personality, designed to entertain.
“I like to refer to my character on ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ as ‘evilicious.’ I delight in the discomfort of others, but I don’t do it to them. I make things available to the chefs and they do it to each other,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune recently. “It’s an actual game show and you have to play the game if you want to win. I wanted to host an honest-to-goodness game show, not a culinary competition – I’m tired of those. Even the ‘Good Eats’ me is crafted a certain way for story form. I guess both are part me, but the one you see on stage is the real me.”
In fact, the stage show truly brings together Brown’s multiple interests – and expertise – in one convenient place. Brown, who grew up in Georgia, actually studied filmmaking at the University of Georgia in Athens. Before going to culinary school, Brown’s production credits included working as the cinematographer for R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” music video and as a camera operator for Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” But then in 1994, he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute.
The stage show’s combination of theatrics and food – and even some original songs by the saxophonist and guitar player – are really just Brown finally showing off all his multitude of skills at once.
“I’ll be honest, for me it’s coming full circle. My college degree is in theater, so for me this is a completion of something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Anything can happen,” he told the Fort Myers News-Press recently. “Every night, even though I’m doing more or less the same show, there’s so much variability and a lot of audience interaction. In fact, there are three different times in the show when audience members can take over, so there is that improv factor, and I thrive in that environment.”