10/26/2012 12:22:00 PM

Alton Brown on Next Iron Chef: Redemption, How Food TV Has Changed and More

Alton Brown is a busy man these days. From hosting Iron Chef America, to the soon-to-debut fifth season of The Next Iron Chef to executive producing Next Food Network Star winner Justin Warner's new series, the former Good Eats guru is up to his neck in hosting gigs and new projects. We called up Alton to get the lowdown on the new season of Next Iron Chef (premiering November 4), get his thoughts on the return of Iron Chef Japan, mull over how food TV has evolved in the last few decades and more. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: So aside from the obvious, how is Next Iron Chef: Redemption unique from previous seasons? Will it follow the same format?
It follows the same format in that it will be a series of challenges that will be judged and someone moves on up the ladder. It's the same model but oddly enough is what I found is the entire redemption angle changed the dynamic a lot. Every Next Iron Chef up until now has been made up of people who are, excuse the expression, virgins - they may have competed on other shows like Iron Chef but not like this. Most of these people either had a whiff of victory or had suffered a real humiliating defeat. In either case, everyone had a chip on their shoulder, everyone had an ax to grind and everybody was prepared for the milieu as it is - they were ready to dive right in and film. Like the food we got on the very first episode was the quality of what we would normally see on a fifth episode because they were already kind of loaded for bear if you will.

Zagat: How would you gauge the competition this season?
Well, normally you see people competing against each other, but this year, first and foremost they were competing against themselves, so you get a real sense of that. It's always been an element of that but it's just different this time. I think again it's that redemption angle. You can tell who wants it. What's beautiful is when people all of sudden realize, 'oh wow I actually have a horse in this race, I can actually win this thing.' Because of course there's people that assume they're just there filling out the herd. Some of the people you think are going to fall by the wayside, don't fall by the wayside. We upped the game play a bit; it's not just cook, get judged, etc. There's strategy, there are tactics now. It's a game and it requires shrewd players.

Zagat: What was your favorite challenge to film?
I really like the option challenge. We had so much fun with it, and we kind of upped the ante in a way that I am not going to divulge, but I just really love it because it shows how these people thin. It forced them to play and gamble - they really have to gamble with something besides just their cooking skill and that really is interesting to watch. It's my favorite episode.

Zagat: How do you feel about Iron Chef Japan returning to air?
They've always been very hands-off with us, so I think that it's interesting that the revitalization is coming from us - it's Iron Chef America that's making that possible, not the other way around. It's not like Godzilla's been asleep in the ocean and all of the sudden it came out. We kept the brand alive and anew.

Zagat: Are you working on any new shows/projects right now?
Well I am executive producing the new program for Justin Warner, the gentleman that won Next Food Network Star - it's going to be out at the beginning of the year. I'm also working on a five-part miniseries for Food Network called Food That Made America, and it's going to be a historic look at five different foods that were very pivotal in making this the country that it is. So I'm very excited about those.

Zagat: With Good Eats behind you, would you like to do another cooking show again and if so, what would it be?
Yes, I would, but it would probably be in the digital realm. I would probably do that for more of an online-type audience where I can control the story flow. I don't think I would want to do that again in a half-hour format. I don't see any reason to. I came from short-form television. I was a commercial director so I'm used to working in small snippets. If you look at any of my webisodes on Food Network.com it's some of my best work I think, working in five minutes and under. I think it's a very creative format. I am by no means finished as a food educator. I have a project that's coming out next year that I think Good Eats fans will relish but I'm just not willing to talk about it yet.

Zagat: You've been on food TV longer than almost anyone - how has the industry changed in the last 20 years?
I think that the biggest thing is that Food Network is no longer an emerging network - it's a full-grown network and the trend in networks these days is, you know, it's real estate - not every show on Food Network is about cooking. In fact Good Eats was the last primetime cooking show on any network in fact. Now, it's far more diverse and you have to compete against 300-something other channels as well as major networks. I think that has forced programmers to think more in terms of mainstream entertainment. And so now in places like Food Network you hear people say "we don't necessarily make food shows but we make 'food adjacent' shows - we make shows that surround food but they're not always about food." That's just the reality of the business, and any other network that's got the name of a subject in its title is doing pretty much the same thing. But I think there's always the danger of losing touch with the DNA, and becoming something that you're not. If you go to an expensive store and buy a Rolex, you expect a Rolex, you don't want a Rolex that looks like a Cartier. When you have a brand that's trusted you have to be very careful to stay true to that DNA. 

Zagat: Why do you think food has become so zeitgeist-y in our culture?
It's easy. It's the last thing we have in common. In this day and age, everyone is so shattered and fractioned, everybody online . . . we specialize our interests so much. As a culture, we have very little in common. As our recent current election we can't even talk to each other anymore in calm discourse. We're all one thing or another, we're all very different and food is the last connective tissue. And it unites everybody. That's why it never quits - it never stops being a good subject.

Zagat: I noticed you've been responding to Twitter cooking questions with Post-It notes lately - clever. 
I hate rules. And I hate being told that I have to do something to 140 characters and I like drawing and I find sometime that the expression that can come out on a Post-It is so much richer than anything that I can do with 140 keystrokes. It's almost like performance art in a way. I was a theater major in college so it's almost like showtime, you know.

Zagat: You've accomplished so much already, what's left on your list?
Lots. There's lots still left on my list both in my food realm and outside it. The projects that I'm developing right now are still mostly food-centric, because I feel like there's still a lot of things in that space that I haven't done yet. There's a history program I'm developing right now and I have some online things so I'm going to try to kind of  re-create the cooking show again online because I feel like that's kind of what I did for Good Eats. So right now I'm in the process of changing everything about the production company and everything about how we work so that I can create something new again.


  1. I would certainly watch an online show of his. I hear youtube's a great platform for doing that kind of stuff and you don't even have to worry about hosting costs.

  2. Alton Brown could recite the Atlanta Yellow Pages and make it exciting an interesting. He's one of the best teachers I've ever seen. I will definitely watch his online shows.

  3. I would totally watch anything Alton Brown did new, online or otherwise. And I completely get and appreciate the "analog" tweets of his. Such wit is being lost on those who don't follow him.

  4. I've been a fan of Alton's for years. 'Good Eats' is ever present in my DVR. I do miss the fact that there will be no new ones. I never get tired of watching them over and over again. I currently have 180 episodes. I can always go back if I want to cook something and want his recipe. I will look forward to his online show. I learn more from him than from the CIA.