Yes, Alton Brown’s new Food Network series Cutthroat Kitchen features top-notch chefs competing to create prize-winning dishes. But here’s where it swerves into ingeniously original territory. It’s up to them to determine what their final prize is. And, much of the time, what they’re willing to do to earn it.
Which, Brown says, makes Cutthroat Kitchen as much a game show as it is a cooking competition. If you’ve heard about the show or seen the promos and still find yourself a little flummoxed about how the whole thing goes down, here’s the gist.
A different quartet of chefs competes in every episode. Brown — who serves as host, commentator and completely delighted provocateur — greets them with a suitcase filled with $100,000 and hands each $25,000. Then the three-round games begin.
At the start of each round, Brown assigns a dish to be cooked by all and affords the contestants one minute to raid the show’s pantry for the necessary ingredients.
Here’s where the “cutthroat” in Cutthroat Kitchen comes in. Brown next hosts an auction featuring a variety of items — some useful, some not so much. Could be a key ingredient that only the winning bidder can use — or the ability to snitch an ingredient from a fellow competitor. Could be the exclusive use of a particular kitchen utensil or machine — or the power to limit a competitor’s use of them. All manner of items and instances to give the chefs a leg up in the competition — or a great big problem.
This is also where that prize factor figures in. The chef with the least successful dish at the end of each round is sent packing with not a dollar to show for themselves, until just two remain. The last chef standing at the end of the game wins the money they’ve kept in their coffers. So … do you spend a little more to make a better dish and keep yourself in the game? Or do you try to conserve your cash for a bigger payout?
“The entire game really comes down to these things,” Brown says. “How well you cook. How well you adapt. How well you strategize. And how well you spend your money. So it is a game. It is a true game. It has more in common with Monopoly than it does with the Indy 500. Most culinary shows are simply about ‘here are these ingredients, here’s this amount of time to cook your food, and whoever’s food is the best wins.’”
Cutthroat Kitchen features a rotating panel of three judges — The Next Iron Chef’s Simon Majumdar is one — to judge the dishes at the end of each round. But unlike other cooking competitions, those judges aren’t privy to what went down in the kitchen before the plates arrived before them.
“For instance — if you paid $8,000 for the exclusive use of salt in the kitchen and the judge tastes your food and says, ‘Wow, I think your dish could have used a bit more salt!’ — that judge has no idea that you were even the only one that even had any salt,” Brown says. “They cannot ask questions of the contestants. And the contestants cannot talk to them — ‘Well, gee, the only knife I got to use was a Swiss Army knife!’ Or ‘I had to make all my hand tools out of aluminum foil.’ Or ‘I had to cook in half the amount of time.’ None of that.
“So it really is a lot of strategy — and it’s a fun game to watch. And from the people that I’ve talked to that have been on the show so far, it’s a fun game to play. Because you gotta know when to bid higher on something than somebody else. If it comes down to you and me and the auction item is a Swiss Army knife and whoever wins it is going to give it to the other person and say, ‘Here, use this as your only knife’ — at what point do you stop bidding? At what point do you say, ‘You know what? You go ahead. You spend $6,000 on that knife and I’ll use that knife and I’m still gonna win!’”
But, Brown says, viewers shouldn’t assume that the chef with the loftiest credentials is a shoo-in for the cash.
“What’s so interesting is that the big dogs that come and play almost never win, because they assume they can just cook their way through,” he says, noting some faces might indeed be familiar to food-show-loving audiences. “So the people that tend to win are good cooks that adapt well to change and that play games well.
“It’s really, really interesting to watch it unfold,” Brown continues. “For example, you very often see a female chef — and I’m not being sexist — but a female chef will allow two male chefs’ egos to get so in the way fighting each other that all she has to do is sit and wait and then kill off the wounded one,” he laughs. “It’s like nature in microcosm. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. So far, women have played this game better than men have.”
Brown says that the social-studies-meets-the-stove element, liberally doused in boisterous entertainment value, is what drew him to the project.
“I actually took this gig because, one, it was very original — the format is truly new — and, two, it was fun!” he says. “I can only hope that the viewers have as much fun watching it as I did making it, because it’s more fun than any show I’ve made.”
Brown’s taste for original formats and projects also led him to finally pull the trigger on The Alton Browncast — the podcast his fans have been patiently waiting for — this summer.
“The Alton Browncast came not out of my great love of podcasts, but my great love of radio,” Brown explains, “and my great love of conversational interviews, which you don’t get very much on television anymore. We’d been kicking around ideas for a couple of years and this year we decided, look, let’s just try it. We’re still formulating what really does each one of these shows need, and we keep trying out new things, but the real heart of things is an interview. And that’s really because I grew up in the days of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show when he would just have people on to talk, not because they were selling a new movie or a TV show and I miss that.”
Brown says he also really wanted to give his friends and colleagues from the food and Food Network universes a unique platform to display their personalities and what makes them tick. For example, in The Alton Browncast #2, Bobby Flay discussed his love of horse racing and admitted he used to ditch high school to go to the track (don’t try this at home, kids).
“So many of the these Food Network personalities have these interesting dimensions of their lives that most people don’t know anything about,” Brown says, “or sometimes it’s just getting a different angle on what their particular passion is. One of my favorite interviews was with [Iron Chef America and Chopped star] Alex Guarnaschelli, who is a lovely woman. She thinks and talks about food in a completely different way that just needed a different format — and you can’t really do that on a TV show because TV shows have schedules and we’ve gotta get this and we’ve gotta get this. So I was like, look, we’ve got an hour. Let’s just talk. Nobody just listens to people talk anymore — especially in food. And lot of these people are very, very interesting.”
Some more so than others. Brown says he’s itching for viewers to hear his upcoming wine-soaked free-for-all with his Iron Chef America costar, floor reporter Kevin Brauch.
“Kevin’s a fascinating guy with a career in broadcast that’s much longer than mine,” Brown says. “We did our podcast interview on a day that we were wrapping Iron Chef America and it’s a two-hour interview and it’s so good, I’m not going to cut it. We’re going to air in two parts. He and I ended up getting drunk on red wine and taking our shirts off to compare tattoos and we had a great time. It was this fantastic conversation — and you know what? If no one enjoys it but me, I’m still going to do it. I’m still going to put it out there. Because someone else might listen to it and think, man, it would have been great to hang out with those two guys.”
Brown also uses the podcast to educate his listeners about food and the food industry, a la his iconic series Good Eats, which is still the top-rated show on Cooking Channel even though Brown stopped making new episodes almost two years ago. With cooking competitions the hottest thing going, and even the broadcast networks jumping aboard now, Brown agrees that audiences who once worshipped Food Network for its food-and-cooking-centric programmings are now woefully underserved.
“I have a new YouTube channel that’s going to be launching later in the fall that is basically going to be video shorts in the five-minute range that have been designed to recapture Good Eats fans with that kind of educational but entertaining food stuff,” he says. “I’m self-funding that project and I’m self-funding the podcast for the reason of going back after the real cook, the people who are really interested in cooking. And let’s face it, food media has moved away from that.”
Beginning in October, Brown is also taking his show once again on The Edible Inevitable Tour. Unlike the “sit and chat” style of his 2011 book tour, he says this one is going to be a sort of Good Eats-on-steroids spectacle.
“This is big — this is very big,” he says of the production. “It’s my first touring road show and it has a lot of stuff in it that I’ve never done before onstage. I’m going to be singing and performing some of my food songs. Playing guitar and singing with a backup band several times during the show. There’s going to be a little mini lecture buried in there. There are some very large-format, strange food demos. There will be a lot of audience interaction. And there’s going to be some messes, I hate to say!”
Cutthroat Kitchen airs Sundays nights at 10pm ET/PT on Food Network.