In 2007, telegenic Cleveland chef and restaurateur Michael Symon cooked his way to victory on Food Network’s first ever Next Iron Chef competition, scoring the spot of a departing Mario Batali on the network’s hugely popular Iron Chef America. Two years later, Batali’s back, Symon’s a hit and the net is hunting yet another culinary warrior to defend its Kitchen Stadium, beginning Oct. 4.
Back to call the competition, as he does on each episode of Iron Chef America — Good Eats guy Alton Brown, who really liked what he saw … and tasted.
I recently caught up with Brown as he prepared to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his beloved show and the publication of the first of a trio of Good Eats tomes that “remaster” 84 episodes of fine-tastin’ food.
So … are there standouts among the new NIC competitors?
Alton Brown: I thought we had a really good lineup the last time we did this two years ago. This is, mmmm, 7.5 times better. The food is more exciting. The passion is definitely cranked up even more. The level of honest competition is cranked up even more and yes, there are a lot of standouts. Matter of fact, I would say there’s no deadwood in the whole pile.
From a culinary standpoint, from a food standpoint, this is rocket science stuff. These are visionary cooks with the chops to back up their vision and you can’t ask for more than that, especially if they’ve got great stories that are fueled by passion … which they do.
Do contestants apply for the show or are they sought out?
Mostly they’re sought out. A lot of times it’s just going to a restaurant and tasting people’s food and then meeting them and learning about them. It’s like scouting a baseball team — sending out scouts to find talent. Same kinda thing.
What is that process like — are producers specifically looking for someone who can make good food and good TV?
It’s long and very, very involved. The producers and executive producers of Food Network go through hundreds and hundreds of possibilities — interviewing, conversations, looking at their food over time. It all starts and ends with the food, really.
But that charisma thing — you can’t make that. You can’t manufacture that. And I think some of that is just dumb luck to be honest with you. Certainly the group that we have on Next Iron Chef this year — you couldn’t have known until you got into it what you were going to get. It’s really a roll of the dice from a production standpoint.
And even the most charismatic person can crumble when there are TV cameras involved …
Yeah. But that’s not really charisma. Charisma comes from the unknown. It’s that “It factor,” and you’ve either got it or you don’t. The thing that can crumble under the lights or under the pressure is polish, that kind of presentation thing that you can learn. But the real charisma thing, that emerges. That’s not something you can plan on having. And typically those who have it don’t even know they have it.
It’s the ability to be “sticky,” to hold a camera on you and have an audience want to know more about you, to experience what you’re doing.
With, with this subject matter, by the way, is pretty stinkin’ difficult being that we haven’t worked out that scratch and sniff, scratch and taste thing. People can’t taste this food. They can’t smell this food. They just can’t.
So this is showering with a raincoat on. And if you’re going to shower with a raincoat on, you better be good at describing what the water feels like.
Especially when you’re working the more exotic ingredients that the audience may have never smelled or tasted before …
Exactly. One of the reasons that I try so hard to have social context, to have “story” about the ingredients, at least on Iron Chef America, is to try to fill in the gaps and give purpose and meaning to something that people can’t taste. I can’t describe for you what passion fruit tastes like. I can’t. I can describe to you what I think passion fruit tastes like, but I might alienate half the audience doing that. Or I might miss the mark with it. So instead, you give it some context by talking about its history and giving it significance that way.
How hard is that for you? Has there ever been a time when you’ve found yourself stymied as to what to talk about?
No. Because I don’t play from flavor. I might draw comparisons to what something tastes like if I think there is a really good analogy, but you won’t often hear me talk about what something tastes like other than very broad strokes of astringency, bitterness, tartness, sweetness, fattiness — tactile, one-word qualities. But I won’t go beyond that, because it’s too subjective.
Some of the contestants have already done battle on Iron Chef America — unfair advantage?
Nooooooo. You could compete on Iron Chef America three times and still not be prepared in any way shape or form for Next Iron Chef. Because the challenges on Next Iron Chef are very cerebral. They’re very philosophical, in fact. It’s not just about competing against someone, with a clock.
Iron Chef America is simple. There’s an ingredient. There’s another chef. And there’s sixty minutes. That’s simple compared to what Next Iron Chef put them through. They’ve really gotta explore who they are. There was a lot of culinary soul-searching.
What do you think is the single most difficult part of competing on The Next Iron Chef?
Any time that you have to manifest on a plate a complex ideal — or a series of ideals — that’s difficult. Because you could have a perfectly crystalline idea in your head of how to express your particular attitude on a … subject. I don’t want to be specific because I don’t want to give away what some of the tests are.
Let’s just say that some of these things are very plastic from a concept standpoint — very open to interpretation. So you run a risk when you try to translate that onto a plate. This has happened several times during a competition, where they just … missed. They come up with an idea that is going to speak for them, translate for them, and it misses by a few degrees with the judges.
Well, a few degrees is enough.
It’s like that game Telephone where you’ve got something and you’re trying to pass it on … you’re tryin’ to whisper it. That’s what happens a lot in Next Iron Chef. Very complex thoughts being translated into food and then using that food to tell that story to the judge. Well, now it’s not just a matter of whether it’s good or it’s bad, is it? Now it’s a communication tool. And that’s hard. That’s verrrrrrrrrrrry hard.
In the end, it’s about communication and I think that if there is a theme to the food on Next Iron Chef, it is about the communication of ideas. And ideals. And that ain’t easy.
It’s not just about “someone made something that tastes good.” All of these people make stuff that tastes good. No one makes things that taste bad or they wouldn’t be there.
When you’ve got a sum total of three diners to impress, rather hundreds of people every night in your restaurant, do your odds of impressing the majority get tougher?
Well, I’m there to taste the food, also, to keep that balanced. I don’t vote. But I do eat all the food, so that if I see one of the judges who’s heading off into “not the right place,” I’m there to rein ’em back in.
I’m the mediator. If somebody says they taste “blah blah blah” and I’m like, “No, that ain’t right,” I speak my mind on that. I don’t vote but I do … influence.
I mean, they can vote however they want, but when you’re talking about feeding three people over and over and over again, I do think it’s important that there’s a referee.
And I’d imagine that, after a while, the judges may develop an overall impression of someone and their food style and maybe need to cleanse their mental palate?
I’m the mental sorbet! I’m here to provide intermezzo.
And once again, you’re flying around the globe to do so …
Last time on Next Iron Chef, a lot of the American footage was shot at the Culinary Institute of America. This time we decided that the challenges were such that we really wanted to have a more neutral-feeling ground, so we actually built a new kitchen on a soundstage in Los Angeles. And it’s obviously a soundstage. It’s really just like a hangar with a kitchen in the middle of it.
And we based a majority of the tests there in that kitchen — which I was really glad for, because it removed a lot of extraneous nonsense from the show. And then we’re in Tokyo for the rest of the time. And then finally, of course, in New York in the end, in the Iron Chef Stadium. In Kitchen Stadium.
When you say it removes some of the nonsense, are you concerned that it’s going to become more about the spectacle and less about the food?
I think, in this case, the challenges that these chefs are going through are very detailed-oriented. They’re veeeery cerebral. And I think that we needed a different background for that to unfold. We were out and about plenty. There was more location shooting on this — even in Los Angeles — than we had before. There are field trips — but we always came back to the same place to cook. And I like that. I think the viewers are going to like that because the special things that are happening there will actually come into a crisper focus.
And by the way? Most of the tests that are on Next Iron Chef — people who are on Iron Chef America wouldn’t be able to survive them. I mean, it’s worse. It’s much, much harder. Much harder.
Matter of fact, I was actually concerned that by the time the two finalists made it to kitchen stadium, that it would be too much of a cakewalk. Compared to what they to through to get there? That the final battle itself is would be “Oh! Secret ingredient? Sixty minutes. No problem. That’s nothin’! You’re not setting us on fire. You’re not gluing our eyelids shut. Of course we didn’t actually do that, but mentally and emotionally it was kinda like that…
Soooo … can you give me something of an example of one of those tests?
No, I can’t! I can’t and I won’t! There’s a Food Network representative right here with a gun, with a sight on me and she’ll cap me! It would be like, “Yeah, I’ll tell you … grghhkkkkk.”
I would not want to be part of that disclaimer on the show.
So … winning any Food Network competition is now about more than just upping your cooking cred. Now you stand a pretty decent chance of upping your TV time, too, and maybe even scoring a show of your own. Do you think that’s become something of which the contestants are aware or — at least at the outset — is it strictly about flaunting their food skills?
[Sighs] Hmmmmm. I’ll tell you one thing. I think that there’s a certain number of people who sign on for that competition who assume that if they don’t have one skill, they’ll make up for it with another. But you can be the best chef in the world, the best cook in the world, whatever you want to call it, and, in the end, if you don’t know how to make the camera yours, you’re not going to make it. This is still entertainment above all. All television is.
And let’s face it. People can’t taste your food through the TV. Yet. I am sure someone is working on that.
So I think that some people get surprised by that. Or they think that being on television is simply a skills set that can be obtained the way you learn how to confit duck. But you know what? It isn’t. You can be taught some tricks at becoming better. But you either have it or you don’t.
I just wondered, because these days you see someone on this show and suddenly he’s on that one and this other one and another one … and that has to be in folks’ minds when they appear on a show. Doesn’t it?
I don’t know! I live in my own world. My show, Good Eats, is made in Atlanta out of my own company … I don’t have a restaurant … I don’t have a restaurant background … so I don’t know how that works.
On Good Eats, I don’t pay attention to anyone’s wishes but my own. I do what I do and if someone wants to pay me for that, great. If not, I’ll move on.
On that subject, the last time we spoke, it was to discuss your 100th episode. Now you’re doing your 10th anniversary …
Gainfully employed for 10 years. Who woulda thunk it?
But did I ever think it would happen? Nooooo. I never think ahead more than a year at a time. It’s one of my bad habits. I don’t think about the future very often.
Even in terms of thinking up show topics and how to keep things fresh?
You know, that’s easy. Because it’s an infinite subject. Part of teaching is artful repetition and if you’re going to be a good teacher, you have to repeat yourself every once in a while … you have to. Because there are only 20 basic tenets of cooking. And there are only seven basic molecular structures that you have to understand. Maybe eight.
So it’s all storytelling. My imagination will run out way in advance of the subject extinguishing itself.
But you’ve also got much of the same class that’s coming back for your instruction, episode after episode.
I only think one show at a time. As far as I am concerned, every time I start one, it’s the first one and the last one. The only thing I think about as far as a list is what I want to avoid doing. Repeating a subject is one thing, but reusing a method or a dramatic device — that’s, ehhh, tacky.
I still think it has to be exhausting though, after 10 years, because your shows are so inventive and complex, and the props that you use and the analogies …
…which is why I say I’ll drop before the subject does. I’ll finally just go, “Aaaauuugh, I’m too old for this!”
Did you have an idea from the start that Food Network would become the phenomenon that it is?
Food is the last great common element in American culture. Because of the Internet, God love it, we’ve become very fractured, very micro-cultured. Very little do we hold in common any more. I think our recent political and financial stresses show that — that we are quite capable of tearing ourselves apart by focusing on our differences. And isolating ourselves into subcommunities.
Food is just about the last thing that we hold in common. And because we still crave that commonality, Food Network will always have sway. Because that common element is the first name of our network. And I think people are just drawn to it.
Whether you can afford to cook with the best ingredients, whether you can afford to go out to eat or whether you can’t, it’s still a focal point of human existence. And I think that certainly from the cooking part — not just the food part or the travel part — cooking is a great expression of self-reliance. And I think that as we live in a world that is increasingly technically advanced, any skill that is elemental to life is appealing.
Plus, in my family, if people love you, they feed you. Before they’d tell you, they’ll feed you. So there’s an emotional connect …
That’s right! It’s love on a plate. It’s very emotional. It’s a very emotional subject.
Do you have plans for another Feasting On … series?
Well, do you think I should?
I think you should.
Then you should write into Food Network and tell them that.
I have to think up another mode of transport for you first.
Ohhhhh, there are plenty! Trains. Planes. Feasting On Air.
Feasting On Air. Mmmm. Filling …
Well, that’s just me.
I’ll watch for it. In the meantime, you’re also about to release the first installation of Good Eats: The Early Years.
Yeah! We waited ten years to do a Good Eats book. It’s a trilogy, and it’ll be out in October and it is basically 84 chapters. Each of the first 84 episodes have their own chapter. And we went back and basically redid all the food. Retested. Rebuilt. Retooled. Remastered, as we say.
Because, when you have ten years to look back over it, you realize, “Oh, I would have done this different.” Or, “I’ve eaten this 300 times since then and I’ve decided to change this.” So, really, everything’s new.
Just thinking about the logistics of that … you’re in Atlanta, you’re in New York, you’re in Los Angeles, you’re in Tokyo, you’re on Good Eats, you’re on Iron Chef, you’re on Next Iron Chef. When did you start, in order to get ten years completely redone?
[Laughs, wearily] I don’t know! I don’t know. I will tell you this. The manuscript for the second volume is woefully behind schedule. I may fake my own death to buy myself some more time.
Well, you know what we could do here is you could just tell me about the challenges on The Next Iron Chef and then the Food Network person will shoot you and there’s your excuse!
Not a chance, lady! If I’m going to die, I’m not going to be shot by a Food Network person in a suite at the Four Seasons! No way! You’re not getting a scoop out of me about any of the nuuuumerous and fascinating challenges that the chefs have to go through! Not me, lady!
All right, then … was there any type of food involved that you were surprised to see … hamburgers?
I’m never surprised to see food! It’s Food Network! And actually, there is some hamburger, yes …
What else did I see here? Jellyfish?
There might be.
I have not seen Good Eats: Jellyfish.
And odds are you are not going to see a Good Eats episode about jellyfish. Typically we will only do things that people can actually buy in a grocery store or readily obtain online. Typically.
Besides, whoever wakes up in the middle of the night and yells, “Dagnabbit, I wish I had some jellyfish!” NO! Nobody actually wants jellyfish! I have never heard anybody say, “What this plate needs is jellyfish!”
Truthfully? I had no idea you can even eat a jellyfish.
Loggerhead turtles like ’em.