Alton Brown, <EM>The Next Iron Chef</EM> Alton Brown, The Next Iron Chef

If you've ever watched chef Alton Brown's show Good Eats and said to yourself, "How does he know that?" you're in for an even bigger surprise when you tune in to Food Network's new reality competition The Next Iron Chef (premiering Oct. 7 at 9 pm/ET on the Food Network). With skill tests and artistic challenges, America's best cooks will compete to be the next Iron Chef, and host Brown is sure they'll have you thinking, "How do they do that?" chatted with the all-knowing foodie about this risky new series, why you'll never see him competing and what he really thinks about reality shows. So where did you find these chefs?
Alton Brown: All over the United States. It came down to a few different criteria — we wanted chefs who were firmly established at the top of their game, and not only restaurant owners but multiple empire owners. Of course, within that group, there are plenty of people who wouldn't want to play, because they've got a lot to lose. We were looking for those who wanted to be Iron Chefs and were not afraid to compete and potentially fail on national television — that's a special group of people. It takes guts. So we looked for the good, the established and the crazy. So you sought them out?
Brown: Yeah. A lot of them had been competitors on Iron Chef America and had impressed us with their verve; whether they won or not, they really left an impression. And in fact, more than half of the competitors have been on Iron Chef America as contestants. It's a training ground. Right, they've been in the fire. And they'll face judges after each challenge and then one will be voted off?
Brown: We have a series of tests, cunningly designed tests, and not every test gets rid of everyone. Occasionally, the winner of a test may simply get an advantage in a different test, so it's not always a matter of surviving, because that just weeds out the worst, which is perhaps harsh. Let's just say that occasionally someone gets a slight advantage or gets to spin the tune in another challenge. However, someone's got to go, and that is done by a judging panel, which stays consistent throughout the series. And the winner will be on Iron Chef from now on?
Brown: The winner is the new Iron Chef. In fact, we already have our new Iron Chef and under top-secret circumstances just filmed 20 new episodes of Iron Chef America for our next season, in which this person competed several times. This is clearly very different from just doing a half-hour cooking show — what do these chefs need to do to stand out?
Brown: It is such a multifaceted and difficult thing. On one hand, they have to perform seemingly simple things. For instance, one of our tests is nothing more than a speed knife-skill test, where there are a certain number of foods that have to be broken down to a certain number of parts in a certain way and time. And then some of them are far more conceptual, interpretive and artistic. So it's not always about the final dish.
Brown: Some are just about skill, some are about showing themselves. When we're looking for an Iron Chef, we're looking for a certain kind of person. It's not just about, "Is your food better than these people's food?" It's, "Are you Iron Chef material?" Not just of skill, but it speaks of artistry, teamwork, leadership and a certain veracity. So we try to come up with a series of tests that weed out those that have it and those that don't. Any particularly difficult ingredients?
Brown: All of them. It's all hard. Oh. My. Gosh. My greatest problem with being the host of this show was coming to the realization that I couldn't do any of this. I can talk about it, I can look at it, I can appreciate it, but the truth is, the least of them run circles around me, and I'm no slouch. But the stuff that you're going to see on this show, I've likened to watching Tiger Woods play golf. Even on a bad day, he's the best. And when you watch this stuff, a lot of it's going to look easy — it isn't. It's remarkably difficult. This show is going to make foodies extraordinarily happy, because they are going to see the real thing. So you prefer the hosting side then.
Brown: In this foray, I'm not one of these people. I'm good at what I do, I'm a good cook, but am I an Iron Chef? [Laughs] No! Of course I'm not. But I am one of them in that I'm a cook. I've been behind the lines, I've done my time in that world, and I can understand and appreciate what they do. I wouldn't have lasted two episodes, and I know that and I'm OK with that. But what's great about you being the host is exactly what my friends and I always say about you: "He knows so much!"
Brown: I'm a freak. And I know that I am. I tend to absorb. Does that come from study or just experience?
Brown: It's both. I study a lot. There are just so many little facts about food that the majority of people don't know.
Brown: That's my life. I've made a study of these things, and I'm constantly learning. Believe me, the experience of The Next Iron Chef also taught me a lot. It was hard work to keep up with them. In any given test, I had to interpret what was going on and oversee the judging, and unlike Iron Chef America, you're going to see a lot of the conversations between the judges, and I wanted to make sure that was stimulating and honest and open. Do we see any drama? Do people quit?
Brown: Nobody quits, because none of these people are quitters. But there is a lot of drama. All of these people have stories — personal stories. There's a huge amount of emotion. Does anybody quit? Hell no! But there's still losing, and it's a wonderful study of grace to watch how that unfolds, because all of these people have so much respect for the others that they were really just glad to be at the party. They know what the score is, but there are no sore losers and no bad manners, and that was a real treat to be around. You know, the Food Network has really stepped up in terms of reality competitions and bringing talented chefs to the forefront. How do you feel about the whole reality phenomenon?
Brown: Frankly, I'm not a fan. I come from a more creative, scripted side. My own show, Good Eats, is very scripted and, hopefully, cinematic. I don't put much value in that form. It is not my cup of tea. This, I think, is different, because it avoids the low road all the time. There's never any of that hoo-ha, so for me this is a different gig. But no, the reality thing doesn't do much for me.

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