Why Alton Brown Is The Once And Future King of Food TV
Alton Brown is back with Iron Chef Gauntlet, and the world is better for it.
When I heard that Iron Chef America would be returning in the tweaked guise of Iron Chef Gauntlet, I was excited, and not because of any inherent love of gauntlets. No, what got me interested in Iron Chef Gauntlet was that Alton Brown would also be returning to the world of Iron Chefs. There has been a major proliferation of food-centric personalities in the media landscape. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting somebody who can tell you how to best cook a dead cat. However, one man rises about this crowded field to be the best of the bunch, and that man is Brown.
Iron Chef America was the first cooking competition show, and first food-focused show, I ever really got into. I started watching it for an obvious reason: I was looking for something to flip over to during commercial breaks. However, eventually I started watching it on purpose. The show feels like a dinosaur now: it existed in a world before Chopped, and therefore didn't have the same sense of gimmickry or reality TV flavoring that has become commonplace in the cooking competition world. (I like Chopped, by the way, but its fingerprints are all over TV now, for good or ill.) Iron Chef America had a lot going for it, but chief among them was Brown as host. So taken was I with Brown in this role, I began watching his seminal show Good Eats.
Good Eats is arguably even more of a relic: a show that's actually about cooking and food. I have cooked three times in my life. Twice, I've made spaghetti, and one time I scrambled a couple of eggs. I am not the target audience for Good Eats, but I watched it, and enjoyed it thanks to the power of Brown. Cutthroat Kitchen is a completely insane show based on chefs having to overcome ridiculous obstacles. It's gimmicky to the point of bordering on absurd, but I've even watched that on occasion, simply because Brown hosts. I follow him on Twitter. I listen to his (infrequently released) podcast. Honestly, there are very few food personalities of which I would call myself a fan, but for me there's no equivocating when it comes to Alton.
So what is it that makes Brown stand head and shoulders (and probably also upper torso) above the rest? It's more than simply not being annoying, which the most famous food personalities tend to be. Guy Fieri is a pop culture punching bag, and it's not just because his appearance is as garish as any clown featured on an actual old-timey punching bag. When you remove the dregs from the race, though, there's still plenty of competition. And Brown laps said competition thanks to a combination of intelligence and humor.
The charm of Brown's personality is best exemplified in Good Eats, a show he created and starred in. It's a perfect blend of informative and entertaining, which is what Brown has brought to all of his shows (even Cutthroat Kitchen). A lot of food personalities don't actually edify you. Fieri, near as I can tell, goes to diners, shoves food into his face, and talks about how awesome it is, providing the home viewer with essentially nothing. The people who have hosted shows that actually involve cooking, or who pop up to do cooking sessions on talk shows, can walk you through a recipe: Brown can do that too, but he does so much more. The reason I enjoyed Good Eats is that Brown brought so much more to the table. He can tell you how to prepare a dish, and be engaging in to process, but he's incredibly knowledgeable on food-related matters. Brown relays information about the history of various foodstuffs, food preparation, and nutrition. I learned many interesting things from Good Eats, and some of the best parts of Iron Chef America involved Brown dropping knowledge like that too. Even on Cutthroat Kitchen, amidst people making jambalaya on a treadmill and ice cream sandwiches in a giant snow globe, Brown would get little moments to explain how he would handle certain aspects of making the dish. These doses of info are vital on a show that's so over-the-top. Additionally, while I'm not afraid of intellectualism or intelligence, Brown also manages to impart information in a straightforward way that doesn't come off as condescending or obnoxious. He's more charming raconteur than guy on the internet popping up on your Facebook feed with a "Well actually...."
Brown isn't just an egghead, though. He has been frequently quoted as saying that Good Eats was a combination of three influences: Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, and Monty Python; it was often funny and immensely creative for a food show. Most cooking competition shows are fairly sterile, but Brown can introduce humor to his. On Iron Chef America, Brown's role was primarily to guide the viewer through what was happening, with fleeting moments where he could showcase some dry wit. On the flip side, Cutthroat Kitchen gives Brown the opportunity to basically play a character. He's the insane puppet master subjecting the contestants to all matter of crazy obstacles. Brown gets to chew the scenery, but it works. I can't imagine the show being hosted by anybody but him.
Iron Chef Gauntlet debuted last night, and turns out to be a gussied-up version of The Next Iron Chef: seven esteemed chefs are competing in an elimination tournament to get the chance to take on a "gauntlet" of three Iron Chefs, and if they succeed there they will win the title of Iron Chef as well. The Chairman from Iron Chef America is gone. (Fingers crossed Mark Dacascos is reprising his role of Sensei Ping for a secret reboot of The Middle Man.) As Brown says, he's the Chairman now. He judges every dish of the preliminary round, in addition to filling the role of play-by-play man and analyst. This is basically his show, which is never a bad thing. I will never cook a lobster. I don't need to know anything about lobster preparation. I will gladly listen to Alton Brown explain the process, though. That is his power.