Host extraordinaire Alton Brown enthusiastically serves up a freshly reimagined Iron Chef, now in a razzle-dazzle Kitchen Stadium at Netflix. Premiering June 15, Quest for an Iron Legend sizzles aplenty in its new iteration. Five renowned stellar Iron Chefs — Marcus Samuelsson, Gabriela Cámara, Curtis Stone, Dominique Crenn and Ming Tsai — are back to vie with seven buzz-worthy challenger chefs for the ultimate title: Iron Legend. The fun, invigorating, cutting-edge culinary championship unfolds over eight 45-minute episodes. Along with superb co-host Kristen Kish (exuding smiles and smarts), as well as the dramatic chops of Mark Dacascos as The Chairman, this whirlwind gastronomic wonder-show wows, galvanizing global tastes to bring surprises, inspiration and food-as-love comfort to viewers. I sat down to dish up a warm Q&A with cool Brown. Here, morsels from our gabfest:
Laura Manske: You had two impressive decades at Food Network — on Iron Chef America, Good Eats, Feasting on Asphalt, Feasting on Waves, Cutthroat Kitchen. How important is your move to Netflix?
Alton Brown: My decision was based on one overarching emotional decision: I simply could not stand for Iron Chef America to evolve to another level and not be there for it. My career has been exemplified mostly by my show Good Eats, but Iron Chef has been a very big part of my life, a brand that I have been involved with for nearly 20 years. I could not not be involved. That required departing Food Network. It was not a difficult decision. I had a great home at Food Network. But there was no way that I wasn’t going to be on this show. So as soon as they let me know that they wanted me, I was: “Yeah, I’m there.” I have a very close relationship with the Netflix showrunners. There are people here whom I would follow into any battle. I am glad to be here, because I think the show is magnificent.
Manske: It feels good to be in a place that you know is oh-so right. In that vein, what one thing has brought you ample joy working on this Iron Chef?
Brown: I am thrilled with the chefs who are participating. I am really happy with the food — and everything that was brought to the party, the ingredients, the things that were done to them. This is the best evolution that I could have hoped for. Everybody got it right. A project like this is the pinnacle of culinary competition shows, the grand-daddy of them all. I was a fan from the early days when it was first being produced in Japan. I wanted to see it rise to a higher place and fulfill its potential, which is what has happened.
Manske: What do you particularly savor about this new season, perhaps something that has never been done before?
Brown: That’s easy. I have a great co-host, Kristen Kish. We kind of split our duties. My job is to stay up on my stage and [comment] about the food, which is what I’ve always done: What I am seeing; what the chefs are doing; what are the ingredients. Kristen goes down [to converse with the competing chefs in the kitchen arena] and gets the backstory. Then she [rejoins me], explains what is happening and we engage in real [unscripted] conversation. In the older iterations of the show there were floor reporters who sent me information, but we were never allowed discussion, that was not part of the model. Now it is a wonderful development to be able to have someone who is a knowledgeable, talented, experienced chef go down, get information, come back up — and we actually discuss it. One of the reasons that is possible: [Netflix’s] streaming allows for a very different kind of story-telling. [There are no concerns] about wrapping things up [for viewers] or working around a number of commercials. Streaming allows the audience to integrate with the story-telling in a more powerful and effective way. For me, the number one thing is being able to have a co-host whom I can talk to. There were times on the earlier show when I literally felt like a vocal metronome. I was simply providing the feed for the battle to unfold. Now there are thoughtful and stimulating breaks.
Manske: One lesson you learned being part of this show?
Brown: It’s funny. I’ve learned the same lesson over and over: I know nothing!
Manske: Come on!
Brown: The second you get to the point where you think you know [everything], someone walks in with a basket of ingredients that you’ve never seen before and you’re having to learn again. [The key is] the constant understanding that I must constantly be in a state of learning in order to keep up with what’s happening. It wasn’t a new lesson. It was certainly underlined and highlighted. Gosh darn it, everyday [during the filming period], I’d go back to the hotel, where my wife would be, and she’d ask: ‘What did you learn today?’ and I’d answer: ‘I’m a moron. Ha!’ Everyday, I’d study and try to know new things.
Manske: You are being humble, Alton.
Brown: I’m being completely realistic. That’s good! Because the second that I think, yeah, I got this, then the spark is gone.
Manske: What one thing do you want viewers to take away from this season?
Brown: Food is one of [the few] things that universally brings people together. I don’t care if people don’t understand the cooking processes [or] the ingredients. I want them to understand that this is a celebration of not only food, but also the humanity that comes from food — the great unifier. At this point in the [world], that is a powerful mission. I know it sounds hokey in a way. Hopefully, it will bring viewers together. It is universally comforting.
Manske: Why are televised cooking shows and competitions so popular, even among people who do not cook at home or are not avid restaurant-goers?
Brown: When I first started making Good Eats, back in 1999, my absolute goal was to entertain people who did not have any real interest in food. Not to evangelize to them, not to win them over, but to entertain them. To show them that I can use food as a vehicle for entertainment. And if I can educate you while I’m entertaining you, then I win, because there is no real education without entertainment. By and large on Good Eats, we were successful. People like to look at food, watch the cooking of food, to talk to others about food. People [express] that at different levels: They may be interested in a recipe, a dish, an ingredient. But they may not be. They might just want the comfort of being with other people. When food is present that is a primal thing. Now competition is very different. I have a lot of mixed feelings about competition. I am not a fan of watching children battle [making] cupcakes. What I like to see is very accomplished, professional chefs do their thing under the stress of the clock. Being a chef is a stressful life anyway. And most of these chefs are highly competitive, constantly competing mostly against themselves. That is a very compelling thing to watch. I appreciate their artistry. My role on Iron Chef has always been to highlight: ‘This is amazing stuff,’ ‘Take a look at what’s happening,’ ‘This is special,’ ‘That is an achievement.’ It is a celebration of doing something at a very high level. It’s like watching really good athletes battle not only themselves but others.
Manske: Where is the place that you have traveled that you love most?
Brown: I am not as well-traveled as I would like to be. I have spent so much time working. If I had to drop one pin on the globe, I would put it in Tokyo. There is nothing like it on Earth.
Manske: Where would you most like to travel that you have never been to?
Brown: My wife has [traveled in] many more places than I have. We really want to go to Istanbul. I also have a personal kind of travel problem. I hate going places where I can’t speak the language. I know [that I] have to let that go. She [and] some friends have talked me down from that, so we’re planning journeys that we’ll probably be able to take in the next year — with my new mindset of not being worried about knowing the language.
Manske: Your most vivid food memory as a child?
Brown: It was an important moment for me! My number-one childhood food memory is not what you may want to hear. I was a small child around three years old, in Los Angeles, where my family lived, although my DNA is from north Georgia — my mom and dad moved to California when they got married. We had a milkman, who delivered. It was a Saturday morning. I got up and [inadvertently] poured buttermilk into my bowl of Captain Crunch cereal. I did not know about buttermilk. I took a big bite and immediately, having never tasted a fermented product, was revolted. Then, a few seconds later, I tried it again. I’m not saying that I liked it better the second time, but that decision, even as a small child, was a pivotal moment. I was always attracted to strange flavors. I wasn’t a normal kid. My parents would have cocktail parties and I would sneak around everybody and take sips of scotch. This was when I was four and five years old. Scotch smelled like Band-Aids and I liked it. I always have had very unorthodox flavor associations.
Manske: Your favorite food?
Brown: Caviar. It is the most sensuous, sensual, flavorful food, gram per gram, of anything that I’ve ever experienced. The moment of putting good caviar into your mouth, of running those little eggs around the roof of your mouth, and slowly popping them with your tongue, oh my, on your palate, and the release of flavor. It is a drug to me. I know that probably sounds hoity-toity, but, I tell ya, really good caviar is the bomb! My wife and I save up for it for our anniversary. We huddle with our spoons…and we slowly and luxuriously eat every little bit.
Manske: Sounds sexy, Alton. New question: With whom would you like to dine once — living or dead? Fantasy.
Brown: I’m a cineaste, a huge fan of filmmakers. I’ve fantasized about having lunch at [the now closed] Ma Maison in Los Angeles with Orson Welles. As he famously said: ‘My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.’ I think that being at one of those lunches with him would be marvelous.
Manske: Another fantasy question. You’re stranded alone on a deserted island for a month. Which three foods would magically be there for you?
Brown: Scotch. Smoked gouda. Canned sardines.
Manske: Even though there would be fish to catch in the water around the island?
Brown: That’s a lot of work! Ha! I adore tinned sardines, especially good Portuguese ones.
Manske: What is the most under-rated food?
Brown: I’m going to go back to the canned fish. Canned seafood is such a spectacular flavor-bomb that Americans just haven’t gotten hip to.
Manske: What is the most over-rated food?
Manske: Your food pet-peeve?
Brown: Bad hamburger buns.
Manske: What is your personal motto?
Brown: It is tattooed on my left arm. A line from Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” — Never be daunted.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A program of this merit takes a food-loving village: Notable food experts Andrew Zimmern and Nilou Motamed are the series deft judges. Guest judges, who add varied spices and points of view, are Francis Lam, Nancy Silverton, Justin Willman, Danny Trejo, Lorena Garcia, Loni Love, Wolfgang Puck and Masaharu Morimoto. Cheers to the stimulating challenger chefs: Mason Hereford, Curtis Duffy, Claudette Zepeda, Esther Choi, Gregory Gourdet, Mei Lin and Yia Vang.
With humor, innovation and intense finesse, Brown has zoomed to the top of foodie fandom charts, enlightening millions of eaters. A graduate of the New England Culinary School, and winner of James Beard Foundation and Peabody awards, Brown, who lives in Atlanta, has also headlined national theatrical productions, such as Brown Live: The Edible Inevitable Tour, Eat Your Science and the current Beyond the Eats. He is a multi-book author; his latest Good Eats 4: The Final Years was published this spring (Abrams Books).