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Alton Brown calls Top Chef a "sous chef kind of show"... then takes it back

by Joel Keller, posted Oct 8th 2009 1:02PM
Alton BrownGiven the popularity of the second-season opener of The Next Iron Chef, I figured it was a good time to pull out this interview I did with the show's host, Alton Brown, at the network's TCA party in July. It was definitely the tastiest party of the tour, as each Iron Chef contestant plied the critics with delectable morsels of their creativity at various stations.

In a bit of a surprise, one of the contestants, Amanda Freitag, was being assisted by her friend Ariane Duarte, one of the more popular contestants from rival program Top Chef's New York season (I was so flabbergasted by the turn of events, I snapped a pic of the two with my cell phone). When I pointed this tidbit out to Brown, his response was very interesting...

Do you find it interesting that right over there, you've got a Top Chef contestant sous chef-ing for one of the Next Iron Chef contestants?
I didn't know that because I don't watch Top Chef.

There's someone from last season of Top Chef (Ariane Duarte). I've interviewed her, since we're both from New Jersey. And they're friends.
Well, yeah, I've always kind of thought of Top Chef as a sous chef kind of show.

Really? Why?
Because that's not top talent.

So even though some of those people are either executive chefs at their restaurants or they've opened their own restaurants, it still doesn't matter?
I've never sensed...maybe the issue is that the program tends to focus more on personal rivalries, and kind of the reality angle, and it's a heavily-produced show. And we pride ourselves on not producing the shows that gives it a cast of not being about the food. And because of that, I've assumed that they didn't know as much.

So maybe that's my lack of vision, my mistake on that part. We tend to emphasize the food more, because Food's the first name of the network. And it's not about who can talk trash about somebody else. So that's probably just a bad, a wrong-minded assumption on my part. So I apologize for that, if I'm wrong.

Good Eats is now celebrating ten years on the Food Network...
Ten years. Yeah, July 9 was our ten-year anniversary.

And they still repeat episodes from eight, nine years ago.
They do.

How does it feel to be that pretty much last hold over from the network's chef-centric earlier days?
Well, I think the only other person that's still there is well, Bobby Flay. But his show has changed a couple of times.

Well even Rachael Ray hasn't been there as long as you have, right?
No. She took the meteoric route to stardom. I took the slow, kind of Tom Waits route.

But now you're on almost as many shows as she is?
Without the cash and prizes... All I know is that Food Network continues to allow me to do what I want to do with my show. And I think of Good Eats as an artistic endeavor in that way, because my wife is my business partner. We make the shows we want to make. And they let us do that, and I'm grateful for that. It's funny, I've never really thought about being old guard.

You pretty much are at this point.
I guess so. I haven't really thought that through. Thanks a lot for making me feel old. I appreciate that very much. Least you could do for me.

I've now made you insult Top Chef and called you old.
Yeah, but I recanted that. Because I do that, the more I think about it, the more I think that that's a function of how that show is produced, which is to make it look more like a personality clash show. And I think that we don't emphasize that as much. Because we're so paranoid about the food.

On Good Eats, is most of the science that you're talking about purely from your own experience, or have you had to refresh yourself or research it along the way when you go to do a particular program?
Oh, we research everything. Every show, we get a research book we put together about (holds fingers apart) that thick, and then we mine it down, mine it down, to about that thick. Then we work on it some more, and then we write the show.

What was the most surprising thing you learned that maybe even taught you a lesson, like something you didn't know that you thought you knew?
That happens every episode. As a matter of fact, I don't feel happy about the way I've written an episode unless I can say half of what's there, I just learned. Because I believe, truly, that there's something... I'm the kind of person that I can only write good stuff if I'm actually learning. And so I think there's a certain energy that comes, a freshness that comes from that. So every single episode, I'm learning. There hasn't been a single one that that didn't happen.

Give me an example from either this season or last season.
Alright, the stuff that we're just starting to do right now. I'm getting ready to start shooting a show about pound cake. And understanding the structure of how the whole cake world has worked, coming out of the primeval elements of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, I learned a great deal about that and how all of the cakes that we have kind of spun off of that, and why we ended up with a cake that was based on pounds, as opposed to cakes based on volumetric measurements, and how late volumetric measurements actually came to the party. That's a big thing that I didn't know.

In ten years, how many episodes have you done?
I think we're at 234 episodes.

Do you think you'll ever run out of stuff to talk about?
No. My ability to be creative'll run out long before the subject matter runs out

Are you going to keep doing the Feasting series?
Don't know what's going to happen to Feasting. Didn't happen this year because we had a lot of Iron Chef business to attend to. Don't know. We'll see.

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I like Alton Brown's shows, but his comments here are two-faced. First he says "I don't watch Top Chef." Then he provides his opinion about that show. How could he know anything about the show if he doesn't watch it. Or was that a lie?

Brown explains that Top Chef (which he does not watch) "tends to focus more on personal rivalries." Yet, when I go to the website for The Next Iron Chef one of the biggest links is "RIVAL CHEFS". Huh?

Alton, I love your shows but you should never work without a script... you make no sense at all.

November 05 2009 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I do love Alton Brown and never miss Good Eats, but I feel his comments about Top Chef are unfounded. There have been several "top chef" contestants from the previous and the current season on Iron Chef (Richard Blaise and his "sous chef" Ely -a current contestant, and Mark, from season 4, to name a few). Top Chef is very much about innovation and showcasing young talent. It is not so blatently fixed as Iron Chef, and, excuse, me what is "next food network star" - a showcase of amateurs with a distinct story line and heavy editing. Sounds familiar, right?

October 13 2009 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nico toscani

Why take it back? I guess the truth is a little too painful for the network execs...

October 13 2009 at 1:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think Alton seems nice but is too silly and I think he tries to cover up the fact that he would be boring otherwise, but that is just my opinion. Top Chef is my favorite, hmmm, seems like they are always winning prizes for the show - imagine that! There is room for all the shows so invite people to watch who they like best. Let's be positive and not put others down.

October 12 2009 at 9:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wonder if those comments were made before the taping of "next iron chef"? Seems to me there is a lot of backbiting and strategizing much like so many other "reality shows" out now.

October 12 2009 at 10:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

in the last episode of top chef tyler florence was a guest judge and ted allen used to be a guest judge on top chef during season 2 and judge on season 3 of top chef also one of the ladies from top chef was on food network challenge awhile back i think they work together at times chopped is like top chef without the drama that top chef is becoming still top chef is one of my favorites

October 11 2009 at 11:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't necessarily disagree with the comments Alton made about Top Chef. While Top Chef is one of my favorite food shows, I could do without a lot of the reality stuff that they include. I care about the individuals and I like to get to know their personalities, but I don't need to see all of the stuff that they show - just show me the cooking and the creative, culinarily stimulating conversations.

That's the angle that Next Iron Chef takes. So I don't think it was an incorrect comment to make. He also made sure that his comments weren't misconstrued and clarified what he said.

Overall, great interview!

October 11 2009 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I like Alton and Good Eats quite a bit, but I was pretty taken aback by the Top Chef comments. You openly admit that you don't know the show and never watch it, then go on to talk about what's wrong with it. The things he said about Top Chef are wrong at that. They do very little playing up of reality drama and focus very much on the cooking. Their talent is superb and is definitely comprable to that on Next Iron Chef, which, I noticed in the first episode seemed to play up that cocky shaved head guy quite a bit.

October 10 2009 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alicia R.

Wow Alton... bitter much?

(Although he is still my fav. chef over there, and he is the only one who taught me how to cook.)

October 09 2009 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Top Chef is by far my favorite cooking show on television. It's well produced. The challenges are interesting. And the food always looks great.

Compare that to say-- Chopped on the Food Network, which isn't a great show, forces you the chefs to work with at least one stupid ingredient per challenge (ie, today make a dish with Kobe beef, mushrooms, and gummie bears) and has the most stiff of hosts in Ted Allen, who was much better and more relaxed on Top Chef.

There's Food Network Challenge, which seems to be mostly about cakes anymore.

You have Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Does anyone still believe they're on a Food Network special after all these years? Plus, Bobby Flay's assistants seem to do most of the work creating any recipes. Why don't they have their own show?!

And of course there's Iron Chef, which I'm sorry is just as every bit produced as Top Chef. You NEVER see any chef discuss how they're going to use the ingredient, what receipes they're going to make, or who is assigned what task. Everyone simply knows what they're making without any apparent discussion on the matter after learning the 'secret' ingredient.... yeah right. I also like how they just happen to have the right proteins and special items to fit the ingredient.

The one competition cooking show on Food Network that is pretty great, although it's not really technically a competition is Dinner Impossible. I love watching Robert Irvine attempting to cook for so many people using only items fitting the challenge.

October 08 2009 at 7:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nick's comment

Actually someone let the cat out of the bag during the initial publicity for Iron Chef America, although they were probably reprimanded since I've never seen the information repeated.

First, regardless of what it looks like on the show, the Iron Chef that the Challenger will face is determined long before the show tapes. Secondly, the two chefs reach an agreement with the producers on two possible "secret" ingredients in advance. Thus, both sides can prepare a list of recipes for each ingredient and map out the process of preparing them in an hour with their sous chefs.

Anyone who imagines that what they see on the screen with a reality show is in any sense "real" is deluding themselves. (If you need a demonstration, I suggest watching the live feeds of Big Brother and then comparing the broadcasts to what you saw there.)

October 09 2009 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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