Alton Brown: Just here for the 'Experience'

The star of the second annual 'Foodie Experience' is a blank canvas as far as Baltimore is concerned

March 15, 2011|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

The phone rings, at 9 o'clock on the dot. It's Alton Brown calling in, very promptly, for a pre-arranged interview.

"What are you eating," Brown asks, "I can always tell when someone answers the phone with food with in his mouth."

Alton Brown is not afraid to say what's on his mind.

That's good news for ticketholders for Saturday night's event at the Hippodrome, the Second Annual Foodie Experience, for which the Food Network personality is the main attraction.

At 9 in the morning, Alton Brown is wide awake. For his fans, it's hard to imagine him any other way than revved up and ready to go, whether he's evangelizing about the basic scientific properties of good food on his long-running "Good Eats" show or keeping the knives spinning in Kitchen Stadium as host of "Iron Chef America."

Brown was speaking from what he calls his "top-secret facility," an anonymous two-building compound that houses the "Good Eats" studios, editing rooms and scene shops. Fans of "Good Eats," which Brown created, stars in, produces, and writes, won't be surprised in the least to hear that the "campus," as Brown likes to call it, also includes an extensive prop and costume shop. Costumes and characters, and especially humor, are what has distinguished the Peabody Award-wining cooking show from the network's other shows since its 1999 debut.

Brown, in other words, is comfortable performing.

Like last year's inaugural offering, Saturday's event will place a celebrity chef center stage at the Hippodrome and then set him talking. Last year's event featured the noted loudmouth Anthony Bourdain, with Eric Ripert mostly acting as straight man. Sparks were expected, and they flew.

Brown, however, will be flying solo at the Hippodrome stage, with no sidekick to play off of, and, unlike last year, when radio personality Reagan Warfield performed emcee duties, no one to lob questions for him to swat off the stage. No one should worry about awkward pauses, though. Even when Brown has no opinion on a subject, say Baltimore, he's ready with a fast-paced monologue.

"I know nothing about Baltimore," he says. "I've been stymied every time I've tried to come to Baltimore. The last two times I was supposed to go there, they had blizzards. You could drop me in the middle of Baltimore, and I wouldn't know where I was. I am more completely ignorant of Baltimore than any other major city in America. I am Baltimore blank."

Brown wouldn't divulge much about what he plans to talk about, other than that his show will begin with "premeditated rambling, interspersed with wit," before he turns over the evening over to the audience's questions, which will be submitted by e-mail and social media.

While Brown, who has spoken openly about the role his Christian faith plays in his everyday life, won't rival Bourdain for delivering graphically profane rants and diatribes — the California native is no shrinking violet either.

But if anyone really wants to wind Brown up, ask about obesity.

The subject has been on Brown's mind since his weight loss. His personal relationship with food has changed, and his thinking about obesity has crystallized.

"Obesity is not a disease; it's a negligence," Brown insists. "The leading health concern in America is something we do to ourselves."

Brown is concerned about the fetishizing of food and the rise of obesity as national scourge, a phenomenon he associates with the advent of food and cooking shows like his own,

And he wonders about his own responsibility: "I have to admit the fact that I have a lot of fans that are overweight." Brown is keenly aware that food and cooking shows, even when they don't explicitly encourage buttery indulgence, all tacitly encourage a gluttonous lifestyle, marked by the excessive thinking about and fascination with food. But it's the burden obesity puts on the health care system that alarms him.

"It's not OK when you start to put a tax on our health system. You don't have a right to be 350 pounds and ask me to pay for your health care. That's not OK. Not everything's OK."

But Brown is sympathetic. "I have zero willpower, none. There are no easy answers. None. None. Not a single one. Permanent change takes discipline."

Brown speaks from real experience. Fans were surprised and concerned by what appeared to be the Brown's sudden weight loss in late 2009. The weight loss was real, 50 pounds, Brown says, just not all that sudden. What took Brown eight months to do appeared to happen overnight on television, as the airings of a new "Good Eats" season bumped up against the end of another.

Brown's regimen — "I can't eat pizza. I can't eat anything that's white and bready. I eat very little dairy" — will sound hardcore and punishing to some, including his daughter, Zoey. "She makes fun of me," Brown says, when he shows up at the family dinner table but doesn't eat anything. "She thinks that's hilarious," he says.

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