Alton Brown's Good Eats days are over, but he's nowhere near throwing in the towel. Alton claims he's on camera more days this year than ever between hosting Iron Chef America and launching a new show on the Food Network this coming Spring. But that's not all that's on Alton's plate: he's also the proud mentor of Food Network Star winner Justin Warner and is the executive producer of Justin's forthcoming show.
I chatted with Alton to discuss all the juicy details of his latest Food Network project, Justin's new show, and The Next Iron Chef: Redemption, which premieres Nov. 4.
YumSugar: What can we expect from The Next Iron Chef: Redemption?
Alton Brown: Pain, agony, anguish, and a little bit of redemption. The thing that's different this year is everyone has been there before. [They have] either come so close that they could smell whiffs of victory or they fell and were humiliated. For those that had tasted what victory might be like, they were trying to get another taste, a more permanent taste.
The food overall is better. The food that came out of the very first challenge was as good as what we would usually get during a fifth round. Also, we upped the game play. There is a lot more actual strategy involved in winning this season. It's not enough to cook well for the judges. You've actually got to use some game play to get what you want.
YS: Were there any particular challenges that stumped the chefs?
AB: One involved canned food. There were a lot of different canned ingredients, and everyone had to cook from a can. Some people were more fortunate in what was selected. That was part of the game play. These are all chefs that are used to getting the best ingredients, but sometimes you learn more about a chef when you give them a crappy ingredient or an ingredient that is by no means what they would normally use. I was really thrilled, because by and large, the food that came out of that was just exceptional.
YS: Do you prefer mentoring for Food Network Star over hosting Next Iron Chef?
AB: No. Being a mentor on Food Network Star is the hardest thing I ever did. I'm going to do it again next year, because they've asked me to. [It] was absolutely unnerving and very difficult and very emotional, because you're messing with people, you know? What if you tell them the wrong thing? I lost a really good team member — a few really good team members — mostly because I just gave them really bad advice.
My policy with Justin was that I was going to do my best to just stay out of his way, keep other people out of his way, and keep him out of his way! I mentored him very, very little, because I didn't want to screw up. That was really difficult. I would go home at the end of the day and bang my head against the wall, just try[ing] to figure out how to do it better. You've got to be a coach, a psychologist. At the same time, you're looking around the whole time thinking who's the person who can really get you there. Yet, you've got to treat everybody the same. In a way, I had a great disadvantage going into the final, because I had two people. I had to give them equal amounts of my time, energy, and efforts.
YS: What role are you playing in Justin's new show, and will it premiere in January?
AB: I'm executive producing his new show. I will seriously doubt that it will be ready by January. We'll probably be finishing it by January. It will be on sometime in the Winter.
YS: In his pilot, he revamps one of your old recipes. Will modernizing old Food Network recipes be the structure of his new show?
AB: The new show that we're concentrating on right now is not going to be an instructional cooking show. It is going to be a young man's adventure across America. I'm calling it Justin's Excellent Adventure at the moment, but that's just a working title. He really wanted to go out in the world, so I'm letting him. I'm hoping that [it] will be a limited run, a series of specials, in fact, on the Food Network, not the Cooking Channel. It's going to be prime time, by the way, not in the daytime block, which is what everyone has gotten that has [previously] won this competition. I'm hoping when that show is done, then . . . he will do a cooking show. I would like to see that be a show, updating other Food Network things. I think it would be a good idea.
YS: It seems Food Network is taking on risk with Justin. Is he the exception to the rule, or is it the start of a new, hipper Food Network?
AB: Hmm . . . Don't know. We'll have to see where it goes. I know that he's singular. He's unique. He's real. He is genuinely quirky, in a very appealing way. I had him pegged to win from the get-go. He was the first person I chose to be on my team. I remember the day he auditioned for me, I thought that's it. He's it. He's the one. I kind of feel like Morpheus in The Matrix; "I'm looking for the one." And I think I've found him. I think the main job that we all have is to simply let him naturally evolve. I don't want to force him to be something he isn't [or] into something he doesn't want to do or shouldn't be doing. I think my main job in working with Justin right now is to protect him. Luckily, I've got the clout to do that. At least for now.
YS: Are you moving more into the production side of things?
AB: Good Lord, no. I'll probably do more shoot days next year than any year that I've ever done before. I'm executive producing, lightly one step removed. I don't want to taint the products, so to speak. We want to replicate ourselves, and he's enough like me where I could easily do that and turn him into a mini me. But I don't want to, so I'm choosing a team to work for him that will protect him even from me.
YS: What other projects are you working on?
AB: I have a couple of projects that I'm excited about, including a five-hour, history-based miniseries called Foods That Made America about the foods through our history that really made America the country that it is [and] the foods that we could not have been America without. That's a really fascinating project. It's easy to say, "Well, a hamburger." No — how about cod? It's easy to say, "Hot dogs." No — ice. There are a lot of things that people don't think about: about food, what this country is, and the foods that got us where we are.