If you're lucky enough to snag a VIP pass to meet Alton Brown before he goes onstage at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, do the poor man a favor: bring him something to eat. Like some hoppin' John or maybe a takeout box from Bertha's.
This January, Brown is hitting the road for the second leg of his Alton Brown Live! The Edible Inevitable Tour, which will take him to 26 cities over the course of 32 days — including Charleston on Feb. 25. That packed schedule leaves the culinary guru little time to sample local delicacies.
"In the first 19 cities," Brown says, "I went to one restaurant and one bookstore. You're living on the bus. The theatres and venues have catering. So, it is not by any stretch a glamorous lifestyle."
So why is Alton Brown, a legitimate cable food television star, putting himself through all of this?
The short answer: because he can.
"My college degree was actually theater," Brown says, "and I had always loved it and wanted to do more of it. ... I have done maybe a hundred live stage shows, but I have never been able to put that into a road show — build exciting big sets and demos. I wanted to do it for the last eight years."
With Alton Brown Live!, a two-hour culinary variety show, he's finally giving that big touring show a shot. It brings together many of the same elements that made his Food Network series Good Eats such a hit with audiences — humor, science, and authoritative cooking instruction.
"There's stuff for kids," Brown says. "There are puppets; there are film video pieces."
It's interactive, too, with members of the audience selected to come up on stage and help with the cooking demonstrations. A live band plays a half dozen songs, which lets Brown stretch his own repertoire. "I am singing," he says. "I am playing guitar. I haven't played in a band since I was 21 years old."
That big-stage format might be the next logical step for Brown, who was among the first to bridge the gap between instruction and entertainment in food television.
Unlike most food TV celebrities, Brown got into television production first and later made his way into cooking. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he spent his 20s in the media business in Atlanta as a commercial director and cinematographer for music videos, including R.E.M.'s "The One I Love."
Between shoots, Brown, an avid home cook, spent a lot of time watching cooking shows. He found most of them dull and uninformative. Believing he could do better, he headed off to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., to immerse himself in the art and science of cooking.
The result was Good Eats, which ran for 13 years on the Food Network. The show took viewers far beyond recipes and deep into ingredients and techniques, and it let them enjoy themselves in the process. It was food television with brains and a sense of humor, too.
Brown translated the success of Good Eats into seven books. The first won a James Beard Award in 2002, and his last three made the New York Times bestseller list.
His more recent television efforts have amped up the entertainment factor. For 11 seasons, Brown has been the commentator on the American version of Iron Chef, the progenitor of the timed cooking competition format that now dominates food television. His latest series, Cutthroat Kitchen, takes the form to new heights of drama: in mid-cooking, competitors can sabotage their opponents with gambits like making them use TV dinner stands for their prep tables or forcing them to incorporate red wine and blue cheese into whatever dish they've already started.
With his stage show, though, Brown is bringing instruction and science back into the entertainment.
"The demos have a big educational piece in them," he says, but he's tight-lipped on additional details. "I promise they are things that people have never seen before. One of them involves extreme cold, the other involves extreme heat."
Audience members can choose to sit in the "poncho zone" up front, and they're advised to make use of that covering.
"I'm not Gallagher," Brown says. "I'm not trying to make a mess. The ponchos we hand out are simply prophylactic measures — I don't want to pay dry cleaning bills."
Are touring stage shows like Alton Brown Live! the logical next step in food entertainment?
Brown says that television will remain his primary business, at least from a financial perspective. "Where a tour like this comes out depends on a lot," he says. "Timing, how long you are willing to do the same show. The longer you tour, the more you get into the black."
Brown is pleased with the result of the first leg of the tour, which wrapped up back in November before he took a break to host Food Network's two-hour Thanksgiving Live special and record the third season of Cutthroat Kitchen.
"One of the nice things about doing a show every night is you can see what really works," Brown says. "I am making a few fine adjustments to the songs, but the demos are rock solid."
Tickets for Alton Brown Live! are on sale now, and though the "poncho zone" has already sold out, you can still snag an orchestra seat for $69.50 or one in the upper tier for $29.50.