As the adage goes, “Never meet your heroes!” Such is especially true if you choose to idolize popular media personalities. Firstly, should you have the opportunity, you won’t make much of an impact by telling them you’re a starstruck fan. Being “celebrities” they’ve heard it all before. Dawning less than genuine smiles, your heroes will respond with something friendly, something practiced, something canned. When you manage to compose yourself and form full sentences again, you will share an embarrassing anecdote they won’t care to hear. Owing to a punishing schedule, they are likely contractually obligated to make time for backstage pass holders, an additional revenue stream. Sometimes, frustration expresses itself in short attention spans and general preoccupation. Signatures from and selfies with your heroes can be near unaffordable.
Above all, your heroes will seem strangely grounded and disappointingly human, usually more interested in their “biggest fans” of the opposite sex. Book signings and appearances will remind you of lining up to purchase overpriced drinks at your local “meat market” bar. Your money is perfectly good, but the giggly blonde in the two-sizes-too-small top will get better service.
Food personality Alton Brown is one of my heroes. For Christmas, my wife purchased tickets for us to attend his live show with her best friend next week (March 29, 2015). The award-winning host and television producer is touring North America again. After a successful 46-American city tour, he decided to make first-time stops to the frozen north, Ottawa’s National Arts Center (53 Elgin Street) being one of them.
One wonders if Brown, who professes to be a born-and-bred “southern boy” during episodes of his cult favourite and now syndicated former Food Network show, will arrive with snow shoes and a parka. We’re not exactly known for our sweet tea or fried chicken this far removed from the Mason-Dixon line. Though, our BeaverTails are tantamount to his elephant ears, carnival fare. Every culture has its deep-fried dough treat.
[All images from Alton Brown Live come courtesy of MagicSpace Entertainment. Photography by David Allen]
Some background, it was 2002. Newly employed, I had just moved into my first apartment. The Food Network was new. And, while my mother taught me to cook the “basics,” I started watching this wholly unorthodox television show, called “Good Eats,” to learn about food. Back then, the nerds had yet to inherit the Earth. Jocks ruled. People were only beginning to become interested in the science behind why pans overheat (usually when making sauces), salt makes ice colder (for making ice cream), and searing steak really doesn’t “seal in the juices.” Cuisine had yet to become “molecular.” Heston Blumenthal had yet to enchant gastronomes with snail porridge. However, chefs had famed author Harold McGee who wrote about the chemistry (and sometimes physics) behind cooking. Home cooks had Alton Brown and we loved him.
Originally pitched to PBS, which happens to air somewhat similar programming called “America’s Test Kitchen,” the Food Network picked up Good Eats in 1998, premiering the “Steak Your Claim” episode a year later. A visual learner, I adored the show, which demystified how to season foods, sear meat, melt chocolate, make sauces, roast poultry (several episodes are dedicated to Thanksgiving turkey), and bake cookies. Better writers than I have likened the adorkable geekery – the belching sock puppets, the stop motion cardboard cut outs, the Styrofoam balls adorned with push-pins and pipe cleaners, and the very odd camera angles – akin to Mr. Wizard (or for our younger readers Bill Nye the Science Guy) meets Julia Child. While apt, I feel the description doesn’t go far enough. Brown made cooking accessible for the MTV-generation. Essentially, he accomplished for us (Generation X and Y) what Child did for our parents (the Baby Boomers). For those of us that enjoy pop culture references, watching Brown exorcise a demon child whilst learning how to work with peas (including dried split peas) was bliss. His was fourteen seasons (244 episodes) of opening monologues, culminating in a kitschy theme song that reputedly borrowed from the movie Get Shorty. Good Eats was quality edutainment.
Personally, I watched Good Eats to learn techniques as opposed to recipes. That’s the seminal difference between restaurant cookbooks intended for professional cooks and cookbooks intended for the general public. The former teaches tools and techniques. The latter doubles as coffee table decoration. Brown explored recipes for dishes, but he also taught knife skills. He taught how to break down and brine meat. The Good Eats episode about avocados, it was the first time I saw an immersion circulator, something every professional kitchen has in its arsenal today.
I applied what I learned, cooking for my then girlfriend and her housemates. Jenn schooled at Queen’s University in Kingston. I tried to impress her with my new found kitchen prowess. [She wasn’t going to marry me for my rugged good looks.] One weekend, I decided to prepare tourtiere, the more mainstream form (a non-Lac St-Jean version) with three kinds of ground meat. Later, I would dump the characteristic seasonings and opt for curry powder and garam masala. This is the dish that a production team, working for CBC, would select as one of the top 3 savoury pie recipes in Canada. A successful audition then led me to national television, competing in last season’s Recipe to Riches. My being shortlisted as a semi-finalist, got me invited onto Allan Neal’s CBC All In a Day (where the aforementioned production company wouldn’t let me prepare or serve my dish) and written up in the Metro Ottawa (where I was contractually obligated not to reveal the results).
I didn’t fare well on the reality cooking competition show, my respectful demeanor not generating the drama that makes good television. Still, both the scars from getting burned while working in a professional kitchen and memories serving legendary Canadian chef Vikram Vij fusion Indian food, they persist.
While I don’t attribute my run to Brown, from Good Eats I learned how to chop my aromatics; how to sweat the chopped aromatics; how to brown my ground meat; how to braise my ragu; and, most importantly, how to work with puff pastry. The production company was somewhat surprised when I asked for metal rulers and pizza cutters for “batching-up” my recipe.
A bit of a confession, my wife and I gave up on the Food Network when the programming started tending towards reality cooking competitions. We followed Brown as he traced legendary American Route 66 and a length of the Mississippi River by motorcycle in his mini-series, Feasting on Asphalt. We followed Brown as he sailed the Caribbean in his mini-series, Feasting on Waves. Finally, we listened to his commentary as he officiated episodes of Iron Chef America. Then, we cut our cable.
I still follow Brown on Twitter (@altonbrown) where he is known for his “analog” tweets, tweeted snapshots of doodled post it notes affixed to his laptop screen. I watch the Good Eats-esque shorts on his YouTube channel. I want him to tape episodes of his show again.
In the meantime, we, his fans, have his seven books (one of which, I’m Just Here for the Food, earned Brown a James Beard Award) and his live show, during which he warns certain seats in the audience will be issued “ponchos” because things “get serious.”
Alton Brown Live is produced by MagicSpace Entertainment. According to the media release, MagicSpace promises “a pinch of comedy, talk show antics, a multimedia lecture, live music, and a dash of ‘extreme’ food experimentation.” Brown, himself, is quoted saying,
We have combined science, music, food, and a few other things no one in his right mind would allow me to do on TV, into a two-hour extravaganza that’s fun for the whole family.
Did Jenn buy tickets for me to meet my hero? Nope! I just really really miss Good Eats.
Now, MagicSpace has issued us two tickets (one pair) to give away. If you look to purchase tickets with Ticketmaster, you will notice only seats at the outer perimeter of Southam Hall at the NAC (balcony, amphitheater, and mezzanine) are still available. The tickets we were issued are for orchestra seats.
So, here’s the deal and our loyal readers know the drill, we’re Rafflecoptering the tickets.
Remember to leave an e-mail address when prompted. Otherwise, we won’t be able to contact you. Also, entries are weighted. For the “most bang for the buck,” comment on this post if you have fond memories of Good Eats. What did Alton Brown’s show teach you?
Update: Jenn mentioned Alton Brown Live in her segment on this week’s Lunch Out Loud with Andrew Miller and Nick Bachusky