Alton Brown is a very funny guy.
Fans of the Food Network star already know him as imperious and demonically prankish as the host of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” erudite and enthusiastic as the commentator on “Iron Chef America,” and witty and inventive on his long-running “Good Eats” (one of Food Network’s pioneering shows). But “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science,” Brown’s touring show that played NJPAC in Newark on Friday, gave us Alton the song parodist and standup comic.
And did I mention that he’s very, very funny?
For those who don’t watch Food Network, here’s the story: Alton Brown was a successful advertising salesman and home cook when he decided to quit his day job, enroll in culinary school, and then pursue his dream of producing the perfect TV cooking show — one that would be, in his words, “equal parts Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, and Monty Python.” In a television landscape dominated by prosaic “chop and drop” chef shows, Brown’s “Good Eats” used puppets, music, outlandish props and a heavy dose of food science to make cooking not only accessible, but fun. When Brown taught you how to make mashed potatoes, he also explained how the starch molecules in potatoes react to create that perfect creamy consistency.
“Good Eats” enjoyed a 14-year run, and now Brown remains active not only on “Cutthroat Kitchen” but on the newly relaunched version of “Iron Chef.” He also hosts a syndicated podcast, “The Alton Browncast,” and is the author of 11 books, several of them bestsellers.
For the two hours of “Eat Your Science,” Brown stands center stage, regaling us with stories, anecdotes and observations. Some people find Brown pedantic and condescending on television, and sometimes that’s true. But onstage, he’s warm and effusive and endlessly engaging, carrying on the American storytelling tradition that dates back to Mark Twain and Will Rogers. He’ll make dumb jokes about Bobby Flay’s eyebrows one minute and then toss off a bon mot worthy of Oscar Wilde, the next. Mostly, you will laugh. A lot.
Early on, Brown muses on what he would do were he crowned “The God of Food,” and ordains that under his reign, tortilla chips would never break when you stick them into yummy dips and restaurants would be banned from offering children’s menus. (They’re fattening and unhealthy and, besides, kids are supposed to be part of the family; they should eat what the grownups eat.) Periodically, throughout out the show, Brown (usually on guitar) and his musical accompanist Chris Smallwood (on everything else, from synths to drums) performed comedic songs about food, like “Mise en Place” (set to the tune of “Edelweiss”) or “Grandma Forgot to Brine the Bird.”
There’s no cooking per se, but with the help of audience volunteers, Brown first explains the theory of cocktails, then whips up a thoroughly disgusting one (tequila, Campari and Listerine for this show) that he transforms into something less noxious with liquid nitrogen. The second act is devoted to the science of popcorn, including its history, the physics behind how it pops, and a demonstration that includes a 10-foot tall popping machine shaped like a rocket ship, the “Astro Pop 3000.”
One funny bit — spoiler alert for those planning to see the show in the future — came when Brown noticed that most of the front row was empty. After fuming about late arrivals a few times, he invited anyone in the theater to run down and take the empty seats. It was a setup, of course. Those lucky individuals enjoyed a front-row view of the show — but then found themselves doused with popcorn when the Astropop 3000 exploded.
You’d expect that the audience for this show would be composed primarily of foodies — fans addicted to food television and home cooking — and from some of the heckles and shout-outs throughout the evening, it was clear that these people knew all of Alton’s in-jokes and running gags. But that was about the only common denominator; the crowd ranged from senior citizens to millennials and, surprisingly, a fairly large number of children and teenagers, who laughed as loudly as anyone and clearly enjoyed Brown’s deft combination of humor, science and food.
As I was leaving NJPAC, I walked alongside a boy about 10 years old. He was grinning ear to ear and singing what he could remember of “Mise en Place.”
“I know it’s silly,” he gushed to his dad, “but this is for me!”
The guy will never be a rock star, and even he admits that he’s not much of a chef. But I have seen food humor’s future, and its name is Alton Brown.
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