Alton Brown Trades In Turkey Day for His Golden Ticket to Broadway

From Sonny & Cher to Shakespeare, an eclectic mix has led Food Network’s culinary MacGyver to his Broadway debut in ”Eat Your Science”.

A theater student in his pre-television life, Food Network favorite Alton Brown regards his Broadway debut with Eat Your Science as a sacred occasion. It also happens to fall over the most holy of holidays in the culinary universe: Thanksgiving.

"There have been only two Thanksgivings in my adulthood where I didn't cook," said Brown, anticipating the weeklong Broadway sitdown that will, ironically, keep him out of the kitchen on November 24. He did consider cooking for his entire 25-person crew, but eventually opted for a restaurant to host the herd. "I've worked it out. Everybody's going to get their Thanksgiving dinner."

When Brown says he's "worked it out," you should believe him. A master of detail, he built one of the most elaborate and informative cooking shows the Food Network has ever seen with Good Eats, a program that fused theater, science, and food. That same recipe is what brings him to the Barrymore Theatre with Eat Your Science — his second "culinary variety show" (a follow-up to his Edible Inevitable Tour), which includes all the variety-style fixings from comedic shtick to musical numbers serenading the Easy-Bake Oven.

"We used to have a sign over the stage door where we did Good Eats," said Brown. "It said, 'Laughing brains are more absorbent,' and I've always believed that. If you entertain first and foremost, you can teach people."

Alton Brown brings his stage show Eat Your Science to Broadway's Barrymore Theatre from November 22-27.
Alton Brown brings his stage show Eat Your Science to Broadway's Barrymore Theatre from November 22-27.
(© David Gordon)

You describe Eat Your Science as a "culinary variety show." Do you have a particular affection for the variety genre?

I'm very much a child of seventies television. So that trope comes out of shows like The Sonny & Cher Show, Carol Burnett, Tony Orlando & Dawn — all of those variety shows. But the true variety shows were where one minute you were seeing a magic act, the next minute you were seeing skit comedy, and then you were seeing a music act. That carried on into Saturday Night Live, which in the seventies was a huge influence on me — where somebody like John Belushi could do the Blues Brothers and sing and totally own it and then turn around and be a killer bee. I think that very much affected me from an entertainment standpoint.

Has music always been a part of your life, or did you pick it up just for the show?
When I was in middle school and high school I was very into jazz. I was a saxophone player and I played up until a couple of years into college, and I'd played guitar a little bit. But I did not play an instrument from the time I was twenty-one to the time I was fifty. When I decided that I was going to do a variety show I thought, "Well, there has to be music. It's not a variety show without music." So I was like, "All right, I'm gonna write songs." I learned how to play guitar — anew. Oddly enough we have a CD of my showtunes — words I never thought I would say. The songs turned out to be my favorite part of the show. I never saw that coming. I've got everything from a punk song about Easy-Bake Ovens to a new song for Thanksgiving called "Grandma Forgot to Brine the Bird."

It sounds just like School House Rock for cooking.
It is! Actually, I've taken a lot from School House Rock. My song "Grandma Forgot to Brine the Bird" has a bridge in it that— It's "Conjunction Junction." I stole a huge chunk from "Conjunction Junction."

Brown's original album of food-themed songs, "Bitter Like Me," was released on November 2.
(© David Gordon)

Do you like that unpredictable element of an audience?
I love it. It's actually my preferred way of working. I would like to think that I am a competent television performer. I understand the work and the craft of that. But it takes, it doesn't give. At the end of a day of making television you're drained because the camera takes without giving. An audience is a completely different thing. At the end of the night, you actually have more energy than you had when you started because an audience gives as much as they take — if you're doing it right.

Is it true you studied theater in college?
I was shipped off to college to be a business major, but saw a poster for a play audition. It was a stage production of Dracula. And I decided to audition and I got a part. Then I started trying out for everything and I kept getting parts. So I just kept doing theater.

How did you make the move from theater to television and food?
My real passion was film, so I transferred to another school where I could do more of that. I became a cameraman and then a cinematographer and then directed TV commercials for about eight years before I decided I really wanted to make a food show. So I quit that and went to culinary school, got out, and made Good Eats for fourteen years.

Brown's popular cooking show Good Eats aired on Food Network from 1999-2011.
(© David Gordon)

Does your week on Broadway feel different from just another stop on your tour?
Being in here, you look around at all these posters and you realize it's kind of the pinnacle of live craft — of live performance. My college degree was in theater, so the golden ticket was always Broadway. The Barrymore has had a lot of great performances in it and to try to find your place in all of that is both exciting and terrifying in equal portions.

What was your most life-changing theatrical experience?
I saw the original London cast of Amadeus, which was life-changing for me. That show made such a tremendous impact on me at the time. Then, coincidentally, playing the Barrymore — when I went in to look at the house a few weeks ago I realized, "Oh my gosh, the last time I was here I was seeing Alan Cumming do his one-man performance of Macbeth," which is the other life-changing theatrical event that I feel that I've had.

Which entertainer would you say you most model your own performance style after?
It's funny, I would've told you maybe three years ago that I didn't really have a model that I followed. And then when Gene Wilder passed away, a couple of people that I work with said, "You know, you get some of who you are onstage from Gene Wilder." I never realized it until then. And then I was like, "Oh crap, you're absolutely right." I very much remember his Willy Wonka from when I was a kid and was a huge fan of his growing up. I think I picked up a little more Gene Wilder than I knew.

What Broadway ghosts do you hope are lurking around the Barrymore?
I'll take any ghost I can get. I did a season of [Carlo] Goldoni plays at a small theater in a town in Tuscany during college. It was supposed to be haunted and I never saw diddly. And when you travel around the country playing theaters, they're like, "Oh yeah, it's haunted. Blah blah." You go looking for it and nothing ever happens, so I'm hoping. I'm hoping a ghost is the only thing that haunts me about Broadway.

Eat Your Science begins its Broadway run November 22 at the Barrymore Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

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