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Alton Brown on 'The Next Iron Chef'

The folks at the Food Network arranged a zillion drive-by phone interviews Wednesday for Alton Brown, the host of The Next Iron Chef, a show premiering next Sunday, October 7, at 9 p.m. ET. The Next Iron Chef has eight first-class chefs competing to join the ranks of permanent Iron Chefs Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Cat Cora, and Masaharu Morimoto. From the promos it looks more like Top Chef and less like Iron Chef. There are challenges and curves thrown at the competitors, and they are judged, of course, by how they respond.

We here at Serious Eats think that Alton Brown is smart and funny, knows and loves food, and, unlike many television personalities, actually has the ability to laugh at himself. A better combination of qualities for a food show host would be hard to find. There's another reason we like Brown. He likes Serious Eats a lot, says he trusts (even relies on) what he sees on it, and logs on daily when he's not on the road. We like him, he likes us, it's a beautiful thing.

So we decided to take the opportunity to do one of these drive-by interviews knowing it's hard to have a real substantive conversation in the alloted time. But Alton, not surprisingly, gets right to the point and is a master of the sound bite. He also promised to sit down with us later on for a longer, more serious Serious Eats interview.

So without further ado, the Alton Brown Drive-By Interview, after the jump.

Do you ever find yourself rooting for one competitor more than the others?
Sure. I tend to root for the chef who know hows to integrate the secret ingredient. I love it when chefs make sure every dish swings on the secret ingredient. I hate it when chefs take what I call "the garnish approach" and just add the secret ingredient to dishes they obviously serve in their restaurants. The chefs I root for more than anything else respect the food.

What do you do when you see chefs committing culinary suicide on the show?
Nothing. I think to myself that looks all fucked up. But that's all I can do. I don't get to vote. I will occasionally shoot one over the bow, say something that's probably inappropriately judgmental, but hopefully the judges don't notice.

Let's talk about the judges. I've judged a few times, and I have to say that sometimes I'm sitting next to a person who doesn't appear to be qualified to be judging.
There are certain judges who shouldn't be on the show, dude. It always comes down to having something smart to say. Just saying a dish is good or bad doesn't cut it. I will say that good judges are harder to find than good contestants.

On The Next Iron Chef, there are three permanent judges, Donatella Arpaia, a restaurateur; Andrew Knowlton, an editor at Bon App├ętit, magazine; and Michael Ruhlman, a food writer and blogger. How does that affect what happens on the show?
I loved having three really good judges on the show. Why? The audience gets to know them, gets to hear more of their deliberations and conversations. Their interactions with each other become a big part of the show. They all have a different take on food, and over time their individual prejudices are exposed. Ruhlman is the culinary technique freak, Donatella is one formidable woman who doesn't back down from anyone, and Andrew Knowlton wants to be Jeffrey Steingarten, except he's not quite there yet. But it gets intense on The Next Iron Chef. It gets real spicy between Andrew and Michael. I can tell you there are almost fisticuffs.

What do you make of my friend (and regular Iron Chef America judge) Jeffrey Steingarten?
Jeffrey's been a hero of mine for many years. He's a freak, no one lives in the food world he inhabits. There is one lovable curmudgeon. I would have loved to have him as an uncle growing up. I know I would have gotten the best ice cream.

You seem to get the best out of him, which is not always easy.
I try to ask him questions he can give me a straight answer to, so I have to find some common ground I know he's interested in. In the end, I've discovered with Jeffrey that if he sees you as an ally, it's a lot easier to deal with him. Jeffrey can be vicious, but he's not mean.

If you were the Food Network overlord and could change Iron Chef America, what would you do to it?
I'm a process freak, so I would try to emphasize the inner workings of the chef teams competing. I would have a half-hour planning period after the chefs find out what the secret ingredient is, so that we could hear what their plan of attack is, and how they interact with each other.

What are your favorite moments on Iron Chef America?
What I love the most is when I see one of the teams start making something, and as it unfolds I guess right about what it is they're going to do. At that point, I think to myself that I'm not a dumbass.

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