Video: Alton Brown Chews The Fat With Ed Levine, Part III

Without further ado, we bring you the final Ed Levine-hosted segment of Chewing the Fat, starring our good friend Alton Brown (Good Eats, Iron Chef America).

Today, Ed and Alton discuss mentoring strategies relevant to the most recent season of Food Network Star. For those of you not familiar, the show's premise splits "cheftestants" into three teams, coached by Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, or Giada De Laurentiis. Alton's strategy of picking interesting people first, and then teaching them how to cook second, differed from some of his competitors.

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[Videography: Jessica Leibowitz; Doodles: Robyn Lee]

Spoiler Alert/Editor's Note: Since the season finale of FNS has already aired, we're happy to share that the winner was a member of Team Alton: Justin Warner, owner of the acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant Do Or Dine.

Read the Transcript

Ed Levine: Let's talk a little about the show and this whole idea of mentoring and what, you know I was interested in what you were saying before that you, because the show has you mentoring a team, and Bobby Flay mentoring a team, and Giada mentoring a team, and how you have a very specific set of thoughts about mentoring, which would, you know, when you put it into practice it's going to make, create some tension on the show between how you do it and how they do it.
Alton Brown: Well there's a big difference that's for sure. Bobby Flay's a leader, he's used to being a boss in the kitchen, so he's training people. It's like a military kind of operation. Giada's just like a hug, she's nurturing, she's the den mom, you know, "Everybody come here." And I'm the...I'm not either of those things. I keep looking at people and trying to, I'm like mining for something like, "Ok, I'm going to try to figure out..." Because here's the thing, people come to competitions like this, and I can't even believe that I did this show because I always said I wouldn't, but I lured myself into it with this intellectual problem of: How do you take people that have probably come to this and have gunked themselves, they're like wedding cakes with six miles of frosting, because they've put on all this assumption of what the job is, all this assumption of what is going to be demanded of them, I mean who wants to be a star. Ok that just scares you automatically and so you gotta get to them and say, first off, "90% of everything you're putting out in front of me is probably garbage and not you." So the first thing I say, and not a miner, but a surgeon, but instead of going after a tumor you're going after that one litte piece of truth and uniqueness and you try to push everything else out of the way and say "See that? That's you. Now let's figure out how to make the rest of you like that."
EL: Right. It's almost like you're, I was in the music business, you're like an A&R executive trying to figure out, alright, what is really special about this band or this singer-songwriter and how do I, what context do I put his work in?
AB: And it's got very little to do, and this is the big shocker, it's got very little to do with food. Bobby Flay's approach was, "I'm going to find great cooks and I can teach them to be TV people." And I was like, "Really? Because that's an awesome trick. I want to see that. And if you figure that out, open a camp and I'll come. I'll take like the three week course in that." My thing was, look, number one, food is simply the surfboard, it ain't the wave. I mean yes, it's important, but what I need above all is people that have Velcro, there's something sticky about them, there's something that makes you want to watch them regardless of what they do. Everything else can be attached to that, everything else can be hung on that, but without something unique, without character, without story, without that je ne sais quoi of "Gee, I'm just going to watch you because there's something interesting about you," you're're doomed. So I was the exact opposite of Bobby in that. My thing was to pick people for a team that had something that I just couldn't put my finger on. It's like, I just enjoy watching you, or I like the sound of your voice, or there's something about you, I don't know what it is, but hopefully we'll find i,t and exploit it.
EL: And it's interesting that you were not looking for mini Altons, in fact it was just the opposite.
AB: Don't want mini Altons. Don't want mini Altons
EL: One's plenty?
AB: One's too much. I don't like myself nearly enough to replicate me in something else. But I do think that's, if someone has a really winning formula, I think that, in that case you're looking for a protege, you're looking for someone to inject your DNA into virally and turn them into a mini me as you say. I would rather find someone that is completely not that. Because I think that then I would have a fresh perspective on them. If you get down into that little wonderful nugget and you're basically looking in a mirror, then all you're going to do is bring you out in them, which is at best imitative. There's nothing unique about it, but now more than ever what we need is unique. Unique sells.
EL: What specific characteristics did you find that you could extract, that you could mine, you know, in the people that you chose?
AB: Well, the horrible thing is that in some of them you realize almost immediately that there isn't any. You thought there was, or you got stuck. You know it's like, when divvying out the teams, there were some of us that, multiples of us that wanted one person, so we generally, you know like I got three of my first picks and two people that I said OK to.
EL: So it was a draft.
AB: Part of it was, yes it was a draft. It was basically a draft, and you realize very quickly that, at least I did, that with a couple of people, you weren't going to be able to, you had to triage. It was like, "I can't help you," you know, or I can, one, it just happens. And then you've got to concentrate, the best thing to do and it's really funny, one of my strategies was to lose people quickly. So that I could get down to concentrating on the few that I really felt something about. And then what you find in them is you poke around for interestingly enough, and I don't, I don't know why, I'm not really smart enough to get this. But the thing that is usually most unique about a person in that situation is something that's being guarded by other people. Because what makes them special usually is very close to something painful, or something that they're not sure of, something that makes them vulnerable, and so they're guard dogs. So when you get into their personalities, start looking around, look for the big mean dog, because it's usually right behind the dog, is the thing you want, because they're all guarded and something has put that dog there to protect this special thing. So you have to give the dog a treat, or you have to kill the dog, or you have to throw a bone and make the dog run over there, you know, something to assuage Cerebus, you know, who's there guarding this thing and then you can get down to business. Once the dog is out of the way you can, you know, once they trust you, which is what we're really talking about more than anything, that you're not trying to do them harm, you're not going to embarrass them. Because it is "reality television" and in the end we really just want you to cry, ok? Could you just cry now? Because...
EL: You can get it out of the way!
AB: All these producers with these sharp sticks, like poke, poke, poke, "Cry! Come on!" But then if you can find whatever that little thing is, and it's completely unique to each person, then you can say, "Look, you've got this and nobody else has this. That makes it really interesting. What do you want to do with that?"
EL: And was it a process so that, was it like a Cracker Jack box in that it was the surprise in the package that really catapulted them into some interesting place for you?
AB: Yeah. Yeah, it's not that. The thing about Cracker Jacks is that you know there's a prize, but you don't know what the prize is. Well in this situation, very often you've stuck your hand in there, felt around, and it's like, "There is no prize." There's just not a frickin' prize in this box, in which case you just want to get your hand out of the box and send it on its way. But a lot of times you'll have an idea of what is the prize, you just can't quite find exactly where it is, because you'll see little bits of it, and then it's just getting it out and showing it to them to say, "Look what you've got." And then they get confidence, because "Oh, I've got something special."
EL: You have a, one last question about mentoring. You have, when we had an email exchange about mentoring and I sent you things I wanted you to talk about, your response was, I don't know how to integrate these elements into a discussion about mentoring because mentoring to you starts, it's not about you, it's about the other person and it is about this two way thing, but it actually emanates from them.
AB: That's the difference between mentoring and coaching, or any other kind of personal leadership thing is that mentoring comes from them. It's, you're a consultant. Mentoring is consulting. You are being brought on to look at what a person has and figure out how to do something with it. So it all comes from that individual person, you can't mentor in mass. You can't mentor by category, it's an individual thing. and I think that it's, the hardest part is listening, and removing yourself from the equation, because none of us really want to remove ourselves from the equation. That's not what human beings do, we put ourselves into the equation. I mean I can take a list of five different functions, say in food, and you could say, "Well, how would you mentor these?" And the answer would be, "Well I don't know, who's the person? Who's the target? Who's the mark, so to speak?" Because for every one of those people, how am I going to mentor you to make better scrambled eggs or mentor him for better scrambled eggs? Who knows. It's a complete mystery until we get into who you are.
EL: And that's interesting because if you, if I, my guess is that if I asked Flay that question, he would not, you know, he'd be like "Ok, I've gotta teach them how to make an omelet."
AB: Key word "teach." Teach, you said teach. That's different from "mentor." Mentoring does not necessarily involve teaching, at all. People can teach themselves most things.
EL: Right, so the whole idea of those books, I mentioned those books, "Lessons to a Young Chef," "Lessons to a Young Musician," "lessons" implies teaching.
AB: Right, but in the case of both of those books, it was actually something that people had written that they wished they could tell earlier versions of themselves. It's like, "Stuff I Wish I'd Known," is basically what those are. And I think with real mentoring, you avoid that, because your lessons aren't going to be their lessons. And you almost doom them, you know, if I'm mentoring, or you're mentoring me in something and just start pummeling me with stories about how it was for you, then I start following your road, not mine. Which all sounds very zen, which maybe it is, but that's the big danger. So Bobby would get them their eggs, everybody would make great eggs, and they would be good, they'd be darned good eggs. Through mentoring though, you might find that, "I don't like eggs," or "You know what? I should poach, and not do this," or, "Why am I doing that?" And I think that in the end, that's the power of mentoring, is generally the person, if you do it right, the person comes out the other end not exactly, not on the same path they were on or seeing themselves in a different light. Which would be good.
EL: Cool.

Missed Parts I & II?

See the Part I transcript here.

And see the Part II transcript here.

More 'Chewing the Fat' Videos

About the videographer: Jessica Leibowitz is in charge of all things video at Serious Eats. Follow more of her adventures at, or on Twitter at @photo_delicious.