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Aug 28, 2008 11:21 AM

Rare Lack of Knowledge by Alton Brown

Last night I was watching a recorded episode of Iron Chef (Morimoto v. Puck) and was pretty amazed when Alton Brown was unable to identify a very unique and easy to recognize noodle/technique. Morimoto was making the German noodles called Spätzle and was doing it the old fashioned way (by spreading the dough thin on a board and severing off thin shreds into boiling water - - I think this is the first time I've seen him draw a blank like that. After the commercial break somebody got him the correct information and he suddenly starting referring to the mystery noodles by the correct name. I am from Pennsylvania originally, with it's many German food resources, so perhaps I had an advantage. But I didn't think food brain wouldn't know this already.

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  1. I don't know -- I caught him a couple of times not knowing his stuff on ICA (and I rarely watch the show). ICA is more of a spontaneous program than Good Eats where everything is scripted. In fairness to Alton, not everybody can know everything on the spot.

    However, I remember Alton getting on a contestant's case during The Next Food Network Star because he didn't know what San Marzano tomatoes were, chastising him saying that as a representative of Food Network, it's your job to know everything. I thought it was quite an arrogant comment to make, especially since Alton has faltered a few times himself.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Miss Needle

      I think San Marzano's are pretty familiar to most food enthusiasts. Certainly more familiar than Spaetzle I would think. If fact, I'd have to agree with him that for someone to not know about San Marzano's and expect to be a food authority is pretty naive. I don't see how pointing that out made him arrogant. I saw that episode too. Is there ANY level of competence that potential show host must demonstrate?

      1. re: MaxCaviar

        Considering they have Sandra Lee on FN, I would say not.

        Whether it's San Marzano tomatoes or spaetzle or seki-sba, my issue with Alton had to do with his phrasing of saying that a FN star has to know everything. I wouldn't have taken issue if he said that they have to know more common food items such as San Marzano tomatoes (which may be common to people who are into food, but still unknown to many). And if I have never witnessed Alton screw up, I would be more forgiving of that comment.

        1. re: Miss Needle

          Yeah, clearly FN itself has abandoned the idea that a host should have a substantial knowledge base. But I was asking you personally. I really don't think it's asking much for a host to know SM tomatoes. Did he really say a host had to "know everything" ?

          1. re: MaxCaviar

            I agree with you about the SM tomatoes. Personally, I don't think I would watch a host that didn't know what those were (unless it was a host that dealt with non-European/American cuisines).

            I could be wrong as I don't have that episode around. But I'm pretty sure Alton said that a host should know everything there is about food. That's what really turned me off about the comment.

            1. re: Miss Needle

              I remember the San Marzano episode, and the contestant clearly was lacking in knowledge about cooking techniques and ingredients. I don't think that Alton said the contestant needed to know "everything," only that he needed to know his ingredients and why they were special. During the ingredient questioning, Alton was hitting him pretty hard, but the guy was obviously green. Didn't Alton also comment to this contestant when he didn't explain a cooking technique, either not at all or improperly?

            2. re: MaxCaviar

              Speaking as someone of German heritage who doesn't cook with canned goods - I think it's odd to expect someone to know what San Marzano tomatoes are and not know what spaetzle is.

              I remember the exchange on TNFNS and A. Brown came off as a real ass.

          2. re: MaxCaviar

            To be fair he was testing the extent of the contestant's knowledge -- it was a pop quiz. When the guy indicated he had no idea where the canned tomatoes were from or why it mattered Alton then let him know that he needed to demonstrate more knowledge about the source of his ingredients. It was hardly a display of arrogance, it was a critique of the performance. They had clearly given him a can of San Marzano tomatoes to use in his presentation and that was on the checklist of items he was to be quizzed on. As for Sandra Lee, she has the requisite knowledge for her level of expertise -- however low that bar may be.

            1. re: ferret

              Also, as I recall that episode, the contestant in question tried to turn the whole thing into a joke, calling them "plummy" tomatoes. I think making fun of the food didn't help. Alton often doesn't know exactly what the chef's are using, but always finds out the correct answer.

            2. re: MaxCaviar

              Max, if you'd married into my husband's German Lutheran family, you wouldn't need to know a San Marzano from a Black Krim, but by God you'd have to figure out what spaetzle was in very short order!

          3. My memory may be completely wrong - but I actually thought he made Spatzle on one of his Good Eats episodes. He may have just had a brain freeze... we've all had those!

            1. Given that it was Morimoto doing it, maybe Alton just thought it was some Japanese technique that he didn't know. He wouldn't be expecting Morimoto to be making spatzle.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Dan G

                As a side note, I think Morimoto chose that dish as sort of a tease to Wolfgang Puck who grew up eating the stuff. Kind of an attempt to school him using his own cuisine. Apparently Alton didn't make the connection.


                1. re: MaxCaviar

                  I don't think Alton Brown is to be faulted here for a lack of knowledge.

                  Morimoto used a very old method that makes something that's more like a plain noodle than the shape associated with Spaetzle. I've been in many traditional German households that make Spaetzle and I've made them myself. They're prepared several ways, with a colander or grater or perf pan or Spaetzle-maker -- and because of the extrusion through the holes, the Spaetzle gets a characteristic wiggly peg shape. For all intents and purposes, Spaetzle is associated with the extrusion method, rather than the ancient chopping method that almost no one does anymore. It's a little thing Alton didn't know this. He knows so friggin' much.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    I saw that show, and I make spaetzle, pushing it though a large wide spoon, the sticky batter/dough dropping through the large holes-slots of the spoon and into the boiling water. The cutting method of the noodles is done in Chinese cooking as well. So I can see how he was easily confused.
                    I think in all fairness that if unsure, better to skip over and get confirmation, which is what he did.

                2. re: Dan G

                  Exactly, while watching a battle between Morimoto and Puck. It would not be Morimoto I would expect to see making spatzle. It is impressive and also very cool that he has the chops to know so many cuisines and the confidence to serve spatzle to Puck who probably grew up eating the stuff in Austria along with Govenator Arnold

                3. This would also have been one of the first episodes of the show, back when it was "Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters" I think. They probably didn't have a research staff and he hadn't had time to prep as he would for the regular show run.

                  What a time we live in where we subject people to such scrutiny.

                  1. I have often seen Alton flub up on ICA. He is an actor with a cooking degree (NECI), not the other way around. On Good Eats, he has Shirley Corriher to supply him with the info that makes him look so knowledgeable, and I'm sure over the years, he has picked up some of his own. However, as an actor, he seems to do better with a script than extemporaneously.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: ChefJune

                      In a 'behind the scenes' program on ICA, Alton talked about the research that he (and staff) do before a show. It includes reviewing all the extra ingredients that chefs plan on using. Data is collected in notebooks that Alton has at his disposal during the taping. He's not commenting on the action and ingredients using just accumulated years of experience, but rather working from current research. Of course accumulated experience and learning does help.

                      As others have noted, this was an early episode, and he probably did not have the research system as well tuned as it is now.

                      It's worth keeping in mind that even the competitors, experienced chefs, do not approach these shows relying on just accumulated experience and knowledge. They plan, prepare and practice. Which is more likely: that Morimoto has been making Spätzle like this for years, or that he learned about it after finding out that he would be compete against Puck?

                      As to Alton being an actor, on GE he is more than that. He's is not just quoting a script that others have planned and written for him. He's involved in the writing and production of each show from top down.

                      1. re: paulj

                        I agree the the "actor" part. While Alton may have a theatre background, he also has a professional culinary education, extensive experience in film production and cinematography, and quite obviously possesses an aptitude for food chemistry. He does indeed have a good team of experts handy -- Shirley Corriher and food anthropologists among them, as well as a number of good researchers, whom I've spent time with, on his production staff. He's terrifically bright, who has amassed a good body of knowledge. But that doesn't mean he knows everything there is to know about food, or won't make an occasional mistake. My take on Alton Brown is that he's one of the few originals doing food television. I applaud him.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          >>My take on Alton Brown is that he's one of the few originals doing food television. I applaud him.<<

                          He's anything but original in that everything he says is from someone else's book - Corriher's, McGee's, Kurti's. or This's. I give him credit for turning all this information into entertaining television, but I also think that he gets credit for dumbing down science, for being part of the current trend of making pseudo-science out of real science by not providing real experimentation and results, or even demonstrations of actual phenomena, but by selective illustration and arbitrary declarations presented as facts. There's a 40 year old history (in modern times) of real food science, experiments done by true scientists and results reported by knowledgeable writers. That's where the credit really belongs - not to a TV producer/cinematographer who went from MTV to NECI to TVFN. I'm not sure that his front-of-camera work is as epic as all that, but he is indeed, entertaining.

                          Basically, I'm jealous as hell - especially of his BMW sponsorship. But despite that, when it comes to food, should we be applauding the entertainer, the dumb-it-down explainer, or should we be applauding real chefs for their creativity, and real scientists and food writers for their intrepid expansion of our real food knowledge?

                          1. re: applehome

                            Hey, I gotta give you credit -- anyone who brings up Nicholas Kurti and Hervé This is INTO food chemistry.

                            We didn't don't disagree totally -- but we do on some things.

                            What credit do we give the performer of another’s creative material? Or a skilled teacher who passes on knowledge not personally discovered by him?

                            Theatre director Sir Peter Hall was an original in his production of Shakepeare's plays -- work he didn't write. Carl Sagan mostly cited the work of others in his very popular science show. Sinatra was certainly an original in his interpretation of Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Mercer and the Berlins.

                            Hopefully, we give the discoverer or creator as much credit -- if not more -- as the performer/interpreter/teacher. I don't see this as an either-or thing, as you may.

                            Sagan’s Cosmos show turned a huge number of people on to the wonders of cosmology. I don’t put Alton Brown on the same level as Sagan, but I do think he performs a similar service — turning people on to the cool things about food chemistry and physics.

                            In this era of "talking head" food shows, Alton Brown’s presentation of information is original, and I don’t recall anyone before Brown who made food chemistry a sizable part of a cooking show.

                            Brown isn’t a food scientist like McGee, Wolke and Kurti, but I commend him for presenting those food scientists' findings as clearly and as entertainingly as he does. I don't think Brown takes the place of those food scientists — I think he leads people to them. I think a lot of kids watching Mr. Wizard became interested in science too.

                            I had an “Alton Brown” early on in my life. I thought my first food chemistry class was going to be a snore. I was wrong. That professor turned me on to a world. If that professor hadn’t been as entertaining or captivating in explaining hardcore scientific information, that world would have been lost on me.

                            I recall several shows in which Brown has performed comparative experiments that netted different final results and demonstrated actual phenomena. Was he the first to do the experiments, or discover the underlying phenomena causing the effect? Nope.

                            If you wouldn’t mind, could you give some examples of Alton Brown's "dumbing down" food science or "pseudo-science" that you can think of? Or examples of "selective illustration and arbitrary declarations presented as facts"?

                            I'm not aware that Brown has done these things -- if he has, I'd like to know about it.

                            I understand about the BMW sponsorship! He does like his ride!

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              I agree that the interpreter and teacher can be important and deserves recognition along with the discoverer. Performer/composer and actor/writer is an entirely different thing, which I won't get into here - there is a big difference between the applied and fine arts (even though I consider great food, created by chefs, as well as crafts created by great artisans, to be works of art).

                              However, this site seems to generally be in love with Alton, and it seems that my voice is needed to provide the balance. It's not that Alton shouldn't be applauded, but that he should be applauded for what he is, and not for what he is not. The constant barrage of, "He knows everything there is to know about food", belittles not only the discoverers, true scientists, and even the true food writers, but it discredits his staff of researchers. There is a pantheon of truly knowledgeable people who need to get applauded ahead of this TV producer.

                              As to Sagan, the fact is that he was a real scientist. He was an astronomer and an astro-chemist who pioneered exobiology. (Wiki says so, but I have read everything from Broca's Brain to The Dragons of Eden - and he was indeed original and deep thinking.) He created Cosmos and wrote Contact almost as afterthoughts, although it was true that along with his close friend, Isaac Asimov, he loved to teach, and he truly wanted to bring more and more people into the world of science that he loved so much.

                              Alton, on the other hand, is not a real Chef. He has no major experience in food preparation. I think that is his biggest weakness in presenting food and food chemistry to us on TV. He never spent any amount of time prepping, working a station on a line, and certainly not as a sous or a chef. His time at NECI shouldn't be discounted, but without the every day challenges of being a chef, he cannot really speak to the utility of a process or the repeated application of a technique. And yet, he's happy to ban "single-tasker" tools from the kitchen, and frequently expounds on the BEST way to do something, as if real chefs around the world would never do it any other way.

                              He has contradicted things I learned from watching Julia and Jacques Pepin. He may actually be correct - traditional Cordon Blue French chefs often repeat the techniques and rules learned from Savarin onwards, some of which have been disproven by Kurti and This. But somehow, reading Kurti and This, you get a sense of where this contradiction comes from, and you see the specific steps in the experiments that were done to disprove the well accepted homily. From Alton you get highlights - you are put in the position of accepting a lot of what he says on faith. When it comes to Alton vs. Julia, my faith will always fall on Julia's side. Disproving such an icon requires more than what Alton has, or is willing to present on his show.

                              I was not coming up with specifics off the top of my head. But strangely enough, I do have his first cookbook, so I flipped it open and it went right to his french fries page. There, he says to season the fries immediately after they are drained. That contradicts Julia - she says that salt will soften the fry and that it shouldn't be salted until ready to eat. It's not that Julia is right and that he is wrong - it's that on TV, his presentation is that his dogma is the "scientifically" correct one - and that all others are wrong. Did he ever show us an experiment to test limpness and flavor in french fries that were salted right away vs. ones that were salted later? As far as I know, no - he just asks us to accept that he is right and Julia is wrong.

                              That's just a quick example of what I'm talking about - he lacks the precision in his presentation, that a true man of science ought to have. I understand that he's not a scientist, and he'll tell you right off the bat that he's not a chef. So he's an entertainer who tries to explain cooking in a somewhat scientific manner. I have no problem giving him credit for that - heck, I'll even applaud.

                              1. re: applehome

                                Very nicely written response.

                                "So he's an entertainer who tries to explain cooking in a somewhat scientific manner. I have no problem giving him credit for that - heck, I'll even applaud."

                                That is what I am applauding as well.

                                Great comment about the French fries. But if salt causes the fries to become limp before serving, isn't the problem the delay between frying and serving and not the immediate salting? And shouldn't fries always been served immediately after frying?

                                I'm don't think it's appropriate to ask Alton to do the scientific experiments that would quantify the moisture and limpness differences between immediate and delayed salting. That is a task best left for McGee and others, who might also want to quantify other factors that affect crispness: the level of moisture migration from the interior of the fry to the exterior that would occur anyway -- in the absence of salt, the diference in crispness using a one- or two-step frying process, moisture differences in winter vs. summer potatoes, fresh vs.aged potatoes, frying temperature, and oils.

                                McGee and others can do the quantification and controlled experiments. They have the discipline, the lab, the equipment, and the inclination. Brown does not.

                                Brown is best the creative "messenger" of information. He is not a scientist or a true man of science, I agree, and to expect him to be more than a creative presenter of accurate information is an inappropriate expectation in my book. I would hope that Alton and his staff would actively scout out the most accurate information.

                                And by the way, some food scientists are terrible at presenting their own information clearly and entertainingly.

                                Sagan was an exception. I'm a fan as well. He was a scientist, yes, but also had a quirky, oddly appealing delivery that opened minds and hearts. I think he was unusual in that regard.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  "McGee and others can do the quantification and controlled experiments. They have the discipline, the lab, the equipment, and the inclination. Brown does not."

                                  When did McGee start doing lab work? While he got his BS from one of the best science schools, his PhD is in English from Yale. The experiments described The Curious Cook (1990) have a home-brew quality to them, using a postage digital scale, eye glasses 'atop breakfast cereal boxes a foot so from the frying pan', a digital thermometer 'from a scientific supply company' (Edmunds?). The first half of the book derives from his decision 'to try a little research on my own, and see whether an amateur could shed some light on matters closer to home.'(Introduction) At that time, he considered himself a food science amateur, not a professional.

                                  I would describe him as a food science writer, perhaps the best. I think the distinction between his craft and Alton's is being overblown a bit.