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Alton Brown Dishes on 'The Next Iron Chef' And How L.A. Shaped Him Into 'Bill Nye of the Kitchen'

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(Photo courtesy of the Food Network)
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Call him what you will ("The Food Nerd," "Bill Nye of the Kitchen", "The Dad You Wish You Had") but Alton Brown has revolutionized how America approaches cooking. It all started with Brown directing and writing the Food Network series "Good Eats," where for 14 seasons he explored the scientific inner-workings of foods we have come to know as commonplace. Since then, Brown has won a James Beard award for his work on TV, which has included roles as a mentor on "The Next Food Network Star," as a host of "Feasting on Asphalt," and as a commentator on "The Next Iron Chef" and "Iron Chef America." It's safe to say that he's solidified his place amongst TV's culinary elite.

Brown will also be a commentator on the upcoming season of "The Next Iron Chef: Redemption," which premieres next Sunday, November 4 at 9pm ET/PT, giving chefs a second chance at the title. We took a few moments before the show to talk with Brown about his L.A. roots, which Angeleno contestants he thinks are solid contenders, and why he believes that kids are the future of food.

I understand that you grew up in Los Angeles. Tell me what it was like growing up here.

My mom and my dad were from North Georgia and went to L.A. on their honeymoon and decided to stay. I lived there 'til I was 7. I remember it very vibrantly: We lived in North Hollywood. My dad was in the TV business as an account executive at NBC, and it seemed to be a very glamorous adulthood. I remember laying down in bed, and I could listen to cocktail parties and women laughing, and thought that it must be pretty fun as a little kid.

Did you realize what a special food city it was at the time?

My dad was a massive foodie, and my mom was a great home cook. He was the smart kid in his hometown. He got out mostly through his stomach. I remember being drug at a very young age to some extremely authentic Mexican food and some really bizarre Asian restaurants. That was in the point where there wasn't a scene. You really had to network to find good, authentic food.

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So in a way L.A. helped make you are today.

Oh gosh yes. I really learned a lot from my dad. He helped me understand the importance of sharing of discovery and the appreciation for the unusual and new ... And now I hope I can do the same for my daughter. She can eat $100 worth of tuna in just a few minutes. She has a very refined palate. I am hoping it will be as pivotal for her one day as it was for me.

How often do you come back to visit?

I spend at least a month a year in L.A. because we shoot out at Raleigh Studios. I rent a place in Manhattan Beach, which has a fun little food community in its own right ... We'll also be taping the next season of "Food Network Star" in Los Angeles in January, so I'll be out there for a while.

You have two chefs on the new season of "The Next Iron Chef" from L.A., Marcel Vigneron and Eric Greenspan. Do you think they are promising candidates for the title?

I can't give anything away, but I will say that they are so different from each other. But they are sort of similar in that they are extremely innovative in ways that are approachable. They don't innovate in a way that makes you think you are eating from an alien planet ... I imagine that's what allows them to thrive.

The theme of this season is "Redemption." Has there been an embarrassing moment in your career that you wish you could seek redemption for?

I have to say that although I've had some missteps in my career, most things that I used to think of as tragic missteps were not. I am where I am because of them. There are some things in my personal life that I'd like to fix, of course. [laughs]

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On "Good Eats," you worked on technique and classic dishes, and it wasn't as much about inventing as it was exploring and understanding. How has that foundation helped you in your role on "The Next Iron Chef?"

It's like being a sports commentator who has played the game. I know what's going on with the food because I've questioned it. If I had just worked in restaurants for 20 years it would be different. It's not just because I've done it; my job has been to question and analyze food.

You've been in the industry doing just that for almost 15 years. A lot has changed since then. A popular frame of mind these days is that food is the new rock. Do you have any advice for people who are getting into the profession because of the glamour of it all?

Look at it this way: What happened to most people who got into music because they wanted to be stars? No one that I know that got into business for that reason is still around. If you're driven and talented and motivated, that's what's compelling.

So what's next for Alton Brown? Will you forever be in food TV?

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I'm writing a kid's book right now, actually. If we have any chance of becoming a healthier country, it's going to start with the kids. If we give them the tools to do it, then it can really make the difference.