What: International Biscuit Festival presents Alton Brown
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 16
Where: Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street
Cost: Prices range from $33.50 for general admission to $98.50 for VIP access.
Tickets: www.tennesseetheatre.com or 865-684-1200.
Food Network star Alton Brown, who will appear at the Tennessee Theatre on May 16, attributes his pursuit of women to helping him discover the culinary arts as his career choice.
"Mostly I learned how to cook in order to get dates in college. I had a meal that I called "The Closer," a sole au gratin Florentine … which was cunningly selected because it was inexpensive to make and the leftovers could be served for breakfast, which was the whole purpose," he said.
He successfully completed the task of serving "The Closer" twice and was unceremoniously dumped over the phone while prepping the dish for the third lady he chose to impress.
"I had already started making the dish when she called so it was too late to quit cooking. I went ahead and prepared it anyway and found out it was fun to cook even if there wasn't a girl involved. I think it was at that point that I became a cook. I don't know whatever happened to that girl but she helped to change my life," he said.
While making a living as a videographer and cinematographer, he decided to move to Vermont and attend the New England Culinary Institute. After graduating he began working on his concept for what became one of Food Network's most popular and longest running shows, "Good Eats."
"After culinary school there was a long spell of writing "Good Eats" and trying to get the show ready. We did two pilot episodes but it took over a year to get the Food Network channel to even look at them. At that time they produced everything inhouse and weren't interested in shows that were produced.
"During that time I taught cooking classes out of a big grocery store. It was a very lean time, and basically my wife supported us," he said.
"Good Eats," the show that showcased common sense cooking techniques with science, history and pop culture, ended production last year after more than 13 years on the air. Brown said it was time.
"We had just crossed the 250 episode line and we decided it was time for a break because it was such a labor-intensive kind of thing. I'm still going through withdrawals because I spent most of my waking hours for 13 years laboring over the show. My wife, who is the president of our company, used to call it the snowflake factory because I was constantly trying to make precious unique snowflakes out of every show. It would take three days to make one episode because it was so fraught and fussed over. I think 250 episodes is a good solid legacy. I won't say it's the best show ever made but I don't think there are too many any better. It's still useful, entertaining and something that a family can watch together," he said.
He's currently working on his first digital project, which will be an ebook that will encompass all of the recipes from his Good Eats cookbooks as well as material that did not make the books because of space.
"I still love print books but I have to tackle the digital realm," he said.
Brown recently served as host of the James Beard Awards. He said his preparation when speaking in front of his peers is no different than preparing to speak to a general audience.
"At the Beard Awards you have a bunch of people in the room who know they are going to be there a very long time, that there's a lot of food waiting for them in another room and that that's where they really want to be. Plus, you have the nominees who just want you to get on with the presentations, so the best thing to do is keep the program moving and try not to mispronounce any names.
"The same is true with the ticketed audience. You can't just write for them because every room is different. I don't have a pile of lectures that I pull from and then go give. It's about the room, it's about spending an evening with a group of people and every group has a different dynamic," he said.
His forte is his knowledge of the science behind the cooking process but he said he can definitely translate that education into a good product, even when it comes to biscuits.
"I can make a kickass biscuit but it's taken me a long time to perfect the technique. I kind of collect biscuit recipes and am obsessed with looking at them and figuring out the amazing significance of this food and why it is the way it is. The trend that I find is that most doughs are too darn dry, and I don't know how we got there. I don't know if the people writing the recipes have forgotten what a good biscuit is supposed to be like or if there are just too many versions of them, but 90 percent of the recipes are too dry," he said.
He attributes bad biscuits to bad techniques and declares that the type of flour used in making the biscuit is not the secret to the recipe.
"Don't become a cultist to an ingredient. … Somebody with good technique can make good biscuits out of any flour you give them. You can give a baker an extra fine wonderful soft winter wheat flour and give me a hard spring red base flour and, if I keep my technique sound, I will still make a better biscuit."
He typically uses self-rising flour and most of the time it's the White Lily brand, but he doesn't follow a recipe verbatim.
"I still hack the recipe off the White Lily bag but then I doctor it up. I tend to add a little more baking powder and soda and sometimes mix the fats. I never make them the same way twice. If I know I'm going to make biscuits in the morning, I will put the flour and shortening, butter, or lard in the flour and place the bowl in the refrigerator. Sometimes I mix the fats but if I know I'm only going to use butter then I put it in the freezer and use a vegetable peeler to cut off slivers into the flour so I don't have to work the dough very much. I also add a little more baking powder and soda," he said.
On Wednesday, May 16, Brown will present a program at the Tennessee Theatre. At this point his talk is still a work in progress but there are certain feelings that he hopes the audience exits with when the night is over.
"First, I hope they leave with a distinct lack of hatred of me," he said jokingly. Then added "I always want people to leave wishing that I wasn't quite done and that they had a good time."
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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