Why Dining Out Isn't Always a Cakewalk for Alton Brown

Alton Brown Headshot - P 2013
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Alton Brown Headshot - P 2013

The "Food Network Star" mentor and "Good Eats" creator says it's "tacky" to make your own reservations and smuggles out comped dishes in his wife's purse: "You can't stay on a show if you can't see your feet."

This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The world of the semi-famous cable-ebrity is not a particularly glamorous one. We don't get sweet gift baskets when we go to big awards shows because we don't get invited to big awards shows. Stores don't open early or stay open late for us to browse, and as for VIP treatment at airports, well … I don't know if anyone gets that anymore. But if you're in the "food space," as they say, there are some sweet perks. For starters, it's a helluva lot easier to get a table at a restaurant, especially during peak dining hours. Sure, they're going to seat you where everyone can see you, but hey, at least you'll get fed. But beware: It's tacky to drop your own name when calling for the res, so have your assistant do it. If you don't have an assistant, you can use a convincing fake voice while pretending to be your assistant. I haven't done that myself, but I have pulled something nearly as shameful by asking to leave a message for the chef: "Could you tell him/her that Alton called?" Red flags fly, and the magic happens.

There is a potential pitfall, though: comps, or dishes that are "compliments of the kitchen, chef, etc." One time, very early in my career, my wife and I were in Chicago eating at Topolobampo, one of Rick Bayless' fantastic Chicago eateries. We had really gorged ourselves, and just as we were going to tell our waiter that we didn't possibly have room for a bite more, out came the entire dessert menu … on a slab of chocolate. What were we supposed to do? We each took a bite of everything, but it didn't look like we'd made a dent, so we took another bite of everything. But even then it looked like we were just wasting so much food. We didn't know what to do, so we took it in to-go boxes. Luckily we encountered a homeless gentleman on the way back to the hotel and gave it all to him. Hope he had a sweet tooth.

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You are, of course, delighted that the chef wishes to share his or her skill with someone he/she respects. But are you gonna just sit there and pack it in? Of course not. You can't stay on a show if you can't see your feet. Of course, if you just nibble, the waiter will report back, and feelings could be hurt. And what if all those other people in the dining room see you not eating? Is the food rotten? Do you not know people around the world are starving?

Now, I've tried various methods for dealing with this delicious dilemma, including hiding the extra chow in a Ziploc bag in my wife's purse. I've even canceled my entree, which only serves to piss off the kitchen since they already fired it. What works: Spread the love to other tables. Once, at a particular seafood eatery (a very good one) in New York City that I don't want to name, the manager sent a tray of eight different types of oysters. I wasn't about to tell him that I'm allergic to oysters, so I went around to other diners and let them each take one. I had one left over and hid it in the ice. It was such a nice thing for him to do, and I felt terrible.

Here's what would be great: Since you know we're coming because we made a reservation and the hostess alerted you, how about asking the waiter to tell us before we order that you'd like to send out an appetizer or two? That way we won't order other stuff. Or, if it's the pastry chef who wants to flex their kung fu, tell us we'll want to save room for dessert. After all, who the heck doesn't like dessert? Believe me, chef, I want to taste your food and want nothing more than to graciously accept your hospitality. I just don't want to have to wear elastic pants every time I go out. I need to see my feet.

Season nine of Food Network Star premieres June 2. Alton Brown also is the host of Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef.