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As Food Network's resident food historian and overall respected voice of reason, Alton Brown has a lot to say when it comes to finalists vying for the ultimate job — the job that will allow one person to join the roster that he shares with fellow judges Giada and Bobby.
Star Talk: What are you excited about this season?
Alton Brown: I haven't participated in as many seasons of Food Network Star as the other judge-mentors. I've only really done three. But based on the seasons that I've done in the past, I'm excited to see if I can find that nugget — that diamond. You're walking down a riverbank, you reach down and you pull up a 10-carat diamond and go, "Hey, look what I found." So you're looking at each one of these finalists and you're hoping that one of them is going to be spectacular — amazing. And it could happen. That's the entire mission.
Star Talk: What is the biggest mistake that finalists constantly make?
AB: I'm not sure what it is in American culture that gives everyone the idea that if they simply convince you they want something badly, you'll give it to them. And every year, the first thing they'll start talking about passion. I don't care about your passion. I care about you making me feel passion. Everybody's got passion, everybody loves food, everybody loves people. OK? I don't care. Yet they do it every year. People tell you, "I want this so badly." Yes, good. Now do something to deserve it.
Star Talk: Why do you think the contestants are more scared to get in front of you then the other mentors?
AB: I've been real honest sometimes. In past seasons, if I get frustrated I show it. But it's only because I actually care. I've been on Food Network for 15 years. I love it. I want to protect it. And I don't want anybody who doesn't deserve to be on it on it. So I take it very seriously.
Star Talk: Fill in the blank: The hardest part about being a judge is ...
AB: The hardest thing about being a judge-mentors is looking at somebody and knowing they don't have it, and seeing the moment in their eyes when they realize they don't have it too. That's not a fun moment for anybody.
Star Talk: Would you have made it on Star?
AB: I've often wondered if I could ever have put myself through a competition like Star and if I did, how would I have fared? There are certain things that I would have done very well at on a show like this. I can concisely communicate a point, I can manipulate a small-piece performance and stuff like that. What I can't do, however, is cook quickly enough. I'm not good with time crunches. I don't like them. I bristle against time crunches.
Star Talk: What are two or three adjectives to describe your fellow judges?
AB: Giada is very discriminating. She's got a very good eye, and I think that she could actually size up the people that are going to go far in this competition really just by looking at them. I actually like watching her watch them sometimes. She does this thing with her eyes where it's almost like she's aiming at them. Bobby is very insightful in the advice that he gives. He has a tendency to really listen to what somebody says, take it, go stir it up, and then he always manages to pull something out and you go, like: "Damn, I wish I'd said that. Why didn't I say that?" I think that requires insight and very good listening skills.
Star Talk: How important is it to narrow your culinary POV?
AB: The POV thing — we use that term a lot. In my own parlance, I refer to that as the warhead. Everything delivers that warhead and that warhead's got to be the DNA of everything you are, everything you can be and everything you have been. And you've got to know what that is. Unless you know what that is, you can't communicate it to others. A virus can't replicate itself somewhere else if it doesn't know what it is. That's really what we're talking about — we're talking about infecting people with something in a way. You've got to be able to know what you are before you can do that. And everything else is about delivering that packet of information. Whether you call that a POV, a brand or a mission statement, whatever you call it — it's what makes you the you that no one else can be. And if you can't do that and identify it and know how to use it, then you're not going to make it.
Star Talk: What things should every Food Network Star finalist know how to do?
AB: Tell a joke. Very important narrative form, being able to tell a joke: timing, very important, setup and delivery. You've got to be able to say something that makes people watching you want to hear you say something more. You've got to be able to do a lot with less. The best people are the ones that can say five words. It's not that you say, "Wow, those were great words." No, you say: "I want to hear the next five. I want to hear the next 10." And you also know how to edit yourself.
Star Talk: What's something finalists should not do while they're being judged?
AB: This is based on my own personal pet peeves. I have words that once I hear in certain combinations, I start taking points away from you in my head. I do not want to hear the word "delicious" (Bobby feels the same way). It's a meaningless word. It has the same meaning as [grunts], which has no meaning. Delicious is a non-word. It means I can't think of another word to say. I am also sick and tired of the word "passion." If I hear the word "passion" come out of somebody's mouth, especially when it relates to their own feelings, I immediately dock them for it. The other thing that just drives me out of my freaking mind is when someone serves you a piece of food and says, "What we have for you today ...." We. This also happens a lot on Cutthroat Kitchen. No. What you have for me today. Own it. It's "I." Don't say "we." Do you have a team behind you, or are you of royal lineage? Which one is it? Because unless you're a duke or an earl, you're an I.