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Alton Brown, Alicia Silverstone and Tom Colicchio issue a call to arms

October 13, 2009 |  5:37 pm
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The New York City Wine & Food Festival was a foodiot's dream: The Rachael Ray burger bash; the wine, beer, hard shots and margaritas that flowed at the all-you-could-imbibe supermarket tasting; and the orgy of dishes served at Paula Deen and Katie Lee's Down South Up North party. It was enough to make you momentarily forget the point: 100% of the proceeds from the four-day event will be used locally -- by Share Our Strength and the Food Bank for New York City -- to eradicate hunger.

But away from this spotlight, there was another party of sorts being thrown. And the hosts were an unlikely trio: Alton Brown of "Good Eats," Tom Colicchio of "Top Chef" and actress Alicia Silverstone. These gatherings were a bit more sober -- alas, no free-flowing alcohol and no food -- but with a stirring message that challenged those in the audience to take a skeptical look at everything they put in their mouths, or on their children's plates.

The message? We've heard much of it before. Eat seasonally. Eat locally. Enjoy food in moderation. Learn to cook and nourish yourself and your family -- it's the single most important thing you can do for them. Teach your kids to cook. Eat with gratitude -- consider the source of your food, whether it's the person who prepared it, the farmer who brought it to market, or the cow that gave of itself to deliver that glass of milk (or steak). Don't rely on government to monitor your food -- you need to monitor what you eat, and where it originates. If you pick up a packaged item at the supermarket -- stop and look at the label, read the ingredients, check the nutritional values. And ask yourself: Is this something you can make yourself out of fresh ingredients? And if not, do you really want your family ingesting it?

If that all sounds boring, it wasn't. It was the unexpected delivery -- well, actually, the celebrity messengers -- that added the fresh perspective. Brown, for one, sounded like an evangelist (he recently lost 50 pounds) and his new outlook on a healthful life offered insight into why "Good Eats" -- at least in its current incarnation -- might not be long for this TV world.

The highlights from each of these three sessions are after the jump. (And if you were in attendance, please share your thoughts:

The crowd that showed up for Silverstone's Saturday morning demo was a mixed one. There were the male solo-ticket holders who wanted a glimpse of the chick from the Aerosmith video. Vegans and vegetarians inspired by the commitment Silverstone has made to that lifestyle. And random festivalgoers looking to sit in on a session with a bold-faced name. Silverstone, who started the demo looking a little uneasy and nervous, and squinting uncomfortably into the stage lights, didn't come out and preach her piece. She just walked out and abruptly started cooking.

At first, that seemed like a mistake. She could have taken five minutes to say hello, chat up the audience  and talk about her vegetarian lifestyle and her emphasis on eating fresh, seasonal, healthful ingredients. In retrospect, her nervousness just made her easier to relate to, as did her plain tank top, rumpled apron and lack of makeup or pretense -- she drew laughs when she talked about being a messy cook and noted that if she were at home she'd just toss her vegetarian Caesar salad with her hands, but would use the tongs because she was in public. (In addition to the salad, she also made a cheesecake and pecan-encrusted seitan.) She was effusive, using the word "yummy," or a variation of it, such as "this is a nice piece of yumminess," no less than 20 times.

Silverstone has a new book coming out this month, "The Kind Diet." If she could get a little more comfortable in front of the camera while playing herself -- not the gorgeously unattainable blond actress from film and video, but her mussy-haired, relaxed, slightly goofy and ultra-appealing self --  she could have quite a TV following.

Colicchio also walked out and just got right to the food, making confits of lemon, tomatoes and pork butt. All was going smoothly until members of the audience began asking him how much salt to use. He said he didn't use a recipe, and told the attendees that they needed to learn to cook intuitively, without recipes. He was met with a brick wall of silence, which led him to launch into his philosophy for today's home cooks. "We gotta get away from 'How much?.' We're too focused on the the exact amount," he said. "It's not about the recipes...You don't need them...you gotta get away from the recipes and learn how to cook." (The answer to the salt question, in case you were wondering, depends entirely on how large a pork butt you are using, and how large a container you are using.)

There was almost a riot when a woman in the audience questioned Colicchio's liberal use of salt and olive oil in his demo recipes, and did so in a manner that made it clear she did not approve. Colicchio's demeanor hardened just a degree (this is, after all, the stern-faced "Top Chef" judge) and he said that he certainly did not eat in such rich fashion all the time, and that the recipes were meant to illustrate a method -- not what one should be eating all day, every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "I like things in moderation," Colicchio said. The audience applauded mightily.

Colicchio joked that he did not know who the next winner would be on Bravo's "Top Chef" -- it hasn't been shot yet -- but said he did know the outcome of Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef," but refused to divulge it. Unfortunately, the Q&A session was cut short before ever getting to the most important question of all: Who is Padma's baby daddy?

But the real revolutionary was Brown. After all, this is Mr. "Good Eats," the man who taught us how to make homemade pretzels, safely deep-fry all manner of morsels, and whip up buttercream frosting from scratch. (Yes, A.B. does much, much more than that, including plenty of healthful dishes featuring grains and fresh vegetables and lean cuts of meat. But it was the aforementioned dishes that stood out in stark contrast to what happened next.)

He completely ditched plans for the expected demo, and instead offered up a polemic entitled: "10 Things About Food I Feel Pretty Darned Sure About."

A.B. said that earlier in the year he had been shooting a segment for "Good Eats" in which he paddled a canoe. He was playing back some of the footage afterward and noticed that someone had apparently slipped a spare tire under his shirt. He stopped the tape and asked himself: "When did that happen?"

Confronted with the weight gain, Brown says he had an epiphany.

It would be impossible to fully recap Alton's entertainment-as-lecture here -- if the lecture is made available in some format online, we will make it available on the Daily Dish. In the meantime, here are some highlights from Brown's session:

-- Eating is an intensely intimate act, and you get what you pay for. So, rethink that 74-cent can of chili from China.

-- Don't use your kids' soccer playing and other after-school activities as an excuse for not cooking real food at home. "Unless your kid is Pele Jr., they're not going to be able to feed themselves from soccer." They will, however, need to be able to feed themselves when they leave the nest. Teaching them to eat processed, fast and packaged food now is teaching them to do the same in the future. "If your kid knows how to play soccer, but not make dinner, you have done them a disservice," A.B. said.

-- He stressed the importance of eating seasonally -- 'cause that's when stuff tastes the best. When we serve strawberries, which generally grow in the spring, in a fruit salad alongside watermelon, which comes due in the summer, something is wrong. "We're getting dumbed down, taste-wise," he said.

He ended his lecture with a pitch for watching more Food Network to help learn more about cooking and food, but with this caveat: "Do not allow watching food to replace making food."

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Alton Brown Credit: Rene Lynch / Los Angeles Times

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