Alton Brown Reveals the Secrets of 'Cutthroat Kitchen,' Previews 'Camp Cutthroat'

Dave Nemetz
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Time to get those campfires burning: Alton Brown is about to test chefs’ survival skills at Camp Cutthroat, a five-episode summer spinoff of Food Network’s fiendishly diabolical (and fiendishly addictive) cooking competition Cutthroat Kitchen. Camp takes Cutthroat’s signature “sabotages” — obstacles that chefs can bid a portion of their prize money on and handicap their opponents with — and puts a summer-camp spin on them, from tug-o’-war battles to grizzly-bear attacks.

We quizzed Cutthroat host Brown about what to expect from Camp Cutthroat (he calls it “Cutthroat Kitchen Plus”), and then dove into a geeky deconstruction of Cutthroat Kitchen: how it came to be, how they develop and test the sabotages, and what Brown says is the No. 1 mistake he sees chefs making on the show. If you’re a Cutthroat Kitchen junkie (like we are), well… bon appétit.

What inspired the Camp Cutthroat concept? Is it just that the outdoor setting allows for messier sabotages?
Well, that’s certainly part of it. Being outside lets us do things like fire and water and climbing walls and lakes and muddy pits and wild animals. But also, the second you say “camp,” it summons up certain emotional aspects for those of us who went to camp. And if you haven’t, you’ve seen Friday the 13th. So I think there’s a certain playful expectation of what that means.

We really do spend all five episodes playing into the camp mindset. I wanted it to feel like part sleep-away camp where you learn archery and crafts, part Boy Scout camp, part military/mercenary training camp… [Laughs.] I was raised as a Boy Scout, so I have a certain affinity for uniforms and things like that. So it’s tapping into kind of an emotional artery of sentiment and nostalgia, and it’s also an excuse for doing really big things outside that you can’t do in the studio.

The chefs on Camp Cutthroat have all been on Cutthroat Kitchen before. Did you find that they were smarter or savvier with that experience under their belts?
You know, I didn’t really care about that part of it. The reason that I chose people that had already been in Cutthroat Kitchen before is that this is so much like Cutthroat Kitchen Plus. I wanted to make sure that people wouldn’t freak out and freeze or just go running into the woods insane, you know? In all cases, these were people that had survived and tolerated a fair number of sabotages, and were up for the game, so to speak. It’s not that they were smarter or more clever, but they had been survivors and had been very sort of “play forward.” And that’s what I was worried about.

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That’s interesting: So do you find that certain chefs do freeze up and freak out when faced with sabotages on Cutthroat Kitchen?
That happens less and less, as the show becomes more popular. Because more people watch it, and they’re expecting it. In the first couple seasons, people were like, “What?! What’s going on?” It was such a different kind of game format; it wasn’t just “cook and judge.” You have to play a game. You have to strategize. You’ve gotta spend money. It’s a game. And that kind of wigged some people out in the beginning. But now, with the popularity and people seeing the show, they’re hip to it. And I think because of that, most of the people we get are ready for that. They’re not freaked out by it.

So where did the original concept for Cutthroat Kitchen come from? Were you involved in developing it?
It’s funny: It kind of morphed its way out of a series of conversations, and I think that the genesis for it was actually found in a different series called The Next Iron Chef, which we did for a few years where we were looking to get new Iron Chefs for Iron Chef America. And we did this series of challenges that involved auctions. You would auction off ingredients based on how short of a time someone said they could cook it in. So if we’re bidding on tuna: “I can cook that tuna in five minutes,” “I can cook that tuna in four minutes.” It was a little Name That Tune-esque, for people that remember that show.

And the auction scenes were huge fun. They were fun for me; they were fun for the chefs. And audiences responded to them very positively. So I think the discussions started going around, and by the time it got to me, that was already built into the show. My thing was, the judges shouldn’t know what’s going on, because then everyone’s judged on a level playing field, and that makes the game more fun.

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How do you actually come up with the sabotages? Obviously, there’s a testing process to make sure they’re actually doable, right?
There is. Not only do we test them multiple times to make sure they’re doable, but we actually test them in tandem with other sabotages that we might put in the same round. We would like for people to be able to survive two sabotages. Three? Ah boy… you’re on your own. But I actually don’t remember that ever happening.

So yes, we come up with them based on what’s going on with the dish, whether it’s a pun, or a fun word-association kind of thing. Sometimes it’s more random. But we do test them all multiple times. We have a culinary department that works on that for weeks before we go into production.

How often do you come up with a sabotage that’s just impossible to make an edible dish with?
I would say that’s only about 20 percent of the time. And the reason for that is, we’re experienced enough now as we come up with these things to actually be able to say, “Hmmm, you know what, that sounds really fishy.” Or “You could do that, but is it going to be too expensive? Or too wasteful? Or too something?” So generally, if it survives the sort of spitball test of being written on a Post-It and stuck on the wall, there’s an 80 percent chance it’ll survive.

It may not be immediately. We might hold it for another time, or decide, “This is going to be a really big build.” We do some sabotages — and we’re doing one today that I can’t tell you about — but it’s big, and it had to be built. It’s not like we can adapt these things. So we have a full-time shop that is cranking this stuff out for us. So long answer to a short question: About 20 percent don’t work.

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Do you have an all-time favorite sabotage yourself, or category of sabotages?
I tend to like the really simple ones. I like the “you don’t get to taste your food,” or “you have to use a crumpled-up crepe pan.” The big ones are really flashy, but in the end, you can usually think your way around them. I’m a simple cook, so I really prefer to see the way the simple ones play out.

You mentioned the auction aspect of the show, which has sunk many a chef. If you were competing, do you have a bidding strategy you would employ?
Yes, I do. Number one: Never get in a bidding war. Never think in terms of, “How much would I spend to give this to somebody?” I would always be thinking, “How much am I willing to spend to not have to do it myself?” But keep in mind that by bidding high on something, you’re only attracting attention to yourself, and only looking desperate. So you’ve got to be very, very careful how that looks to the other chefs. Because if they see how much you’re wanting something, they’re gonna assume, “Oh my gosh, that’s the person I’ve gotta give it to, because they really dread it.” So you’ve gotta look super nonchalant about it. Never look too desperate for an item.

Any other common mistakes you see chefs making in Cutthroat Kitchen?
Shopping. The No. 1 sabotage is the sabotage the chefs do to themselves in the pantry. I won’t tell you who or what, but we’re in the middle of doing our second-ever “Superstar Sabotage” tournament, and a chef that absolutely, positively should’ve made it to the final and maybe even won it all just went home because they forgot to get something crucial out of the pantry. And they got one sabotage and everything went downhill, because they could not bounce back from not having that one ingredient.

My rule is, no matter what you’re making, get flour and eggs. I don’t care what it is. Because flour and eggs are the molecular building blocks of the culinary universe. You could tell me I was gonna cook a steak; I would still make sure I’ve got eggs and flour.

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And chefs are savvy enough now that they know an ingredient might be taken away, so they’ll grab a substitute just in case.
You should always assume that. You should assume that you’re going to lose something that you don’t want to lose. So if this challenge is, I’m giving you half an hour to make me a steak, guess what? The odds are really, really good that one of the sabotages is gonna be, you lose your steak. But if I decide that I’m going to interpret “steak” by grilling portobello mushrooms, odds are nobody’s going to take away my portobello mushrooms. So finding alternate acceptable approaches to dishes is always a really good idea.

Is there anything we don’t see on TV that comes up a lot in Cutthroat Kitchen? Do chefs ever make things that are completely inedible?
Yeah, that does occasionally happen. But we do our best to make it look like it’s still a horse race. Which is sometimes difficult, I’m not gonna lie to you. We ask the judge to at least say something nice. It doesn’t happen very often.

The other thing you don’t get to see very often is, I do trap chefs in the pantry on a regular basis. We don’t always use that in the show. The episode they showed this week, I actually captured all three chefs in the pantry one round. They just didn’t believe me that I would close the doors when I got to zero — and I did! And I got to take one thing out of each of their baskets as ransom. But we don’t always use that when we do it.

Like you mentioned, Cutthroat Kitchen is a big hit. So are you seeing more chefs come in with a strategy, who know what they’re getting into more than the earlier chefs did?
Yes, you can definitely tell who has watched a lot of Cutthroat Kitchen. And how they will try to space out their bidding, how they’ll try not to spend money in the first round. Or if they do, they’ll just spend a little bit.

There are others who come in deciding, “I’m going to buy this win; I don’t care what I walk out with.” The lowest anybody’s walked out of Cutthroat Kitchen with is 300 dollars. And that episode hasn’t aired yet, so I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that. But that’s somebody who just decided, “I’m gonna buy myself the comfort zone that I need.” And they do it. Some people just want to win. Some people don’t care about the money. But right now, we’re playing for charity, so people are super greedy. [Laughs.] Because they don’t want to let their charity down. And that definitely changes the dynamics of the game.

Camp Cutthroat premieres Wednesday, Aug. 12 at 9 p.m. on Food Network; Cutthroat Kitchen airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Food Network.