I am often asked, in my travels, what it is like to work with Alton Brown on Cutthroat Kitchen, or what takes place behind the scenes. Although I can paint a pretty picture for those Food Network interviews and biography pages, the darker truth can never be revealed to the public at large. That way lies madness. Believe me, friends, not knowing is a mercy.
Some say that Alvin Leung is the Demon Chef… But I know better.
I pull up to Alton’s house in the dead of night, for no one must know what we do in these witching hours. The windows of the sprawling manor are all shuttered, only angelhair pasta-thin slivers of light escaping from their borders. Neither the drive nor the front entrance are illuminated, but I’ve been here often enough to find my way in the shadows. Too often. I press the buzzer, and there’s a flicker of a shadow across the nearest window before the door opens. Before me is Alton’s current favourite Bob, the one with the dark hair and thick brows, and the grotty hipster beard. Brown has perversely decked him out in an ill-fitting butler suit. The poor devil.
He steps aside and motions me to enter. Behind him, one of the little corgi dogs, the one with the cold dead eyes of a killer, watches me; its stump-tail twitching and its tongue lolling from its maw. The Bob beckons me to follow as he makes his stooped, shuffling way toward the study. Once, its ceiling-high shelves full of cookbooks would have been a wonder, but I know what lies beneath. The creature reaches out and carefully plucks out a worn-looking copy of Martha Stewart’s Cakes . How fitting, I think, that she should be the key and the gate into this pit of depravity! The shelf pivots one hundred and eighty degrees, revealing the dark, narrow spiral staircase leading down into the bowels of the earth. Alton’s “workshop.”
As I step into the passage, the first thing that assails me is the smell. Thick, foul and gamey… the scent of Bobs. The one beside me plucks a flickering torch from a sconce and begins to carefully navigate the perilous descent. The shelf behind us swings shut once again, with a loud, ominous thud, snuffing out the light from above.
At the bottom of the staircase is, of course, the Bob pen, the source of the miasma. In the dim light I can make out a handful of the piteous creatures. Two are huddled on their sleeping mats, a third slumbers alone on the bare floor. Another is sat on the floor watching re-runs of Chopped on a flickering old cathode-ray tube television. Two more, a short dark-haired girlish one and a tall, pale gangly fellow, approach the mesh of their enclosure as I draw near, reaching their fingers through the wires.
“Bob,” they whisper. “Bob bob bob. ” Their pleading eyes are all too human. It’s grotesque. Still one cannot help but experience a certain sort of compassion. They did not ask for this; in that, we are alike. I thrust a hand into my pocket, finding a few sweets leftover from my dinner at Stir Market, and thrust them into the pen. The Bobs drop to the floor, scrabbling like animals for the sugary morsels. “Bob bob bob bob,” they chitter, as I watch in horrified fascination, unable to tear my gaze away.
“Is that you riling up my Bobs, Majumdar?” Alton’s voice echoes through the darkness. The Bobs make one last grab for the candy and skitter away into the darkness on all fours, the poor frightened beasts. “Get in here, I haven’t got all night!” At the end of the earth-hewn hall, the First Bob waits with his torch, next to the great stone door. Heavy with resignation, I drag myself towards the aperture, the lair of the devil himself. It’s here that he devises all the sadistic tortures he inflicts on chefs week after week. That, and worse. So much worse!
Within his sanctum, Brown is perched upon his profane throne of stand mixers and Henckel knives. As the stone portal slams closed behind me, he rises, clad in a long red velvet dressing gown and black silk pyjamas. His blue eyes glitter menacingly behind his spectacles. “So glad you could join me, Simon,” he drawls sarcastically.
“I haven’t got much choice now have I?” My teeth are gritted, but he just smiles that evil grin.
“Did you bring the items I requested? The circle is waiting.”
“Yes, though it wasn’t easy.” I withdraw my little bundle from the messenger bag on my shoulder. “You know I had to go all the way to New York for this.”
“Oh quit your whining,” he snaps as he snatches it away and tears it open, eager as a spoiled child on Christmas. “Yes, yes… it’s all here.” His eyes glitter greedily. “Well done, Simon.” He strides to the back corner of the chamber, where a circle the floor has been traced with otherworldly glyphs. I glance at it only briefly; they strange symbols hurt my eyes, as though they should not be glimpsed by mortal eye. “Let’s begin!”
“Do I have to stay for this part?” I know his answer, of course. Brown does love to watch me squirm, the smarmy bastard.
“Oh, surely you don’t want to miss the chance to welcome the newest member of our family? Come on now!”
“How can you possibly need another one so soon?” It seems like barely a month ago I was ferrying more of Alton’s cursed contraband into this lair of profanity.
“Oh well, you know.” He waves a hand in a grand, dismissive gesture. “We lost one in that vat of oatmeal last week. And then I sold one to chef whatshisface, Earl something, who won the other day.”
“You sold one?” Utter disbelief.
“He offered me his entire winnings! Ten thousand three hundred dollars can buy a lot of designer horn rims, my friend!” He winks as he taps the frame of his glasses. “And Bobs are cheap. Well, they don’t cost… money.” He throws his head back and cackles, delighted by his own black humour. “Now let’s get down to business,” he snaps abruptly. “Get over here and hold my robe.”
How is this my life, I wonder, as I catch the garment being thrown at my face. If only there were a way out from under Alton’s thumb… If there is, I have yet to find it. Foolishly, I allowed him to learn my most shameful secret, and now the monster all but owns me.
He steps into the circle, which seems to illuminate as he crosses its border. The words he chants swell inside my skull, threatening to drive me to madness. I know that they will haunt me long after I leave this place, finding me in my sleep and dogging my very dreams. Finally, it stops; the ritual is almost complete. The circle hums with power, its centre whirling in a glowing vortex. It’s ready for the final ingredients: my execrable consignment.
“One part TV chef!” Alton exclaims with villainous glee, pulling the brightly-coloured silk tie from the pouch. “Oh that is a nice one. Well done, Simon,” he adds as he drops it into the portal. “One part sadness! … In the form of a value brand hot pocket, of course.” He grins evilly at me as he unwraps the processed pastry and lets it fall in as well. “Sorry Majumdar, this one’s not for you!” My cheeks burn hot with shame. “And last, of course, a big ol’ drizzle of pure evil!” He lets the empty parcel go as he takes out the final component: white truffle oil. With an exultant flourish, he swirls some of the noxious liquid into the mix. The portal flashes so brightly I have to look away. When I return my gaze, Alton is crouched over the vortex, both arms thrust into its unknowable depths. The underlighting gives his frenzied expression an even more ghoulish cast.
“Dear god,” I hear myself mutter. Sweat glistens on his fevered brow as he grunts with exertion, trying to bring his ungodly homunculus into a world it was never meant to see. Finally, something gives way, and the quivering mass of red-coated flesh flops onto the floor next to its creator, a vomitous stench accompanying its birth. In spite of the horror, I find myself unable to look away from this mockery of culinary greatness. I can see traces of its unwitting parent in its physiognomy - it takes something of a trained eye, but I have, regrettably, witnessed more than my share of these unholy deliveries. The hair is darker, the features not as refined, but the resemblance is there. Although I must say, I am fairly certain that Geoffrey Zakarian does not have a tail.
“How do you like my use of the basket ingredients, Zakarian?” Alton gloats, chuckling malevolently.
“Bob,” the newborn gasps.
God help me. God help us all.