Alton Brown on the Trip That Changed His Life

AFAR sent food expert and television personality Alton Brown to a destination he’d never visited with just 24 hours’ notice—here’s what transpired.

Alton Brown on the Trip That Changed His Life

Alton Brown in Auckland, New Zealand

Courtesy of Alton Brown

SPIN A GLOBE. Pick a country. Send a courageous contributor on a whirlwind adventure with 24 hours’ notice. It sounds like the perfect formula for a hit reality TV show (and maybe it would be), but it’s actually our favorite tradition for producing travel stories at AFAR. Our Spin the Globe series takes spontaneous exploration to extreme levels: What happens when the world’s most esteemed journalists, chefs, actors, and political correspondents travel to destinations across the globe on a total whim? You have to read their stories to find out.

For our July/August 2017 issue, food expert and television personality Alton Brown hopped on board to give this crazy AFAR custom a “spin.” Where did we send the culinary scene hero? Oh, just to the other side of the globe. And the adventure, he told us, changed his world.

“I thought Spin the Globe sounded like a great idea—until about 24 hours before I left, and I realized how intimidated I was,” Brown says. “I’m a researcher, so I usually put together informational notebooks on a destination before I travel. This time, I would be hitting the ground without having done my homework, and I’m big on homework.”

The Food Network star is no stranger to travel. His stage show, “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science,” took him on tour across the United States in 2017—but still, Alton felt unprepared for what to expect on this trip to New Zealand. “I’d never been to the Southern Hemisphere, and I’d also never traveled to a place where I didn’t already have a strong sense of what it was going to look like,” Brown explains. “I thought I had set my mind up for how New Zealand might look, but everything I’d imagined was wrong. I got off the plane in Auckland and I thought, ‘Where am I? Vancouver with palm trees?’”

“To be honest, I did feel some panic when I landed in Auckland,” he admits. But it wasn’t the distance or the destination that sparked his incertitude. New Zealand—an English-speaking country with access (in most parts) to the Internet—isn’t, at surface level, vastly unlike the United States. Brown wouldn’t need to navigate language barriers or experiences that ranged far beyond his zone of familiarity. In other words, when Brown’s plane touched down on the North Island, he knew he’d be able to manage whatever situations he’d encounter over the coming days. He just would’ve preferred to have planned rigorously for them.

Despite being disoriented—or maybe for that very reason—Brown pledged to step out of his comfort zone and embrace the extemporaneous spirit of Spin the Globe. He opened himself to the generosity of local people he met and based his travel plans almost entirely on their advice. To make connections, he says, he used a form of communication that he knows quite well: the “universal language of food.”

“The experience was life-changing,” Brown says. “This trip made me realize that, in past travels, I had actually robbed myself of freedom by trying to eliminate the unknown,” he continues. “Because I didn’t plan extensively, I was so much more open to having real experiences.”

One of those experiences, we learned in his story, “Eats Well With Others,” occurred when Brown decided to stop at a roadside fruit stand en route to New Zealand’s famed Bay of Islands. Eating locally grown strawberries, with the North Island’s rolling green hills to one side and the South Pacific Ocean to his other, Brown says, turned out to be one of the most profound moments of his trip.

“In New Zealand, there were places I went for no other reason than I saw a sign on the side of the road,” he explains, admitting that he wouldn’t have been as inclined to stop at that fruit stand if he’d passed it in the United States. “I started thinking, this exists where I live—why don’t I apply this same mindset more often at home? Now, I will.”

Because he abandoned his standard travel routine, Brown returned from New Zealand with a significant change in perspective and an increased appreciation for spontaneity. So much so, that he’s committed himself to continue the tradition, post–Spin the Globe experience. “From now on,” Alton says, convincingly self-assured, “I’m going to ‘spin the globe’ for myself at least once a year. I didn’t know what I was missing until I took this trip.”

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