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For 10 years, Alton Brown has played the nutty professor of the Food Network, employing elaborate homemade props, puppets, puns, and pop culture in the service of food education on his Peabody Award-winning cooking show Good Eats. Brown also brought his affinity for food science and history to the Iron Chef America stadium as a commentator, took it out on the road for his Feasting On Asphalt and Feasting On Waves miniseries, and put it onto the pages of several books. As Good Eats enters its second decade on the air—a milestone that will be celebrated with a live, variety-show-style episode on Saturday, October 10—Brown is revisiting each episode via a trilogy of cookbooks: the first, Good Eats: The Early Years, was just released. Before heading off on a string of book-signings—in his own, self-piloted plane, no less—Brown schooled The A.V. Club on keeping food user-friendly, how his show is like Barney Miller and South Park, and why you should never trust someone who calls himself “chef.”
The A.V. Club: So you got the idea for Good Eats and then went to culinary school after, correct?
Alton Brown: Yeah, specifically so I could get the background I needed to do the show. Which is kind of crazy. I don’t suggest people do that. It’s too damn risky.
AVC: Did it change your approach or set you apart from the other students?
AB: They thought I was crazy. They thought I was an absolute moron, and insane. They said “You’re not going to do that. You’re going to work at McDonald’s.”
AVC: After that, did you ever get the urge to run a kitchen yourself?
AB: Well, I did my time in kitchens, but I never worked a higher level than lead cook. I could have moved to sous chef positions, but I didn’t want to tell people I was going to stay that long, which would have been kind of mean to do. It’s very much a young person’s game. Let’s just say chefs have a very high rate of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide, and I am not interested in any of those things. No, I’ve got no desire. Maybe after I retire from this, I’ll open a little pizza place or coffee shop. Outside of that, it would have to be decidedly lowbrow. I have no high-end culinary ambitions.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a chef? Do you take the title?
AB: No. Do you know why? Because it’s not a title, it’s a job. It’s a position in a kitchen. It comes from an old German word that means “boss” or “head of the shop.” In which case I am the chef of my operation, but it’s a production company. It’s not a kitchen, even though we do have a kitchen. That’s the closest thing to chef I am. All the good chefs that I know say that they are cooks employed as chef. All the people that say, “I’m a chef,” generally aren’t. The good ones will say, “I’m a cook.” Once people start saying, “I’m Chef Bob!”—yeah, whatever. I’m Captain Kangaroo. Have a nice day.
AVC: Good Eats: The Early Years goes back and tweaks your earlier episodes—
AB: And we redid every recipe. Every recipe has been redone and remastered and retested and recalculated. And in some cases just plain fixed. There were some that were just—you know, you do a recipe for TV, and you taste it and you test it eight times and it works four, then you go with it. But they truth is, they should work every time. Sometimes it’s some little thing, some little detail that wasn’t communicated. A few of the recipes, we got a lot of feedback from people who had a hard time with them, and we figured out that usually it was some little thing that we took for granted, like butter being at room temperature. So we had to go back and make a few small repairs and improvements.
AVC: And you’re doing that for two more books?
AB: Yeah, The Early Years is done, I’m working on finishing up Middle Ages now, and then Tomorrow And Beyond will be the next one.
AVC: What happens if the show keeps going for another 10 years?
AB: We’re not gonna keep going for another 10 years; I’ll put a bullet in its head before that. I live in perpetual fear of staying on and not being able to maintain the quality. So we’ll do like Barney Miller. You’re probably not old enough to remember the show Barney Miller, but it was a great sitcom that quit at its high point because the producers couldn’t bear to let it slip. I’ll do the same thing. I do know that we’ll be making Good Eats until the end of next year. That’s for sure.
AVC: In all that time, has there been an ingredient or a process that you wanted to devote a show to, but couldn’t for some reason or another?
AB: There have been and there are, and most of those have to do with boundaries set by what Food Network wants to show and doesn’t want to show. You know, they’re not gonna let me do a show about rabbit, because they don’t want to think about killing the little bunnies. There probably won’t be a Good Eats episode on, you know, anything glandular. We’ve always kept the show very much about what people can get at a regular grocery store, but as that changes, as people can get more and more stuff from various ethnic markets and the Internet, we’re certainly able to use ingredients that we weren’t able to use a few years ago. So that may continue to change. But I think that by the show’s very nature, that kind of user-friendliness, which is very appropriate, there will always be some things we just can’t do episodes about. I doubt there’ll be a caviar episode, for instance. But there are other shows to deal with those things.
AVC: The “foodie” culture has really exploded since the show started, and it seems that people are more and more looking for those types of things. It feels like rabbit is a lot more accessible today.
AB: Well they’re not as obscure as they once were, that is for certain. But you know, I never take fans into consideration when making Good Eats. Ever. I completely make Good Eats for me. I don’t care about them. I mean, I care about them, I want people to watch the show and like the show, but I’m not going to allow their wishes and desires to change what I do. If I make it and they like it, great, but I’d say the same thing about Food Network. I don’t care if they like it, either. I make it for me, and that’s how it stays pure. That’s how I’ve stayed on for 10 years, is that every single episode is an artistic endeavor from one little sick, twisted, obsessed little guy, and that’s me.
So knowing, for instance, if fans will accept this ingredient or that ingredient, I don’t care. I care about it not being a product that Food Network wouldn’t want to use because it wouldn’t rate well, because my main job is to make TV shows that rate well. But I’ve fought for certain ingredients and gotten them through. We did a parsnip show this year. Well, it’s taken me three years to get the okay to do a parsnip show, because it hasn’t been mainstream enough. Or you know, how exciting can a parsnip be? But one of my things is to say, “Look, give it to me. I’ll make parsnips, you’ll line up for an evening of parsnips by the time I’m done.” I think every food story is interesting—there are no boring foods to me. So I come at it from the view that a food is not more exciting or less exciting because it’s obscure.
AVC: You’re obviously very much about cooking at home, and things people can do for themselves.
AB: Yes, I believe in self-reliance, and I believe that cooking is a big step toward self-reliance.
AVC: So has the foodie explosion made home cooking more or less accessible for beginner cooks?
AB: I think it’s made it harder, because I think that the foodie culture comes with a bit of snobism and elitism. It’s like the whole slow-foods thing. I still don’t know what the heck that’s about. Food’s either good or it’s bad. I think that anything that striates food or puts it into categories tends to intimidate people. I’d still rather have my wife’s Thursday-night spaghetti than the fancy blah-blah-blah from the Charlie Trotter cookbook. But that’s just my taste. But I don’t think that foodie-ism has made it easier for beginner cooks. Because you know what it does? It’s pushed the family cookbook off the shelf and it’s made food more about jumping through hoops; expensive, hard-to-find ingredients; and processes that are over a lot of people’s heads. So I think a lot of that stuff has gotten in the way of good home cooking.
AVC: You’ve said you conceived Good Eats because you wanted a cooking show that wasn’t boring.
AB: But I also wanted it to be accessible. I wanted the food to be stuff that everybody can do. There’s never been a Good Eats recipe or application that could not be done with anybody with half a mind and two hands.
AVC: But it seems that food as entertainment is huge today: Iron Chef, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, No Reservations, the Food Network as a whole. Where do you think this trend of watching food came from?
AB: I think it comes from the fact that we live in a constantly fracturing culture. You know, when I was a kid, there were three networks, and people had more in common on the streets. Let’s put it this way: We had more in common than not in common. Well, one of the things about the Internet and the culture that’s come out of the Internet is that it’s made people cluster into micro-communities. We’ve become hive-minded. We’ll gather with four people who have something obscure in common with us, like “I macramé squirrels!” or something that’s far less appealing than that. We’ve lost a lot of our commonality. We don’t believe in the same religious aspects in this country anymore, we are more fractioned from a political standpoint. Just the fact that we have 600 channels fractions us even further.
But we crave commonality, and when you talk to anthropologists about this subject, they’ll tell you no matter where you go on planet Earth, no matter how obscure the tribe, no matter how remote the village, there are two things that everybody wants to do in a group: One of them is laugh. The other one is eat. Food is the last thing we have in common with each other, and we crave it. If you think about it, the words “communicate,” “communion,” “communal,” “commune,” all come from the basic root word for “common,” which just simply means to make one, to make common. We crave it. And I think that one of the reasons Food Network tends to be more popular—besides the fact that we’re family-friendly, relatively smart, good clean entertainment—is that we help with the commonality. We need to have something in common with each other, and food’s it.
It can also make for fantastic spectacle. And passions, and experiences. It’s the switchboard of life, food is. That’s how I see it, at least. And I think that explains the phenomenon, if it is a phenomenon. I mean, I look at it and it doesn’t seem like a phenomenon, because I look at food and say, “Of course, it’s infinitely interesting.” Everything connects through it; there is no food story I don’t find fascinating. But I don’t consider myself a foodie, I’m not. I don’t get all frothed up about this season’s Spanish saffron fad. I get more frothed up about flying airplanes than I do about cooking. But what I do like is that I can cook and feed my family and be self-reliant. And I enjoy that, but I can’t get that excited about it. There are a lot more things in life than eating. And I don’t spend that much time cooking. I cook smart, I cook fast, I get on with it.
AVC: Something that’s always set Good Eats apart is its visual style, which you had a large hand in masterminding.
AB: Well everybody who works on the show, most of us came out of commercials. Which is what I did, direct commercials. So we’ve always believed the show needed to have arresting visual style.
AVC: So are you still involved with that?
AB: Oh, I direct the show. I have been since the end of the second year.
AVC: You like to have fun with skits and props, but do you ever find yourself going, “Whoa, pull back, focus on the food”? Or do you just go for broke?
AB: It’s always go for broke. The food will fight its way out. Sometimes I have to remind myself, “Hey, this is a food show.” But if the food has been properly woven into the script, then it’s there. It’s a character, and it holds its own just fine. If I start losing the food for other stuff, then I haven’t done my job as a writer. Which is first and foremost what I am. That’s my main job on the show. If I write the show properly, then everything will be all right.
AVC: Do you write it mostly by yourself?
AB: I write it completely by myself.
AVC: From the beginning, the show has had this very personal, homemade feel, with props and inside jokes and everything. Was that intentional when you conceived of it, or was that a natural outgrowth of budgetary restrictions?
AB: You know, I think it was a natural outgrowth of the process, and the fact that we started doing Good Eats on very low budgets. It’s kind of like South Park. South Park started out looking the way it looks because it had to be cheap. Now it looks the way it looks because it’s established its own style, and I think Good Eats is the same way. We have better budgets than we used to, but I’d still rather see the coat hanger and the duct tape. It’s just the style. We like things to look kind of slapped-together. That’s part of our sophistication, is being able to always see the underpinning of things. Very rarely do we do anything slick. We’re just not slick people, I don’t think.
AVC: You’ve spent a lot of time exploring road food throughout the country on Feasting On Asphalt. Now that you’re going out on a book tour, are there any food adventures you’re looking forward to?
AB: My food world’s kind of changed this year. I’ve completely reworked my food intake. I’ve lost 50 pounds since March. Badly needed. I’d gotten up to about 213 pounds, and I’m down around 165 right now, so I’m at fighting weight. So I’m very, very, very highly restricted to what I allow myself. There’s a lot of things I don’t allow myself, and probably never will. I may never have a spoonful of ice cream for the rest of my life, for instance. There’ll be no chili cheese fries for me. So I don’t look at food the way I used to, because I used to eat everything, but now I’m highly restricted. But that’s the reality of my body. I can’t eat certain things. So I’m heading out onto the road again with a bit of trepidation, because I’m scared of my willpower failing. Fruit smoothies, canned sardines, and almonds make up about 90 percent of my intake. And so I’m packing most of my food, I’m taking most of my food on the road. I will eat at places, because I do have favorite places, but Chicago’s going to be especially dangerous. I used to live in Chicago in the late ’80s, and it’s my favorite town in America. I could spend days just walking restaurant to restaurant. Although I’m a little bit out of danger, because they closed Gold Coast Dogs on Hubbard Street a while ago, so I’m not as vulnerable as I might have been.
AVC: Yeah, but there are so many hot-dog options.
AB: I know, but that was my shop. That was mine.
AVC: Well, good luck on the book tour.
AB: Thank you. You always need luck when you go out on the road with a book. It’s hard. This book tour’s gonna be a little easier on me than many, because I’m taking my own plane for most of it.
AVC: Oh, do you fly it yourself?
AB: I do, I do. But I’m going to have a co-pilot with me, because there’s just so much going on. I’m flying my plane to New York, and New York to Boston, and then to Washington D.C., and then to Chicago. But my plane’s too small and too slow to make it all the way to Seattle, so I’ll hop on an airliner at that point and then rejoin my plane down in Austin later that week. That’s gonna make it a little less painful, because it’s hard to move through airports. It’s funny, celebrity actors don’t get stopped as much as people on Food Network do, because it’s like—okay, you see Johnny Depp in the airport, you don’t know Johnny Depp. You’ve seen characters he’s played, but you don’t know anything about him. Those of us on the Food Network, that’s us, so millions of people assume they’re intimate with us. And because of that, they walk right up and bombard you with questions about why their pot roast is bad. So if you’re in a hurry, being in an airport is just not the place to be if you’re on Food Network.