Alton Brown on his love of food and suspicion of "chefs"
"I’m Captain Kangaroo. Have a nice day."
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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 has since brought his affinity for food science and history to the Iron Chef America stadium as a commentator, out on the road for his Feasting On Asphalt and Feasting On Waves mini-series, and to the pages of several books. As Good Eats enters its second decade on the air, Brown is revisiting each episode via a trilogy of cookbooks, the first of which, 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, Barney Miller, and why you should never trust anyone who calls himself “chef.” And if you still have any lingering questions, you ask him yourself when he reads Friday night, Oct. 9, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a chef? Do you take the title chef?
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 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 putting, “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. 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 is was some little thing that we took for granted, like butter being at room temperature or something. So we had to go back and make a few small repairs and improvements.
AVC: And you’re doing that for two more books, right?
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: But 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, and things like that, but there are other shows to deal with those things.
AVC: It’s interesting that you say that, because the whole 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 make it for me. 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 one 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. And in that angle I do. 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: From the beginning, the show has had this very personal, homemade feel to it, with the props and the 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 looking the way South Park 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.