STEAKS HIS CLAIM
The quirky host of Good
Eats and Iron Chef America
is Leveraging his Food Network fame to build a
production powerhouse in Atlanta.
By Virginia Parker
Photography by Peter Yang
Alton Brown, the affable, brainiac host of Food Network's Good Eats,
is beating his head on the oven door. He has just fluffed a first
take. Tension you could slice with a Ginsu knife buzzes in the air.
The crew, in their industry uniform of khaki cargo shorts and
headsets, waits for the cue to continue.
"Okay, let's kick the pig."
"Set roll. Very, very quiet. We're speeding and ... take
Brown gets out half a sentence and stops. "False start. My
earpiece is falling out."
Take three; he mangles his lines again.
Take four; Brown's earpiece falls out of the other ear and he
curses quietly but effectively. There's a reason why Good Eats
outtakes aren't often used for comic filler behind the credits.
Anxiety in the studio sharpens, but there's no yelling, no
panic, even though Brown's expression is grim. Most of the crew
members have been with him since he shot the first pilot of Good
Eats back in 1997; they know to wait for the joke.
"Another career-destroying day," Brown remarks briskly. Then
he nails his lines.
Take five of the newest episode of season 10, "Tortillas
Again/" whizzes from the set to the editing room. The lights come
up as the crew readies the next scene.
The exterior of Brown's 15,000-square-foot studio complex
sports a daffy cartoon bee spiraling a loopy logo that sets it apart
from the nondescript warehouses in the Chattahoochee industrial
area. The first thing you see when you enter the home of Be Square
Productions, smack in the middle of the two-story-high space, is the
working test kitchen, with its industrial-grade appliances,
professional cookware, and vast counters. Surrounded by gigantic
vegetable props, a life-sized fiberglass cow, and a popcorn kernel
as big as a kiddie wading pool, it's where the Culinary Department's
food stylists primp the food that's handed off to Brown and shown on
The soundstage is down the hall, past the Props storeroom
crammed with the bins of Barbie and Ken dolls, brightly colored foam
blocks, farting sock puppets, chalkboard diagrams, and a 6-foot-long
human tongue; past Wardrobe's racks of Brown's signature Hawaiian
and bowling shirts; past the cumin-colored walls and tin-roof
ceiling of the conference room—presided over by a Magritte-style
painting of a bowler hat hovering above a roast chicken.
Taped to the soundstage's entry door is a note with "PACK ON"
scribbled across it. This is a warning to turn off his mic when he
leaves the room. Brown prerecords his lines and uses an earbud to
lip sync during taping. What, you thought he memorized every line of
those, at last count, 158 Good Eats episodes? Lines which he tweaks
obsessively, right up to "roll camera"? Nah, he uses a basic
smoke-and-mirrors industry trick.
It's Brown's knowledge of the television industry, his grasp
of production values, and his entertainment skills that sold his
original pilot episodes. He figured out how to sell the sizzle and
the steak. He arguably changed the nature of cooking shows, from
dump-and-stir talking-head chefs to 30-minute comedic short films
that engage, entertain, and, oh yeah, instruct.
The Good Eats kitchen, with its bright windows and
reassuringly domestic landscape of countertops, cupboards, and
appliances, is deceptive. What viewers know as a homey fireplace
and rocking nook is actually a translight, a huge illuminated
backdrop that rolls up out of the way like a giant window shade. The
sunny yard outside the window is counterfeit, too. The oven,
microwave, and refrigerator are mere window dressing; they frame
holes sliced through the wall that are used for appliance-eye-view
shots of Brown pulling out ingredients or sliding in pans.
Off camera, the back of the kitchen walls are raw wood. The
soundstage's black, bumpily insulated walls suck up extraneous
light and sound. Thick cords snake everywhere, alongside wooden
apple boxes, orange ladders, and chrome c-stands. It smells like
coffee, hot glue gun, tortillas, and melted cheese.
The operator swoops the camera into position, the jib arm of
the dolly synchronized with Brown sliding a casserole of tortilla
lasagna onto an oven rack while delivering his trademark shtick of
cooking tips and science tidbits. A show character, the "Mother of
Culinary Invention," brandishes a long-handled whisk and whacks
Brown on the head. A few minutes later, watching the playback, Brown
perks up. "It's kinda funny," he says with a mock scowl, "but she
hits like a girl."
The assistant director watching the screen asks, "Got another
one in you?" and Brown gets back into position for another take.
This is one reason why the crew respects Brown: He listens to their
suggestions. A veteran of Atlanta's close-knit television and film
community, he also doesn't try to knock down freelancers' rates.
Working on his show means two months of work a year, guaranteed,
which is golden in the feast-or-famine world of the freelancer. The
loyalty pays off for Brown, too. "Taking care of the crew means the
freelancers make themselves available, which saves him a ton of
time," explains a longtime crew member. "He can go over a scene and
say, 'We're going to do what we did three years ago on the squid
episode,' and everybody gets it." Everybody pitches in, everyone can
do multiple jobs—including doubling as performers on the show. There
are no uni-taskers on this set, least of all the man behind it all.
Good Eats is the cooking show version of Mr. Wizard. Episodes blend
science (how the structure of sugar crystals affects the texture of
fudge), academics (a food anthropologist makes regular guest
appearances), and prop comedy; the "Oat Cuisine" show demonstrated
why to salt your porridge after it's cooked using a three-way affair
between water (Barbie), oats (Ken), and salt (GI Joe). However,
there's little in Brown's scholarly record to suggest a scientific
culinary virtuoso in the making. By his count it took seven years
and three colleges to finish. Mostly he flunked science and math—a
After completing writing and directing classes at the
University of Georgia, Brown worked with local production companies
shooting commercials for local and national companies and a music
video for R.E.M. In between his cinematography and video directing
jobs, Brown watched every food-related show on TV, honing the
cooking skills he'd used as bait to get dates in college. When he
met DeAnna Collins, who worked in production, eyes met, sparks flew,
and wedding bells rang. (His second marital at-bat has lasted,
unlike marriage No. 1, which was brief. Brown, who wed right out of
college, calls his first marriage a youthful folly.)
Dissatisfied with work-for-hire commercial jobs and convinced
he could make a different kind of cooking show, Brown rolled the
dice and in 1994 enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in
Montpelier, Vermont, while DeAnna worked to support them. He
interned with Jean-Patrick Matecat, an ego-deflating, ball-busting
French chef, and called the commute between the restaurant and his
home "the Trail of Tears." But he left with the know-how to create a
cooking show he'd want to watch.
By the time he returned to Atlanta in 1997, Brown had the
culinary education and hands-on experience to write two sample
scripts—"Steak Your Claim" and "This Spud's for You." The couple
used their connections with the production community to raise the
money and resources to shoot the pilots, then spent all of 1998
trying to sell the shows.
The pilots had been shot on film, and Eastman Kodak decided
to pick up a one-minute segment to run on its website. Brown
couldn't get anyone from the five-year-old Food Network to look at
the shows. He was close to signing a deal with the Discovery Channel
when a young Food Network programming executive surfing the web came
across the Eastman Kodak site, watched the clip, called Brown out of
the blue, and bought the show. Divine intervention? Total fluke?
Whatever. Opportunity not only knocked, it kicked down the door. The
first episode of Good Eats aired in July 1999, a few months before
the couple's daughter, Zoey, was born.
Quirky from the get-go, Good Eats has retained the
unconventional DNA that set it apart. More of a food sitcom than a
cooking show, it offers a heaping helping of pratfalls and puns.
Unlike celebrity chefs who are the sole stars of their shows, Brown
introduced a supporting cast that includes fictional characters such
as caustic equipment specialist W. (Vickie Eng) and wiseacre sister
Marsha (Merrilyn Crouch) as well as real-life experts such as
Georgia State University nutritional anthropologist Deborah Duchon
and science-oriented CookWise author Shirley Corriher.
Ingenuity trumps one-use, single-purpose gadgets. Brown
converted a cardboard box into a smoker, clay flowerpots into
cookware, unglazed quarry tiles into pizza stones, and tuna fish
cans into pastry rings. He's hooked up a pepper mill to a
carpenter's cordless drill to make the Grind-O-Matic 5000.
"We have a style where we let you see the duct tape. Some of
our greatest teaching rigs and props are very low-tech," says Brown.
"If I want a molecule of starch, what the hell is this stuff? It's
long chains and branches of carbons. And in relationship to living
organisms on this planet, what is it? Energy. So we get a bunch of
clear plastic tubing, fill it with D-cell batteries, and tape it
together—there's your starch."
Eight years later, the budgets are a little bigger, but Good
Eats has held on to its idiosyncratic charm and, the Energizer Bunny
of food shows, keeps going and going. It's run and rerun (currently
16 times a week in addition to the regular Wednesday night
episodes). Brown hasn't reworked the show's winning recipe, and
though he's more polished as a performer, he's stayed the same
spiky-haired, hip-glasses nerd—plus a few pounds and minus a few
follicles. Though you'd think Brown would be rolling in dough from
residuals, that's not how cable-show accounting works.
When Food Network picked up Good Eats, it purchased all
rights. Asked what kind of clout his success has given him for
future negotiations, Brown claims none, pointing out that it takes
him three days to shoot each episode, compared with, say, Emeril,
who can—bam!—crank out three shows in a day. "I don't produce
volume, and Food Network above all cares about volume," he says. "I
can't produce 200 shows a year."
Food Network did promote its Alton Brown asset with a
comprehensive branding campaign built around him in the fall of
2006. Billboards featured shots of Brown with the tagline, "His
mother was a chef. His father was a Vulcan." Print ads used images
such as atoms made out of spaghetti and meatballs, and TV spots
aired on Discovery Channel, USA, VH1, Travel Channel, E!, and TLC.
Food Network exec Michael Smith was quoted as saying Brown is "up
there with Rachael Ray" and that the amount spent on the campaign
was "significant." (The network spent $7 million on media in 2005,
per TNS Media Intelligence.)
And it's not like Brown's broke. Last year he moved from a
1,300-square-foot ranch in East Cobb to a 7,500-square-foot historic
mansion off the square in Marietta. It's his It's a Wonderful Life
dream home, the house he and DeAnna used to drive by when they were
first married and fantasize about owning. "It's huge. There are
wings. It's got grounds. It's spectacular. I'm in love with this
house," Brown says. "My deal with DeAnna was, 'I'll sign the papers,
but don't ever tell me what the purchase price was.' I can't ever
know, because I can't deal with that level of stress. If she says we
can afford it, we can afford it."
The big bucks come from the stuff that Good Eats gets
him—speaking engagements, corporate events, and limited-time
endorsements. "My gosh, I make in five days of corporate work what I
make personally on Good Eats" he says. According to Brown, Good Eats
is like prime rib on a restaurant menu—a loss leader for his Be
Square production company.
The only thing he receives from his flagship show are
royalties on the Good Eats DVD sales and his books. This has taught
him to hang on to the rights of any new projects. "I am very
interested in developing a product I maintain, if not full rights
to, then a residual share. I have come to believe that if you don't
own, you are losing," Brown says. "I spent three months writing my
first book, and every six months I go to the mailbox and there's a
big fat check. I like the way that works."
Brown has written three books about cooking (I'm Just Here
for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking', Fm Just Here for More Food:
Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking-, Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen)
and is a regular contributor to Bon Appetit and Men's Journal. He
makes personal appearances promoting the books and the shows and
also does research and development for General Electric and Whole
Foods film projects. Last summer he rode coast to coast by
motorcycle, shooting a four-episode road food documentary, Feasting
on Asphalt, and wound up doing a stint in the hospital after his BMW
1200 RT zigged when it should have zagged. Food Network has voted
with its checkbook and bought additional episodes.
Since 2005 he's been the commentator for Iron Chef America,
Food Network's stateside rendition of a Japanese show it aired that
gained cult status, a mock battle between chefs in kitschy "Kitchen
Stadium." Brown calls the play-by-play, throwing in trivia about
ingredients like ramps (wild members of the leek family),
demystifying ethnic specialties like spaetzle (a dish of tiny
dumplings that means "little sparrow"), and providing background on
specialized cooking techniques like the salamander (a very
high-powered broiler). He tosses off arcane facts as assuredly as
Larry Munson summons Dawgs passing stats, but this deceptively easy
patter is the result of intense cramming. The day of production, he
gets up at 4 a.m., studies the pantry lists for two hours, then goes
to the studio and checks the racks of special items the chefs have
requested to make sure he can recognize and pronounce everything.
While the 10 cameras are rolling, he's on the Internet, accessing
his database of ingredients and watching the studio monitors. For
one hour his voice is the metronome that drives the show.
It's fair to say his plate is full. "We bit off too much this
year," Brown admits.
Meanwhile, he's exclusive to Food Network in the food and beverage
realm for the length of his contract, which expires at the end of
2007. What happens then?
Number one—a vacation. And that comes straight from the top.
"DeAnna has told me—not asked me, told me—that whatever happens
after the end of next year, there will be a sabbatical. If I'm asked
to continue Good Eats, I will take at least a six months break
because I'm running on fumes. No question about that."
So if Brown has a curmudgeonly moment when the tortilla
lasagna fails to smolder, or grabs a hot casserole dish without a
mitt, or discovers the oven rack still has a price tag attached,
it's understandable. Less obvious is why the smart guy behind his
genial onscreen Good Eats persona is so controlling and so driven.
What match lit his pilot light?
Brown clears a space in his office piled with books and
papers before sitting down to talk about himself. The offices he
shares with DeAnna (who is Good Eats' executive producer,) overlook
the test kitchen. The Triumph motorcycle parked under the stairs and
the gigantic props give the kitchen a surreal, Pee-wee's Playhouse
air. It's been a good week. He's wrapped five weeks of shooting for
season 10, which lets some of the steam out of the pressure cooker,
and he's had the testosterone boost of being named one of the Real
Sexiest Men Alive by Oprah's magazine.
The energy outside the office is unrelentingly manic, but,
preparing to answer questions about his off-camera persona, Brown
switches to a Zen stillness. He dims the light. He takes off his
shoes. He leans back into his chair and looks away, like a man
entering a confessional.
He says it's the writing that gives him the most
satisfaction, and though he's tried to delegate some of it, the
scripts have got his claw marks all over them. "I know when it works
and when it doesn't. I don't have high standards, I simply have
very—particular standards. I don't know if it's good or bad. I just
want it right for me."
Brown's knack for teaching gives him a sense of
accomplishment, too. He cites his 2004 Bon Appetit Cooking Teacher
of the Year award as the one that means the most to him. It's not
his only accolade. Fm Just Here for the Food earned the 2003 James
Beard Foundation Award for Best Cookbook in the reference category;
Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen was nominated for a 2004 Beard
award and the 2004 IACP Cookbook Award; Good Eats' "Bird In Hand"
episode was nominated for a 2000 Beard award; Time magazine named
Good Eats and Iron Chef America two of the "Six Shows Worth Their
Then there are his fans, from the cordial to the hard-core.
Ever since he started appearing on Iron Chef America, he can't go
anywhere without being approached for autographs. He hates to eat
out in public now. "I can have a six-day beard, baseball cap, and
sunglasses and I'm still going to get stared at and watched," Brown
None of this is the kind of recognition he craves. "I've
gotten awards for everything, except for what I do. I make
television shows. I've never been nominated for an Emmy. ... I admit
it. I'm a male. I have an ego. I want a statue for something that
means something to me," Brown says. "Food is a switchboard. It's a
subject something all of us at some level have an interest in. It's
cultural, it's spiritual, it's scientific. It's a deep well. But
when people say, 'You're a chef,' I say, 'No, I'm a filmmaker who
happens to make short films about food.'"
And that's when it hits you. It's not about biscuits and
apple pie. It's not about the steak or squid or sweet potatoes.
Although Brown has a part in three food shows and has written three
cookbooks, food is the thing he's least interested in. For Brown,
it's all about the film.
As a cineaste he's all over the place; Alfred Hitchcock and
Stanley Kubrick but also Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Brown
watched a huge amount of television and movies growing up,
marinating himself in pop culture, especially science fiction, and
he calls himself a big ball of Velcro when it comes to the
Zeitgeist. Half of what goes on in Good Eats is a goof on something,
according to Brown, who says he feels like he's working on comedy
workshop that just happens to be dressed up as a food show.
Even if he doesn't have that statue, Brown has proven himself
a nimble and creative TV director. Is there something more serious
he wants to do? He's been quoted as wanting to make a series of
one-hour documentaries about food issues, "important things going on
[in the food industry] like irradiation, genetic engineering, and
food-borne illnesses." Brown admires James Burke, the BBC-bred
science historian and producer known for his documentary series
Connections, an entertaining, interdisciplinary account of the
history of science and technology.
There's another excellent precedent. The 1950s Bell Science
Series of CBS television specials—Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent,
and The Unchained Goddess—were directed by Frank Capra using actors,
animation, and humor.
But Brown's secret ambition is to do a remake of Moby Dick.
"What I am interested in is how things work and having some control
over some part of life on this planet. And I am very interested in
self-reliance," Brown says in his dim office, his face partially lit
from the cool, gray light bounced through the window.
Born in 1962 in Los Angeles to parents from a small town in
Appalachia, young Alton C. Brown Jr. grew up eating as many tacos,
enchiladas, and guacamole as cornbread, grits, and greens. When he
was 7 his parents moved back home, driving cross-country in a
Chrysler Sedan from L.A. to GA, and Brown's world changed
overnight—new accents, new flavors, new landscape—a big deal for a
Although his parents came from rural Georgia, there was
always something extraordinary about them, says Brown. He talks
about looking through his mom's senior annual and seeing how
different his parents were. "It's like 75 pages of bumpkins and
Lauren Bacall," Brown says. "My mom was not only the most beautiful
girl, she was radiant."
His father, the daddy for whom he is named, was not the
best-looking guy, but he was by far the smartest one. Brown
remembers them as both having a lot of charisma. "My mom was a
charming woman who changed the air pressure of a room when she
walked into it. My father was a mini-media mogul. And a workaholic,
In 1970, then-WRWH owner Alton Brown Sr. bought the
Cleveland, Georgia, newspaper The White County News and became
publisher and managing editor. He was an environmentalist who ran
photos of trashy roadsides in the paper and urged the community to
tow away junk cars and establish a sanitary landfill. He died at the
age of 38 in his home. His death was ruled a suicide.
After his father died, his mother remarried, and stepsiblings
entered the picture. "All kinds of dynamics changed because of
that," says Brown. In the space of three years Brown lost his
childhood home, his father, and his only-child status. Maybe that's
when he lost his way. "Being a male in this world and growing up
without a father to guide you is extraordinarily difficult. I think
a lot of the mistakes I made along the way have been indirectly the
result of being fatherless," Brown says.
Asked for a specific example of how he's stumbled, Brown
replies, "My marriage. Certainly my marriage. I understand now that
love is a verb. It's nothing that happens to you; it's got
absolutely nothing to do with romance. It's the action of commitment
and the values that come out of that."
In 1992, Brown says, he found God, or maybe God found him,
but he blundered away until he became a born-again Christian. "The
single biggest life-changing thing for me is I just got baptized
last year. Everything else pales in comparison to acceptance of
Christianity. That's number one." He keeps a Bible in his dressing
room now, not to show he's pious but because he needs the help. "At
Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, baptism is a full-immersion thing, and
we joke that the water didn't spit me back out."
Although he was on the cover of the August 2006 issue of the
inspirational magazine Guideposts for a story about the connection
between food and faith, Brown is not about to start a career as a
celebrity proselytizer. "I keep praying I'll be able to do my job
and I'll be useful," he says.
He stands up, switches on the light, and leans down to put
his shoes back on, getting ready to get back on the Food Network
treadmill. He pauses to answer a final question: What are you most
"Second chances." Brown fastens his shoes, looks up, and
grins. "Third chances. Fourth chances."
Atlanta fans of Good Eats know that local grocery stores
and markets pop up in almost every episode.
We asked Brown for his list of favorite shopping
destinations—culinary and otherwise.