Atlanta Magazine, April 2007


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 two."
    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 camera.
    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 lot.
    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 Salt."
    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 says.
    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 little kid.
    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, definitely."
    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 grateful for?
    "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.

"a swell Cuban sandwich"
2020 Howell Mill Road, 404-352-3101

"meat and with sweet tea"
1118 W. Marietta Street, 404-794-4410

“local produce"
1395 Canton Highway, Marietta, 770-428-8248

"my favorite coffee shop"
31 Mill Street, Marietta, 770-422-9866

"almond croissants"
367 Glover Street, Marietta, 770-425-5050

"a great wine shop"
3401 Northside Parkway, Atlanta, 404-233-1514

"still the best cookware emporium in town"
Several locations including
549 Amsterdam Avenue, 404-815-4993

"American-made duds and reissues of vintage tees"
Phipps Plaza, 404-842-0236

"where to go for parts for making smokers"
507 Cobb Parkway, Marietta, 770-427-9331

"great bikes, great people/ bad coffee"
1750 Cobb Parkway, Marietta, 770-984-9844

The June 2007 issue of Atlanta Magazine printed my comment to the editor:

    I wanted to thank Virginia Parker for her insightful April cover story about Alton Brown. His quirky teaching technique and ability to break down a difficult concept into easily understandable parts make Good Eats a show that appeals to a wide cross section of people. The article captures Alton's easy, laid-back attitude. As anyone who's met him at a book signing or event can attest, he always takes the time to to introduce himself and is genuinely appreciative of having met you. Since your article went to press in March, you missed being able to announce that Good Eats won a Peabody on April 4. We fans knew all along that it deserved one. New year, an Emmy!

Michael Menninger