March 28, 2003
Alton Brown Is Coming to Town
BY WES MARSHALLMarch 28, 2003:
Food TV addicts know Alton Brown as the perfect merging of Bart Simpson and Stephen Hawking. His show, Good Eats, provides a shrewd mix of slapstick, subtle cultural humor, and hard-edged science. Times are good for Alton. I'm Just Here for the Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50), his first book, was just nominated for a James Beard Award. On his last trip to Austin, for a signing at BookPeople, he drew a thousand people. Just in case you are one of the few that don't know Alton, we thought we'd give you a head's up -- he's back in Austin.
Over a three-day period, he'll be teaching at Central Market, lecturing at UT, and attending the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. The Central Market classes are long sold-out (do people scalp seats at CM Cooking School like rock concerts?), but you have the opportunity to meet Alton at the Sunday Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival at the Salt Lick, where he'll be presenting the Flat-Iron Bar-B-Q Showdown.
I had a chance to talk with Brown recently. As one of my three heroes on Food TV (Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain are the others), I was thrilled to have the chance to pick his brain. I learned there is a lot more to Mr. Brown than you see on TV. First, he has been a cook before. "Yeah, in high school I cooked at all the best spots ... McDonald's, barbecue joints, pizza parlors." He had no desire to be a chef and worked these jobs strictly for money. His real interest was theatre. After graduating from college, he became a cinematographer and director.
He shot commercials for lots of big-name products and also directed several high-profile music videos, including "The One I Love" by R.E.M. But he kept watching cooking shows on TV every chance he had. He thought that the majority were awful. After consulting with his wife, they decided to drop his successful career and move to Montpelier, Vt., so Brown could attend the New England Culinary Institute. But Brown still had no interest in being a chef. His goal was to offer a better TV food show. "I knew if I was going to get a TV show, I'd have to have some credentials. So I went to cooking school. It was all to do Good Eats. It was a gamble; I threw the dice." He won.
Regular viewers might wonder where he gets all the scientific information. For those who haven't seen his show, they are chock-full of detailed information about food anthropology, nutrition, chemistry, and physics. But Brown has no formal education in these areas. Instead, he is obsessed with learning and loves to tinker. This allows him to come up with weird but useful ideas for cooking -- like increasing the heat in a Weber grill by hooking a hair dryer up to the air vent to force oxygen into the fire.
"I started falling in love with heat. No one ever spends much time talking about it in cookbooks or on TV. I ended up getting obsessed with thermodynamics in general. It caused me to come up with unorthodox ideas." Brown likes using the UL-unapproved turkey fryer. He discards the pot, then uses the jet-engine burner to heat up his wok, a cooking method that requires lots of BTU's. "I come up with weird stuff not for the sake of weirdness but because it works better. I get off on understanding; I relish the moment of ah-ha." Brown has become so good at explaining complex science simply that the labs at Los Alamos have hired him to train their scientists on how to communicate complex ideas!
So that's where the Stephen Hawking part comes from, but how about the Bart Simpson side? "I love cooking because the kitchen is a great place to play. And the fact that I can feed people is a great side-benefit. See, I love playing with fire. My book may be called I'm Just Here for the Food, but I'm really just here to play." He also loves to crack wise, lots of times in asides that most people probably miss. But Brown thinks his audience is smart enough to pick up most of them. I wondered if he was proud that many other food shows have picked up his humorous approach. He was surprised. I asked him if he hadn't noticed. "No, I never watch TV. I am by and large disgusted with television." There was a significant silence. "Except, of course, everything on Food TV, which is excellent."
Which brought me to my last question. At the millennium, on a Food TV ad, Brown said he wished for fewer chefs and more home economists. That's a provocative statement for a Food TV person. What did he mean? "I think people need to learn how to cook, not be preached at or intimidated by chefs. Just because you have a tall hat doesn't mean you can teach. People have to remember, these chefs have unbelievable pantries and manpower. You can't duplicate that at home. I'd like to see the culture turn away from these intimidating artists and just teach people how to be successful in the kitchen." Which is exactly what Brown does. Don't miss him.
Last Edited on 08/27/2010