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Q&A with Alton Brown

By Chris Rywalt

Alton Brown took a backward approach to finding fame as the host of a TV cooking show--he spent ten years as a cameraman and TV-commercial director  before going to cooking school. "I watched a lot of television shows about food and decided that I thought they were all rotten," Brown says. "I went to culinary school specifically to get the background to make the show that I make." The result?  Good Eats, the Food Network program Brown hosts and writes--with the help of his 366MHz iBook SE.

Q: You went to the New England Culinary Institute, you've taught cooking, you host Good Eats. But you've never actually worked as a chef.

A: I've never held the position of chef. I've worked in restaurants.

Q: Well, you had to do that for school.

A: Then I also stayed in the industry a little while after that. While I was writing and putting things together I made a living working in a restaurant, so yeah, I've done my time. I've definitely done my time. But no, I don't call myself a chef. I think far too many people do call themselves chefs. I'll call someone a chef when they are employed as a chef; it's a job description, it is a role that they are filling--in a restaurant they are hired as the chef. Then there's a whole other layer of the word, which is a person who has attained a level of expertise and respect in the industry to be called "chef" by his peers, in which case... it's like calling a conductor "maestro." You know there is no job title that says "maestro," but it's something you call someone as a recognition of the level of expertise that they've attained. And I don't consider myself to be chef in either one of those categories, so I do not take that mantle on.

Q: I appreciate that because I get annoyed when people introduce themselves to me and say, "I'm an artist." It always seems to me that "artist" is a title that somebody else gives you--you can say "I paint."

Yes, exactly. Generally people who want to call themselves artists have some real issues to work out. When people ask me, if I have to fill out an application or something, I say I'm a writer, I'm paid to write and host a television show; but I consider myself to be a filmmaker. You know, Martin Scorsese likes to make films about the mob, and I happen to like to make films about food.... Besides that I'd have to say I'm probably a home economics teacher. I think the part of my job that I take most seriously is being an educator. If I can get people interested enough in food to adventure into it themselves and to understand it better--that's what my fondest hope is. We've been picked up for Cable in the Classroom. Teachers will be able to record the show with no commercial interruptions and they'll be provided with lesson plans. And the teachers that have put those lesson plans together for  Good Eats, I'm floored at how inventive these educators are. They've taken the show and turned it into a strong teaching tool. This is just a huge honor to me. I'm floored that I could do something that would be considered worthy of that.

Q: I do notice in your show that there's sort of a nerd factor to it.

A: There is. There is a nerd factor. I am a nerd, I guess, if you think that getting kind of excited about understanding ionic bonds is nerdy. Truth is, I was a horrible student. I sucked at everything because nothing mattered to me. History was a bunch of numbers, chemistry was a bunch of symbols, math was bunch of equations. And once in my adulthood, I started getting really interested in food. All of those things started to make sense, and now I'm into it. I can't learn enough about chemistry because now it applies to something. And I blame the educational system for that--for making it meaningless. For making a lot of what we learn in the educational system meaningless. So yeah, I'm a nerd. Sure I am. Like in the [Good Eats duck episode], having a big section on thermodynamics and thawing, I dig that stuff. Because I think the more you understand the world around you, I think the more power you can have in it. And the more you can do. And I think that's important.

Q: I guess you've been using computers awhile.

A: Actually, I was kind of late to the game. I got my first computer, which was a Mac Classic, in 1991. I remember it didn't even have a hard drive. I got out of that computer pretty quickly. Up till then, I'd stuck with typewriters because I've always typed quicker than I could write. So I'd been a typewriter guy. Then I kind of quickly moved through a successive line of computers, and I can't imagine now doing any of what I do without them. It's just inconceivable to me.

Q: Was it before or after you hit the Culinary Institute that you were into computers?

A: Oh, long before. I was in the commercial trade. I directed television commercials, and computers were already a pretty massive part of my life in filmmaking--certainly in preparing and pitching jobs, and, of course, in the editorial realm. In my last few years of commercial directing, certainly in the '90s, I was lucky enough to get access to some of the early versions of the Avid editing system, which, of course, for years and years and years, ran on a Mac platform. And that's pretty much the standard in the industry as far as non-linear editing systems go.

Q: Some people blame the whole fast-cut fast-paced movie and television thing on the Avid video system.

A: Yeah, on what it allows you to do. But at the same time, James Cameron cut Titanic on an Avid. It's an incredibly strong creative tool. It is also no longer a Macintosh platform. They've switched over just in the last year and a half to a PC-based machine. Oddly enough, there are some pretty terrific Macintosh [tools]. Let's just say that non-linear editing is no longer the sole provenance of Avid. Apple has been working away at the problem of non-linear editing systems that don't cost an arm and a leg, which Avids do, and there are some amazing advances that have been made in just the last couple of years.

Q: Roger Ebert writes about the power to make films and television programs coming to the masses.

A: It's changing very, very quickly. We shoot Good Eats on digital video, which is an incredibly more affordable medium than any other professional video or film format. It not only allows us to do so much more economically, but also, as far as the size of the cameras, allows us so much freedom. I certainly won't ever go back. So Roger Ebert's right. I can buy a Mac and a G4 Cube with Velocity Engine, load in the newest version of Final Cut, and make broadcast-ready noncompressed digital masters, so it is amazing. I could easily finish Good Eats on a G4 with Final Cut; it might take me a little longer, but I could certainly do it.

Q: That's not what you're using now?

A: No. It's probably where I'm headed, though. I'm still finishing on an Avid system. It's what I and my people understand. We come from that, we grew up with that machine. When I started working with Avid, it was considered strictly an offline vehicle--you did your rough cuts on Avid and then you went into an online suite and finished on D1 or D2. Then it slowly grew. The resolution got better and better until you could finish on it. We finish on Avid and output directly to DigiBeta, which is what our shows are delivered on. My production company, though--we're getting ready to purchase a complete Macintosh editing suite. I'm real excited about it.

Q: So you're not using Macs in production or preproduction?

A: Well, here in my office is a souped-up 9600; my iBook; and my wife's iMac, from which she runs our company--so I'm about as entrenched in Macintosh technology as I can be. If I have a brand loyalty, it's to Macintosh. And maybe that's because my computer skills and the way my life has changed through my ability to use computers have been so attached to Macintoshes that ... I feel about them the way a lot of farmers feel about Ford trucks. You've got certain tools that you have to have, and so you're very, very picky; and once you make up your mind about what you're going to go with, you stick with it. I do talk to guys about things like Ford trucks and John Deere tractors; these people buy the same exact thing every five years, and they never even look outside of that brand. I have definitely become that way with Macintoshes. And I do not think that I could do what I do without them.

Q: What purpose does your iBook serve for you on the show, aside from being where you write?

A: Well, for me that's a pretty huge thing. A huge amount of my research runs through that computer, certainly Internet stuff. I really like using Sherlock for research. It helps me weed through the Web very quickly, and it's fast and reliable. I also use Final Draft, which is kind of an industry-standard screenwriting program. And the other thing I really like about the iBook is that it was an extremely affordable machine. I've got the Special Edition graphite, which is perfect for me, and it cost $1,700. I could spend almost four grand for a full-blown PowerBook, but to tell you the truth, I don't need that. And I like the fact that the iBook's got a handle on it--I can toss it around; it's extremely durable physically. It's got a great screen, I don't need a floppy drive, it's got CD-ROM, and I'm a huge USB fan. I never did understand all those plugs. We use some digital photos on the show, so I'll be downloading digital photos in Photoshop from my Olympus camera while I'm backing stuff up on a Zip drive, and I've got maybe ten things plugged up to that iBook all at one time, which is really pretty spectacular. And the other thing about the iBook is that it's just cool looking. And that matters to me, to be honest. You know, the more I like the looks of a tool, the more I appreciate it aesthetically, the more likely I am to use it.

Q: Was anybody skeptical about Good Eats catching on?

A: Gosh, I'm sure they were, but because we knew people in the film community, we were able to get two pilots done. We actually made two full shows, and then we had them aired on a very large public television hub in Chicago, one of the kind of PBS superstations. And we kind of agreed to trade them: they could use the pilots if they would pay for Nielsen ratings for the shows. So they aired those two initial pilots several times, and the numbers were pretty astounding, incredibly astounding. We got really good critical write-ups in places like the Chicago Tribune, and after that it was really about finding a home. The people at the Food Network were going through a lot of changes as far as where that network was going to go and what kind of programs they were looking for. So we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They wanted to break out of a lot of the molds that were traditionally an issue with food programming, and then we came along. And boy, did we break the rules. Good Eats was, if nothing else, original. I can't always say that it's good, but I do think it's original. And I think that's something that comes from one person being allowed to exercise their vision, be it twisted or otherwise--that's usually where great innovations come from. And I'm not saying that Good Eats is a great innovation, but I do think that it took a lot of vision for a big network to roll the dice on something like Good Eats.

Q: It's completely different from any of the other cooking shows that I've seen. I mean, you're out of the studio....

A: Which is probably a very, very good reason to not do it. But the Food Network knew that if anybody was going to set the tone and break the limits of what food programming were, they were going to be the ones to do it, because, heck, it's the Food Network.

Q: It's right there in the name. And they have a lot of time to fill.

A: You're right, it's right there in the name. You can't take that too seriously, actually. And so they've continued to be extremely supportive. They give me all the rope in the world, and I haven't hung myself with it yet, but you know, there's always the chance of that. But without that chance, it wouldn't be much of a trip, at least not for me. We're moving into our fourth season, and there's a fifth and sixth season planned--trying to do two seasons a year--and the fans are really wonderful. I'm really lucky to be doing what I'm doing. It's not all wonderful, of course. In my first couple of years of doing this, I was so focused on just doing it, there were a lot of things I didn't prepare for, that I didn't see coming, that I'm having to deal with now. It's not the Yellow Brick Road. But as long as I've got a network that's providing me with a good home, which Food Network is, and plenty of fans that like what I'm doing, I'm going to do everything I can to keep doing it. Besides, I've got to buy more Macs.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010