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SOME LIKE IT HOT
"GOOD EATS" GURU ALTON BROWN TALKS ABOUT HIS "HEAT THING" AND WHY THE BEST SCIENCE CLASSROOM JUST MIGHT BE THE ONE CALLED "THE KITCHEN."
BY LORI LUNDQUIST
If you're a fan of Good Eats, Food Network's cooking show meets science experiment meets improvisational comedy hour, you've probably been wondering about the background of its host, Alton Brown. Beloved elementary science teacher, maybe? Standup comic? Chef/owner of some quirky little bistro?
Actually, he was the guy trying to convince you to buy diapers and steel-belted radials.
"I had kicked around the idea for Good Eats when I was directing commercials," Brown admits. "I kept thinking, 'Somebody has to make a food show that is actually educational and entertaining at the same time ... a show that got down to the 'why things happen.' Plus, I hated my job -- I didn't think it was very worthwhile. The world's got enough Pampers and retread tires without me."
Some five years later -- plus two years of cooking school, one internship that regularly reduced him to tears, another he likens to joining the military, and a marriage that sustained him through the whole ordeal -- Brown is plotting his 100th episode, promoting his first book ... and building odd little appliances in his backyard. This includes a smoker he fashioned from a couple of terra cotta flowerpots, an oven rack and a trash can. You can see the $50 marvel make its television debut when Good Eats: BBQ premieres June 11 as part of Food Network's BBQ Week.
Since it is your baby, how much control do you have over the program?
Well, Food Network has complete control, since they own everything. But the way I like to put it is this: If you don't like Good Eats, it's my fault.
This is a labor of love on my part and I gambled my entire life on doing this, so I am rather loath to dilute it. My feeling has always been that Good Eats would have never happened had it been left to a committee. I'm not saying that I'm the only one that can do this, but I do feel deeply protective of it and it is my life's work. Although I don't take myself very seriously, I do take my work extraordinarily seriously.
So you would literally run the whole show if you could ...
The problem is I am both a procrastinator and a power junkie, so I am very frustrating to work with. Because I fixate on particular things to the exclusion of everything else. And yet, almost no one can do anything else without my part. So I'm slowly trying to get to the point where other people are tending particular flocks. But it's very difficult for me. I'm going from doing all of the work to having to delegate the work -- which is almost harder for me than doing the work myself. I'm a lousy delegator, but I'm learning.
I am actually working with another writer for the very first time -- a gentleman out in Los Angeles. I looked for a very long time, knowing that it had to happen, but it took me a long time to find someone with the same background and whatnot and I finally found him. But boy, it hurts. It's really, really difficult for me because it feels as if I am losing ownership. But eventually you have to ... eventually you have to hope that what you've made can exist without ya.
Tell me how the show came to be.
A lot of food shows need only to tempt. Some food shows only need to inspire, to empower. And there are a lot of shows that do that. But I kept thinking that there ought to be a show that got down to the "why things happen."
So, I had complained about this to my wife, who was a producer of commercials, and she finally just said, "Why don't you quit complaining and do something about it. You hate your job. "'Cause I did. I really did not like hiring myself out to work on advertising projects very much. I didn't think it was very worthwhile. The world's got enough Pampers and retread tires and whatnot without me. So I quit my job and went to the New England Culinary Institute for the full two years and worked in the restaurant industry after that until finally I thought I had a grasp on what I needed to do what I do.
And then he lived happily ever after?
Oh, there were plenty of times where at 2am I'd be sweeping a floor on a Friday night and wonder, "What the hell did I do?! Dear God!" 'Cause I was an old guy! I was 34 when I went to culinary school and it nearly broke me. The internships that I did -- going from being a commercial director where, you know, you were The Guy, to being nobody -- "Here's the broom; sweep the walk-in" -- was extremely humbling. It was a very humbling experience. But I'm sure glad I did it. Learned a lot about myself.
For some reason that story surprises me!
For me, it was kind of like going into the military or something. And anybody -- any male -- who has ever worked in a French kitchen knows what I am talking about when I say that. When I was on my first internship, I would cry all the way to work and cry all the way home. But, in the end, it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did, as far as my education goes ...
How did your poor wife handle that particular part of your education?
With extreme grace and support. In the end the French chef that nearly killed me became one of my best friends, and she could never quite understand how that happened. But it's very much a guy thing ... it's got to do with respect and machismo, I guess.
But she was great. She got a job with the marketing department at the New England Culinary Institute -- her thing was you can do this whole thing, but we go together. We do it together. So she took a big risk ... and we went from making a pretty decent income in Atlanta, with a house and a pool, to living in a third-floor walk-up on $22,000 a year. And we had a dog with us too. Those were not glamorous years. And there were plenty of times where she was the only one that believed that it was still possible. Because I lost the faith many times along the way.
When the light came back on, so to speak?
I think the light came back on when I was working at a restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, and my wife walked in and said, "You know ... I think it's about time you start writing now." She was getting tired of living on that kind of money and she was, by that point, doing secretarial work. She had completely put her life on hold. And I said, "Ya know, I think you're probably right." This was probably about a year -- not even a year -- after culinary school. And I sat down and wrote the original prospectus for Good Eats and then went and pitched to some people that, luckily, I knew from the film industry, who I knew were shopping projects. I pitched to them and they agreed to fund the two pilot episodes, the only proviso being that I had to be the host of the show. Which was NOT in my plan. I was originally going to write and direct it -- I'd never been in front of a camera before.
You're kidding! You seem so at home in front of the camera.
My college degree was in theater. But the real reason, if I have any success in that milieu, so to speak, is because I spent a lot of years directing, I spent a lot of years behind the camera. So I had some understanding. But you know what? In the end, you get in front of a camera and you either do it or you don't.
Do you remember shooting the pilot?
Steak Your Claim. And the main thing that I notice when I do this is that I look so damn young! We shot that in the summer of '97 and I still had, like, a lot of hair and still looked kinda like a little boy. And I don't anymore.
So you're obsessive about your hair?
I love poking fun at myself. I have a rather mean sense of humor. Viciously, viciously mean sense of humor, and I find that it does less damage if I turn it on myself. So I spend a lot of time making fun of me.
Any other favored targets?
Anybody near me (laughs). I love to have battles of the wits with people that can dish fast and dirty -- and it leads to problems occasionally, 'cause I can sound mean without attempting to be mean. The purpose is not cruelty. I have nothing but sympathy for the people who are forced to work with me. I'm better now at picking out those that want to play that game with me, and those that don't.
Ah. Have you ever heard of Bill Nye the Science Guy?
Enough people have now mentioned Bill Nye the Science Guy to me that I now desperately avoid it all costs. Because if I saw him, I would probably start working to avoid it. Whatever naturally is analog between me and Bill Nye the Science Guy, I would probably start trying to weed out. I avoid him like the plague. Enough people say, "Hey! You're like Bill Nye meets Julia Child meets Monty Python!" and I can appreciate the analogy, but I don't get it, because I have never laid eyes on the guy.
Does Food Network ever ask you to do a specific show topic?
They asked me to do a tailgating show once, which turned into a miserable failure. Because it's not really my subject matter. I ended up doing a show called Squid Pro Quo that really got out of hand. It was not one of my proud and shining moments. It's not that I don't understand the concept of tailgating -- it's that the concept of tailgating doesn't automatically and quickly fit into the Good Eats sub-genre, so to speak. And I went one way with it ... instead of the good way.
The road less traveled?
(Laughs) As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason." But I have often wanted to take the road less traveled simply because it was. And I am just arrogant enough to think, "Oh hell, I can pull that off. Hell yeah, I can pull that off. Watch me."
In the first days, when we first made the test pilots, we didn't even think much about market. I just wanted to make the show. I never doubted, once we got into production, that this thing wouldn't be bought up. I thought it was great. And at the time, Food Network did not purchase any commissioned programming -- they generated all their programming themselves. We couldn't even get 'em to watch the tape for almost a year.
Then a lot of things changed at Food Network. It changed ownership -- a new president came in and realized that they were going to have to start looking at other people's points of view. And the only reason that Good Eats wound up on Food Network -- we were very close to signing a deal with Discovery Channel -- is because a young executive at Food Network, who is actually no longer there, happened to see a piece of Good Eats on Eastman Kodak's website. Our original pilots were shot on film and Kodak was excited about that, so they put some snippets of some scenes on there and this guy happened to be surfing around, sniffing for things and saw this chunk of Good Eats and immediately tracked us down. Within a week, we were up in New York meeting with the network -- gosh that was probably November of '98. The pilots were over a year old at that point, but we had a deal in time to get our first season on the air by July of '99.
We were their first commissioned program. They had purchased Iron Chef, but Iron Chef had already been made. It was actually already off the air in Japan, so they were basically buying the rights to reuse it. We were the first show that was actually commissioned to be produced specifically for Food Network.
So you've conquered the world of television and now you've moved on to writing books.
My first book is really about heat. That book, for me, was an exploration of heat as ingredient. Why we don't talk about heat as an ingredient, I don't quite understand, because it is the common ingredient to all cooking processes. Salt is the common seasoning -- the electrical catalyst for flavor for all foods. And water is the common element for all foods. So, to me, they are kind of a triumvirate -- although the book is primarily about heat.
Without the heat part -- without understanding the heat part -- none of the rest of it really matters. You screw up the heat, it doesn't matter how fresh the ingredients were. Doesn't matter.
So why don't chefs and food writers talk more about it?
Recipe writers hate to write about heat. They despise it. Because there aren't proper words for communicating what should be done with it. We live in a world where we have words like "medium" -- useless words, words that mean nothing. "Heat a pan over medium-high heat." What does that mean?!
There's a part in my book where I'm talking about trying to figure out heat on the grill. And I finally decided that ice cubes out of a standard home freezer are a universal size, basically a universal internal temperature and melt the same -- so you can actually use them to judge how hot a grill is. Is it perfect? No. But it's a heck of a lot better than "hold your hand six inches over the grill and see how long you can take it."
My neighbors thought I was insane because I was standing there with a stopwatch grilling ice cubes for three days.
How on earth did you come up with ice cubes?
It was an equation. It was like, "Okay, I need something of uniform size. Something that is visual, something is time-able, something that is quantifiable and something everybody has." It was the only thing I could thing of. When you've gone through every other option, whatever is left -- no matter how odd it seems -- is the one. It's not perfect by any means, but I do think I wrote a pretty good argument for it being better than shoving your hand over the fire.
You have a heat thing, don't you?
I've got a heat thing. I do. I can't help it. If I were going to be a scientist, I'd probably be a thermodynamicist.
It also leads to interesting issues with refrigeration. Last year, I made a refrigerator in my basement. And I needed to because I needed to figure how -- you know there is no such thing as "cold." There is only less heat. There is no force known as "cold." You will not find an equation in physics where there is a function that equals "cold." There is only heat and lack thereof. The truth is there is no such thing as cold. We use "cold" as a word to describe an existence of less heat.
So I built a refrigerator out of a Styrofoam box and an aerosol can of canned air from a camera shop because ... well, I'm not going to get into. But I had to.
You "had to."
I can't talk about anything or write about anything if I don't understand it. So a lot of the stuff that I go through and a lot of the time that I spend is understanding. Because I flunked all my science classes in high school and I flunked most of my science classes in college, so I came out of school almost completely devoid of scientific knowledge.
It was only when I started cooking and started looking for answers -- because they were relevant answers, i.e., understanding what happens to the proteins in an egg white -- that's when things started making sense to me. And then I had to go back and retrain myself ... get the education that I never got out of college or high school, 'cause nothing made any sense. Nothing had any relevance to anything for me. Food made me smarter by a long shot.
Take ice. Ice is fascinating to me. Ice is the one thing in our world that went from an agricultural product to being manufactured. We used to harvest it. You had a season. It had to be cut. It had to be stored, like grain. Icehouses were built a very specific way to hold on to it the longest. And then we started figuring out how to actually make the stuff and it's the only substance that I know of that in modern times has gone from agriculture to being manufactured. It's fascinating stuff, ice. And think about what it did for us. I mean the modern world is greatly the result of our ability to make things cold. Without refrigeration, we never would have been able to work out the railroad system for moving food. Everything was salted ... salt was the only way to preserve things. The places we can live because we now have ways to refrigerate ourselves ....
Good heavens! Are you by nature a really smart guy?
Dumb as a log. Seriously. I'm not very bright, and it takes a lot for me to get a concept -- to really get a concept. To get it enough that it becomes part of me. But when it happens I get real excited about it.
And sometimes people say, "What the hell does he care [about that] for?!" Like when I finally got how water boils -- when I really, really got it, it's elementary. But I had to get it almost to the cellular level for me to start being able to use it as a tool to get to other places. So being dense is a benefit for me. I don't think I would be able to do my job if I was very smart.
Let's put it this way: When I get things -- when I really get something -- I have a talent for being able to communicate it and help others get it faster and better than I did. It's probably my only true talent. I think that I'm a teacher that happens to be a decent filmmaker. And that I happen to be able to use the visual narrative form in an effective way. I think I use television in a relatively positive way.
Do you enjoy the on-camera stuff?
The part in front of the camera is the most fun, because then it's a matter of "Oh I got it ... I figured out something and I'm really excited about how it works -- now I want to share it with everyone." I figure out something, I get excited about it, and I move it on down the line."
... which makes you really popular with kids.
I never knew that Good Eats was going to have such a massive following in grade-school-age kids. I had no idea. I mean the show was not designed for that. And then we got picked up for Cable in the Classroom at the end of the second season and I was like, "Wow. Cable in the Classroom from a guy that barely made it out of high school!" But I can generate curiosity, especially in kids by being a decent role model ... or being somebody that they want to be like.
What entertains you?
I am a fan of whatever happens to roll by me in the popular culture at any given time. I don't have much in the way of loyalty, but whatever has everyone's attention at any given time, I find viable. Because, you know what? It shortens up the space between me and the audience. By using any common cultural icon, I can make contact faster and more effectively. It's like licking the battery terminals before you put something in -- there's a better connect point if I've got that.
Do you watch much television?
I like television. I still believe that television is the most powerful form of communication on Earth -- I just hate what is being done with it. The fact that we have now made up for our utter lack of imagination by pummeling everyone with these reality shows, I find to be the most sickening turn in American culture, and quite possibly a strong sign that American culture is in rapid and irretrievable decline.
It doesn't necessarily show the better part of human nature, does it?
We are now being encouraged to be as mean as we can be. And I don't just mean "mean" as in nasty, I mean "mean" as in small.
When I say it makes me physically ill -- I mean it makes me physically ill. I am revolted by it. I would no more watch a public execution. Which is kind of what it is like. We're going back to Rome. It's the gladiators all over again ... except with better sponsorship.
What about film? Are you a cinephile?
I'm a huge cinephile. But it's like me and food. The very same French chef who almost killed me told me once: There are two kinds of food -- good food and bad food. That's it. That's all there is.
The film industry can exist on so many different levels, I think. There's always substratum of cinema that I think makes it deeper.
Oh. Can a recipe have too many ingredients?
Can a recipe have too many ingredients? Well, it's like in Amadeus: "Too many notes!" Well how many notes are enough? It depends upon what you are trying to say. I tend to cook with less and less, because as I am becoming a better cook. I don't need as much.
You know, the Aboriginal Australian's favorite saying of mine is: "The more you know, the less you need." And there are some foods that are always going to have to have a lot of ingredients. I'm sorry, but you don't make a "minimalist Bouillabaisse," all right? There are dishes that have complicated layers of flavors in them. But I don't tend towards them.
Tell me about Good Eats: BBQ. Do you whip out the Weber and ...
We want to avoid the buying of the Weber. This whole thing happened because there's a kind of a ceramic smoker called the Big Green Egg, which is a very big ceramic smoker, very expensive -- $600 and up. And I was like, "What makes these things so great?"
Well, they're ceramic -- it's like cooking in earth, which is a wonderful insulator. I've got terra cotta -- I can make my own if I want to! I think all in all I spent maybe fifty bucks.
Wow. What about the meat, then?
Basically any piece of pork these days, I think needs to be brined, because we have basically bred all the fat out of pork in America. We don't even really have pork anymore -- we have "the other white meat." "Tastes like chicken!!!" And it cooks like chicken too. Very dry.
I was in Hawaii for the first time a couple years ago when we made Down and Out in Paradise and had their pork and when I first got it in my mouth, I almost spat it out. I thought the meat had gone bad. And when I thought it through for a moment, I thought, "Oh Christ ... that's what it actually used to taste like!" I had completely forgotten what PORK tasted like. 'Cause you ask people now what pork tastes like and they couldn't tell you. They could not tell you. Differentiated between veal, turkey or chicken -- I bet you money I could make cutlets out of all of those, put them down on people's plates and have them completely mis-guess pork every time, if they couldn't recognize the shape of it. That's why I am a big believer in brines and rubs and things like that. Because you can alter the moisture level at a cellular level.
Serious carnivore, are you?
When I was in culinary school, I went to a family-run slaughterhouse and worked spring slaughter of lambs -- because I really thought it was hypocritical of me to be a chef and not know what it's like to have something lose its life. I place very high value on meat and I eat meat and I enjoy it, but I don't flinch about the fact that something is going to die for it. I treat it with more respect. And I don't eat at McDonald's.
What's your idea of culinary paradise?
I do adore the all-American hamburger/French fry meal. I adore it enough to not eat it at McDonald's, let's put it that way. Greasy diner food. In the end? Keep your foie gras and give me my hot dog with kraut. Ballpark food.
But if you HAD to eat fast food ... no choice in the matter?
Wendy's or maybe Dairy Queen, if I could find one. If I'm in California, I'll always stop and have a Whataburger.
But I often say in lectures that this culture is not going to turn itself around until we eradicate the phrase "Biggie-Size that" from our language. Because in and of itself, saying Biggie-Size means that the thing that we place value most on is portion above all. Which is why we are all becoming big fat pigs. I'm alarmed by it.
Tell me about the last time you had a burning creative impulse ... and what the outcome was.
The outcome is generally that I talk myself out of it -- because my burning creative impulses very often cost a lot of money.
I started playing the saxophone again. I hadn't played in years -- I used to play in bands and jazz combos and whatnot and I hadn't played in 15 years probably. So I bought myself a saxophone. I decided I needed a creative outlet that wasn't work-oriented.
People love to compare great cooking with great jazz -- do you think that is viable?
They have one big thing in common which is that, in either case, it can look like you're ok even if you don't know what you are doing. But it isn't. It's not okay to not know what you're doing. The truth is they're very similar in that. They look and often appear to be without form, or without limitations or rules. Not true. The best jazz musicians are generally the ones that are the most technically refined. Knowing the rules and how to bend them is what makes great jazz -- there is a level of understanding that the rest of us perceive as madness. John Coltrane didn't do anything "mad." He was just technically better than everybody else ... and it took him to a natural place. You know, in the end, you start getting to where the perfection of ones craft becomes more and more personal -- specific to the person practicing the craft. Which I certainly think is true of our finest cooks.
The problem with that is that, somewhere along the line, cooks in this country started to believe that they were more than just cooks. And there are cooks who I thought were great ten years ago who I can't stand seeing their image anymore because they think they've cured cancer or something instead of being just cooks.
In the end, to cook is a humble act. To cook and serve people. It's a privilege, and it's a responsibility, and if you are gifted enough by whatever power you happen to believe in to be good enough at it that people are willing to travel great distances and make reservations far ahead to do it, you should be humbled by that. You should consider yourself lucky ... instead of them being lucky.
And it's about hospitality. I remember when I was young -- the way my parents entertained is very different from the way we entertain today. People used to get together at the table and have a pot of chili and be thrilled to death. Because it was about the getting together. And somewhere along the line -- and I won't say who I think did this -- it became about impressing each other. About "look what I can do." And then the whole nature of hospitality changed. I know people who refuse to entertain because they are afraid that they can't live up to this or they can't live up to that. And that's a shame.
I did an interview with Bride's Magazine and they asked me -- because they were doing a whole thing about the registry -- they asked me what's the most important tool in the kitchen. And I thought for a second and I said the kitchen table. Because without a place for people to come together -- without that whole community thing -- it doesn't matter what kind of tools you're cooking with, if you don't have a place where people can sit down en familia as it is, then why have a kitchen?
Photos: Pelosi & Chambers Photography
Last Edited on 08/27/2010