From the St. Petersburg Times Online

The mad scientist of the kitchen

For his entertaining Good Eats show on the Food Network, Alton Brown combines equal parts pop culture and food science, stirring it up with a little shtick.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001

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[Photo: Food Network]
One of his favorite episodes: “The show ... where the only thing we did is make a cup of coffee, Alton Brown says.

When the Food Network road show hits town, lots of folks will be looking for the spikey-haired guy with glasses who worships kosher salt.

He'll be among the lineup of personalities who will be representing the cable TV channel during a live meet-and-greet event Sunday at the Tampa Convention Center.

The guy's name is Alton Brown and his role as the quirky host of Good Eats has earned him a loyal fan base for the show that mixes entertainment with education. Brown is so popular that the Good Eats forum gets more postings on the Food Network Web site ( than any other show, including Emeril Live.

Brown, who also writes the show and will now direct it, considers himself a "souped up home economics teacher" who created Good Eats after being disappointed by the cooking shows he was seeing.

His frustration got so intense that he gave up his career as a TV commercial director to attend the New England Culinary Institute with the goal of developing his own show.

"I knew that in order to teach anybody anything, you have to entertain them," Brown says. "If you're bored out of your wits you're not going to learn anything."

Brown wrote the Good Eats pilot episodes (one about steak and the other about potatoes) while he was working in a North Carolina restaurant. After moving back to Georgia to produce the show, he catered and taught cooking classes for the year it took him to get it on the air.

The show is taped in and around Atlanta, near where Brown lives, but it's not his house viewers see on the show. "Most of my house could fit in that kitchen actually," he says.

Good Eats, which airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, begins its fourth season on the Food Network next month.

Later this year the Food Network will air Brown's The Good Eats History of Food -- a series of one-hour documentaries about the history of common foods. His first topic? Salt, of course.

"Salt is the only rock we eat and we have to have it in order to eat. Our history with it and the politics behind the history of salt are amazing. The French Revolution was spurred on and brought into being by a salt tax," he explains in his cool schoolteacher way.

The Times recently spoke with Brown, 38, from his Marietta, Ga., home about his role in the Food Network Live production, Good Eats and which kitchen tools he can't live without.

What will you be doing during the Food Network Live event?

"During this particular show I'm going to be curing salmon and smoking it in a cardboard box. My shows are a little bit different than some of the chefs. I don't think anything I could possibly do is interesting enough for someone to just stand and watch me cook so mine are very much stage shows.

"During the show I did in San Diego I taught people how to truss a boneless leg of lamb. I brought up an audience member and tied them up with mountain-climbing rope."

How do you describe Good Eats?

"It's a lot about teaching food science and teaching food basics. Our show plays to and answers the audience's natural curiosity and their natural intelligence. It is Food 101 meets Saturday Night Live. There's something a little subversive in a way. There's something disrespectful about it. I very much thumb my nose at French classical cuisine.

"If I can use a tool from popular culture that gets me closer to you, I'll use it. I poke fun sometimes at Emeril because Emeril has become a pop culture icon, therefore he's open game. I'll say "Bam!' every now and then. I've got one show coming up where I make a reference to Martha Stewart and then there's this roll of thunder outside and I say "Oh, sorry.' I can do that. It's not disrespectful. They're out there and they are these huge things."

What's your goal with Good Eats?

"I believe in self-reliance. I had a stepfather, who died a few years ago and who was a really great guy, who said there are two things a man needs to know how to do: build things with wood and cook. I believe there's a great power that comes from taking responsibility for yourself and nothing applies more in that realm than preparing your own food.

"We have become a culture of recipe followers, which means the recipe writers have all the power. I want people to be able to walk in any kitchen anywhere, look at what's in the refrigerator, look at what's in the pantry and say dinner is in an hour or half hour without having to use anything but their own knowledge."

Do you have a favorite episode?

"Most of my favorite episodes are the ones where people thought I was crazy like the show in the second season where the only thing we did is make a cup of coffee. We got a huge response from the program. A lot of people had told me no one is going to watch that."

Are there subjects you've rejected as not being a good match for Good Eats?

"A lot of people suggest things that I think move too far into a gourmet range or too much of a cultural cuisine range. I'm not going to do a show on Chinese food. I have absolutely no business talking about Chinese food.

"You're not going to see a Good Eats episode about sweetbreads. You're not going to see an episode about strange, hard-to-find ingredients. In trying to find subjects for shows, I'll generally try to work with a food that the audience already has a taste expectation for. You know what a great brownie ought to taste like. Same thing for meatloaf or strawberry jam or a good steak. If I say today we're going to do a monkfish liver mousse with a boysenberry compote, your brain goes "What the heck?' I'm not cruising for strange tastes here."

What do you like to eat?

"I'd just as soon have a perfect cheeseburger over a perfect globe of foie gras. I can appreciate the foie gras but I don't sit up at noon and say, "God almighty I need me a chunk of foie gras.' I can cook it. I know what it is and how to handle it, but my tastes don't run that way. I'm just a regular guy. I appreciate fine food, but I do not call myself a chef or a gourmet."

You're often compared to TV's Bill Nye the Science Guy. Is that an accurate comparison?

"Yeah, I get the Bill Nye thing a lot. I didn't know who Bill Nye was when I started hearing it and then I watched his show and I appreciate the reference. He does a great job.

"I was a really miserable student in high school and most of college. Chemistry was a bunch of formulas and numbers and math was just a bunch of equations. When I started learning how to cook and started studying food, I started finding that all that science actually means something. For me, food has become the interface that I have with pretty much everything. I find that the way I can control my food and have knowledge and power over my food is to understand the science of why things happen."

Why do you use the retail chain Bed Bath & Beyond in so many shows?

"They give us freedom inside their stores. They're a national chain, everybody can get to one and they mostly carry the same stuff. For me to walk into some independent cooking store in Atlanta, what good is that going to do anybody? And by the same token, I'm not going to walk into Williams-Sonoma. Heck, I can't afford to shop at Williams-Sonoma unless I go to their outlet.

Speaking of kitchen tools, what ones would it be hard to live without?

"I cannot live without my 12-inch cast-iron skillet. I cannot live without my digital probe thermometer. I'm a knife snob, that's my one real weakness in the kitchen. My knives that I currently use are handmade by this guy named Carter. I don't his first name. He's the only American ever allowed to become a Japanese knife master. So that's my splurge. I'm a big fan of All-Clad cookware. I could not live without my spring-loaded tongs. I couldn't live without my coffeemaker (a Starbucks model that brews into an insulated stainless steel carafe).

Though you have a book coming out next year (I'm Just Here for the Food), why are you down on books written by star chefs?

"I do not want to cook like Charlie Trotter. I want Charlie Trotter to cook like Charlie Trotter and I want, if I'm lucky enough, to go to Charlie Trotter's and eat his food. I get annoyed when really big, creative food artists -- and there are a lot of them out there -- write cookbooks. People buy them and end up feeling bad about themselves in the kitchen because they can't do it. The kitchen should not be a place of defeat. I want people to feel powerful in there.

The books I like are books that empower people. I think Shirley Corriher's Cookwise is the best cookbook written in the last decade because it has recipes in it that never fail and she makes sure that you leave each chapter understanding what was going on in that recipe. Then, of course, there are food science books like On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, which is as close to the Bible as you can get in the kitchen."

What else do you want to do?

"I have the dream of finding funding to do an educational series -- not for television, but for classroom application -- about food. I'm really alarmed about the way that kids, especially teenagers, think about food. Nothing depresses me more than seeing a 14-year-old girl on a diet unless she already has an obvious problem. They absorb adults' bad attitudes about food. I'd very much more like to get into education."


Food Network Live with appearances by Bill Boggs, Curtis Aikens, Alton Brown, Jill Cordes and Chez Ray is at the Tampa Convention Center from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20, and can be ordered by phone toll-free 1-800 949-2433 or purchased at the the event.

© Copyright 2001 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.