Alton Brown would like to thank the woman who stood him up more than 20 years ago. If she hadn’t, he might never have discovered the joy of cooking.The year was 1984 and Brown, a UGA student, had discovered that he could get dates with the promise of a home-cooked meal. He had made a series of meals for one girl in particular and the next he thought of as “the closer,” because the ingredients also included everything he needed to make breakfast. His date canceled but Brown, already halfway through making the meal, decided to finish.
“I discovered that cooking was fun without the girl,” he says.
Clearly Brown (AB ’04) got the last laugh. Cooking became a hobby after that social setback, and today he writes, produces, directs and stars in “Good Eats,” a Food Network hit that earlier this year won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.
“I owe her a debt of thanks. I hope she’s miserable,” he says with mock severity.
On a Monday in June, he’s reviewing ingredients for an upcoming episode of “Good Eats” that will focus on marshmallow. At the Atlanta headquarters of Be Square Productions, Brown joins culinary director Tamie Cook in the test kitchen. The show will include a recipe for moon pies, so the staff has made several test batches of marshmallow and the cookies that will sandwich it.
Brown samples a few cookies. “What’s the difference between the cookies?” he asks, and then points to one batch. “That one’s on the right track.”
The term “moon pie” has been copyrighted, so they’re trying to come up with something else to call their marshmallow-filled, chocolate-covered treats. Someone suggests Pluto pie, and Brown counters with “Reverend Moon pie?”
His sense of humor, well documented on the show, is evident off camera too. Brown plans to use an air gun to spray chocolate onto the pies, rather than dipping them. Why?
“Because we can!” he says gleefully. “If you could use an air gun to spray chocolate, wouldn’t you?”
Well, yeah. And that’s one of the keys to the popularity of “Good Eats.” Everything Brown does, he does with enthusiasm, style and humor. His spray bottle squirts liquid through the head of a Tyrannosaurus rex. His stand mixer has flames painted on the sides. His utensil holder is an upside down set of bongo drums.
On “Good Eats,” Brown employs science, history, props and pop culture to teach viewers how to control the elements that affect their food. The show includes experts like food scientist Shirley O’Corriher and fictional characters like “Mad French Chef” (Steve Rooney) and “W” (Vickie Eng), a frosty equipment expert. In one scene that spoofs “Jaws,” Brown performs an autopsy on a piece of cake. In March, he jumped into a six million gallon tank at the Georgia Aquarium to film a segment for an episode on cooking a whole fish. The result of blending all these ingredients? A show that the Peabody Board called “omnivorously educational and great cheesy fun.”
The Hippocratic oath
Perhaps no one is more surprised at being labeled educational than Brown, who says he was a “deplorable” student.
“No one presented science as anything applicable to anything that didn’t involve grant support for building a major particle accelerator,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in science until I had a problem that needed solving.”
He floundered in school and was attending LaGrange College to get a degree in business when he realized that he wanted to be a filmmaker. After transferring to UGA he met Charley Eidsvik, a young drama professor.
“Charley Eidsvik was like my dad,” Brown says. “I was his protégé. He taught me worlds about filmmaking.”
“Like all undergrads he was broke, so he ate with us a lot,” Eidsvik says. “Fortunately he didn’t pick up any of my bad habits as a cook. He’s never listed me as a culinary influence, but I am probably responsible for him not starving.”
While at UGA, Brown delivered pizzas. (“You made good money driving on game days,” he says.) He also popped bushels of popcorn for local movie theaters, adorning the bags with “disturbing haiku” starring Colonel Pop, a skull and crossbones made out of a popcorn kernel.
Though his storytelling skills cost him that job, Brown put them to good use on campus, studying filmmaking with a dozen journalism and drama students who were poorly equipped but passionate about their craft.
“It was an extremely lean time in terms of resources. We were working with a shoestring budget,” says Eidsvik, who retired in June. “But the beauty of that was that we continually kept inventing. It came naturally to Alton.”
Fans of “Good Eats” are no doubt nodding their heads. Brown is constantly improvising on the show. Need a rotating cake platter? Try a lazy Susan. Trimming a cake? Use a bow saw blade, cheap and available at any hardware store. He’s made beef jerky with furnace filters, bungee cords and a fan, and baked chicken pot pie in a terra cotta saucer from underneath a potted plant.
The ingredients for “Good Eats” came together gradually. After leaving UGA, Brown spent 10 years honing his skills as a cinematographer and video director. He met and married DeAnna Collins. And during his spare time he watched cooking shows, eventually realizing that he wanted to create something better. The missing element was formal training in cooking, so Brown enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute.
“In culinary school it was immediately obvious who had actual talent and who didn’t,” Brown says. “I didn’t, so I took a medical approach: Do no harm.”
After he graduated, Brown and DeAnna created two pilots for “Good Eats,” which was bought by the Food Network. 1999 was a big year for the couple—the first episode of “Good Eats” aired in July, and their daughter, Zoey, was born a few months later. Originally Brown wasn’t supposed to be on camera, but eight years and more than 180 episodes later it’s hard to imagine anyone else fronting “Good Eats.” Brown’s science geek enthusiasm and storytelling approach make the most complicated lessons easy to swallow.
“Teaching takes empathy, understanding and caring,” Brown says. “When somebody gets something, when a light bulb goes on or they have an ‘A-ha!’ moment—to see it happen is a big deal.”
Death to uni-taskers
Brown’s contract with the Food Network expires in December, but he’s got his fingers in a lot of pots.
He’s published three books—I’m Just Here for the Food, I’m Just Here for More Food and Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen. In addition to “Good Eats,” Be Square Productions creates consumer education videos for General Electric. He serves as commentator for “Iron Chef America,” the Food Network’s adaptation of the Japanese show, and as guest judge for “The Next Food Network Star.” This spring he filmed season two of “Feasting on Asphalt,” which took him from New Orleans to Minnesota on a motorcycle—his preferred mode of transportation—while exploring food on the road.
All this activity is perhaps not surprising for a guy who’s known for his disdain of uni-taskers—kitchen gadgets that perform only one function. So it was only natural that when the Peabody Awards were presented in June, Brown instead was honoring a prior lecture engagement. Disappointed, he sent executive producer Dana Popoff and director of photography Marion Laney in his stead, along with a video message.
“I’m blown away to be receiving a Peabody,” said Brown, sunburned and disheveled in an Illinois asparagus field, where he was filming “Feasting on Asphalt.” “That’s not something that I ever thought would happen in my lifetime.”
It’s the latest in a growing list of accolades. I’m Just Here for the Food won the 2003 James Beard Award. He was named 2004 Cooking Teacher of the Year at the 7th Annual Bon Appetit American Food & Entertaining Awards. He receives regular invitations to teach chemistry classes at schools including Harvard. And earlier this year he chatted via live videocast with astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, commander on the international space station and a fan of “Good Eats.” But Brown says winning the Peabody is special.
“Without question, this is the most gratifying thing in my career,” he says. “It means the show’s not just ok but that it has value and importance, that it says something that needs to be said.”
This is clearly something that’s never occurred to Brown. It was his publicist, Athalie White (ABJ ’75), who submitted the show.
“I never would’ve assumed that I could win a Peabody,” he says. “I’m still kind of reckoning with it.”
“Peabody fills a unique and wonderful area no other industry recognition comes close to,” he says, then pauses and switches gears. The jokester is back. “I’m banking on a Nobel Prize and then I’m done.”
"Good Eats" airs weeknights at 8 on Food Network. Check your cable listing for additional dates and times.
Alton Brown: www.altonbrown.com
George Foster Peabody Awards: www.peabody.uga.edu
UGA Dept. of Theatre & Film Studies: www.drama.uga.edu