Alton Brown talks curiosity in the kitchen, the importance of cooking at home and inspiring conversation through entertainment 

Dinner table discussions

click to enlarge SARAH DE HEER
  • Sarah De Heer

Alton Brown has been a regular on Food Network programming since they premiered his show, Good Eats, in 1999. Over the course of the show's 13-year run, Brown picked up a Peabody Award in 2006 and a James Beard Award for Outstanding Personality/Host in 2011. The show is as well known for his recipes as it is for packing in the science, history and nutritional anthropology in the food. Though the show always baked in plenty of info, Good Eats was also known for the goofy demos, wacky characters and general sense of levity it brought to the subject matter.

Brown is also known for his work on other Food Network programs, including Iron Chef America, Cutthroat Kitchen, and the upcoming Iron Chef Gauntlet. He's also written 11 books, including 2002's I'm Just Here for the Food, which won a James Beard Award for Reference and Scholarship. His newest, EveryDayCook, was released in September of 2016.

Lately, Brown has been taking his blend of entertainment and culinary education on the road, starting with the Edible Inevitable tour, which ran from 2013 to 2015. Now, Brown has written material for a new tour, currently in progress, titled Eat Your Science, which promises more science, more cooking, more songs, audience participation, wacky demos — the works. Before his Sunday, April 2, tour date at the Pikes Peak Center, Brown spoke to the Independent about why he does what he does.

Indy: You've won awards with Good Eats. You've garnered a lot of respect for yourself, and you've got this big audience. What are you trying to do with it? What's the Alton Brown mission statement?

Alton Brown: I think if there is an Alton Brown mission statement — I should probably have one, I actually don't — it has been to try to find the outer edges of culinary entertainment and to do it in such a way that it makes people curious. I'm not an educator. I'm not. At best, I'm an instigator of curiosity. At my very best, all I can do is make people want to maybe find out more. Anybody can find information. There's nothing special about the information that I convey, other than I find it interesting and I try to do interesting things with it. But I don't believe you can educate without entertaining, so I am first and foremost an entertainer. I just happen to try to entertain within the realm of food and cuisine. And to interlink as much science into that as much as I possibly can because that just happens to be something that interests me.

Speaking of that kind of approach to science and entertainment, you're going to appear on the Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World come April 21st, correct?

I'm actually not sure about that. I was featured for such a short amount of time on that show. I was only featured in the cold open, and then they sent me away, so I don't know if I even made the cut. I was not a guest on the show, I was simply a device to help get to the opening credits, much to my disappointment, I might add. I think maybe I wasn't... I'm just not smart enough or hip enough? I don't know. But no, I wouldn't say that I was a guest on Bill Nye. If I appear, it'll be very, very briefly right at the top of the show.

Well, I'm sorry to hear that.

Me too! Me too! I flew all the way from Atlanta to Los Angeles to be on a show that I really wanted to be on, so there you go.

You've called Bill Nye your hero in the past.

Certainly. Certainly true.

And it looks like Bill Nye the Science Guy ran around the time you were at the New England Culinary Institute in preparation for Good Eats. Could you tell me about Mr. Nye's influence on your work?

Well, like Mr. Wizard before him, he made it easy to be smart. He made it entertaining to be smart. And his passion for the material and grasp of the material and ability to transfer that in an understandable way to the layman — i.e., me — was a huge influence, because all real teachers, all true teachers, have that ability. They can take incredibly complex pieces of information and knowledge and find a way to rewire them so that they can connect to a lesser knowledge set. So I very much admired and still very much admire his approach to illuminating, if you will. The way that he can shed light on incredibly complex scientific realities is what, as far as I'm concerned, every science teacher should aspire to.

I get that resonance he had very deeply as well. Getting back to the subject at hand, in your show, you've always delved into the history of what you're preparing, the context of the food. Why do you think it's important for people to understand what led to certain dishes, cooking techniques or flavors coming to be?

I think it brings significance. I think that in bringing an anthropological or historical perspective to something that is going on your plate connects you to history and gives that food a dimension or that ingredient another dimension that it might not have had before. That is definitely the dimension of significance, and I think that you can only get that through understanding that historical angle on the food.

Makes sense. So speaking of Good Eats, actually, it's coming back as a digital show. Is that correct?

That is correct. It won't be called Good Eats anymore. It's time to move on to a new title. But it will pick up where Good Eats left off.

Is there anything else you can tell me about that project?

[pause] I could, but I'm not going to. [laughs] I'm keeping a lot of the aspects of that show under wraps.

That's fair enough.

It's coming. It is definitely coming. And it's definitely going to be reworked for a digital audience, rather than a television audience.

Gotta suit the message to the media that's used to present it, right?

Yeah, I see that as a creative tool, kind of like when we moved from black-and-white film to color film. That wasn't just about fitting the media, it was about using a new creative device, a new creative tool, which is how I see digital programming. That's how I see it, at least. I could be wrong. I could be completely out of my mind, but that's how I see it. As media changes, it affords and offers new creative possibilities rather than limitations.

That certainly seems to be true so far, yeah.

We shall see.

click to enlarge LAMAR OWEN
  • Lamar Owen

We shall indeed. Moving on a little bit, I know you shy away from getting political onstage, but are there any wider food issues that are of particular concern to you right now?

I would say that I'm always concerned with food, and I think that in the end, I just want people to cook more. I think it's incredibly important to cook more, and I also think it's important to pay a great deal of attention to one's ingredients. You are, in essence, consuming the planet in a first-person sense, and I think that anything that educates people as to the decisions that they're making at the grocery store with their money [is important]. The most significant act, really, that you can undertake when it comes to food, is what you choose to buy and what you choose not to buy. I like people to be aware of the choices that they're making and then, perhaps, become curious enough to understand the ramifications of their decisions.

That's an interesting statement, that the food you choose to buy is such a significant act. Would you care to expand on that?

No, I don't think there's a way to expand upon it. If I give you money for food, then I'm basically voting for what I believe in with money. What I pay for, what I buy, is not just something I put into my family. But by extension, I'm voting for something, if you will, with my money every time I go into a grocery store. The act of being a consumer is also an act of voting on a series of beliefs or values, and that matters whether I'm purchasing an automobile, a pair of pants or a pineapple. Again, I could be wrong.

Getting a little lighter in our subject matter, moving on to the Eat Your Science tour, you've done some big demonstrations on TV, both in your shows and various guest appearances like late night [talk shows] and your work with the Mythbusters. According to interviews I've read, your live tour scales that up. What are some things you're able to do onstage that you couldn't on television?

Well on Good Eats, I certainly never did a culinary demonstration that wasn't repeatable by people at home. That was always the mission was to make sure that I always did things that were repeatable, things that could be done by normal people with normal tools and normal access to things. The demos that I do onstage, both for my previous tour, the Edible Inevitable Tour, and this one, Eat Your Science, these are not easily done — not impossible, but they're far more far-fetched in scale and scope. I hope that through that there's entertainment as well as, again, that attempt to infect people with curiosity.

Speaking of elements on the show, the LA Times, in your interview with them, reported there was originally a cowboy waltz about GMOs in the show that was cut.

Yes, it was. I used to do a song about genetically modified organisms, and I cut it because I couldn't sing it. I wrote a song that was outside my vocal range. I could sing it if I walked in cold, but it fell at the end of the first act, and my throat — because I'm not a professional singer by any freaking stretch of the imagination — was so trashed by the time I got to that song that there were notes in it that I couldn't hit. And when we tried to move the song down a few steps, the unfortunate thing was I'd written the song with this huge amount of range in it, so that now there were notes on the bottom end that I couldn't hit. So I cut the song simply because I couldn't sing the damn thing.

You know, I hear it happens to everyone.

Well that's what I hear. And it certainly happened to me. And I liked that song a great deal. I had handmade all the graphic elements for it, and as a tune, it was one of the prettier things I'd written, but I just couldn't sing the darn thing, so it had to go.

What made you decide it was important to sing about that in the show in the first place?

I thought it was a funny song, I think. It was kind of a comic-book way of making fun of both sides of an argument. I think that we tend to entrench ourselves so completely and so dogmatically into points of view that we never even look at the other side of something, and I think that happens on any given side of a debate or a conflict in American culture. But I find that comedy is a pretty gosh-darned good way of looking at other people's views without even realizing that you're doing it. It was a song that was neither pro- nor con-GMO. It just was, and it was funny and I liked it. It was lyrically ambiguous enough to where people kind of thought about it, like 'What is he saying? Is he for it? Is he against it? What's that about?' So that's why I miss it. I think that any discussion that allows us to see each other's points of view while debating a particular point is potentially useful.

Certainly something I think we could all use more of, so thank you on that.

Sure. Again, I could be wrong. I could be wrong, but I know that any argument, whether it's about the right or wrong of genetically modified organism design, everything has points of view, and you can't really argue points without at least understanding all of the sides of a discussion. In food, that's one of many.

That's an edifying attitude to hear. I very much appreciate that approach.

I'll put it to you this way. When it comes to food, I don't believe in politics. The only thing I'm against is ignorance. Be aware — be actively aware of things going on in the world of food, because it's important, and then make the good decisions that you're going to make. It's not that I don't have beliefs, it's that I don't tend to politicize my beliefs, because in the end, I just don't appreciate ignorance.

Is there anything else you think Colorado Springs readers should know about Eat Your Science?

Yes, it's a family show. It's built and designed specifically for anybody to be able to come. We have kids from kindergarten through 100-year-olds. We pride ourselves on creating a show that everybody can come to. That's because I don't think there are that many entertainments out there — theatrical entertainments — that are suitable for an entire family, and I like having entire families come because then they can talk about it afterwards. Number one, I want to entertain. Number two, again, if I can kickstart curiosity, then I feel like I've done a good job.

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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