Alton Brown: 'If I Can Get You Off the Sofa to Cook Something, I Win'
Two decades ago, Alton Brown unleashed Good Eats upon the Food Network. At a time when chefs just, you know, cooking stuff was the norm for most culinary television, Brown brought science, comedy, and a little mayhem to the table. Since then, Brown has become a mainstay on the cable channel, commentating on Iron Chef America and hosting his own game show, Cutthroat Kitchen, and the "Mr. Wizard" of edible entertainment.
Ahead of Good Eats' twentieth anniversary and a forthcoming Return of the Eats reboot, Alton Brown is first revisiting the series that made him a household name to casual viewers and food nerds alike, updating 13 classic episodes that, for one reason or another, needed fresh eyes. I spoke with Brown on the phone (yes, just a few days before his wedding) about the new/old series, smart appliances, and those dreaded “unitaskers.”
Why he went back to update past shows for Good Eats: Reloaded
“I really wanted to go back to the very early days and do some renovations, so to speak. Of the thirteen shows that I chose, once I was done, I replaced about 65 percent, on average, with new material. So much is different now. Heck, the first episode that’s going to kick this off is actually the pilot Good Eats episode which we shot in 1997, so that’s twenty-one years old. I do everything differently now. Technology has changed, ingredients have changed—there are ingredients in these reloads that Americans hadn’t heard of twenty years ago, they weren’t on the market. So in each one of these, I’m going back and fixing mistakes, updating recipes, and in a couple of cases completely changing out recipes because I didn’t like the first ones.”
How he chose which Good Eats episodes to revisit
“There are several different ways: One, we have the internet now with social media, and forums, and feedback from people, unlike in 1999 when we were getting comments via faxes and people were mailing off for recipes. I know that there were recipes people had a hard time with. Even if they worked for me, if they don’t work for people at home, I did something wrong. So there are a few cases where I’ve gone back in and figured out ‘ah, this is the problem.’ Another reason is that sometimes in the collective food science community, we’ve learned a better way.
In some cases, it’s a recipe that I just never freaking liked. Sometimes when you’re designing recipes for a show like this you’re doing it prove a science point. I never did recipes just to have recipes, I always called them ‘applications’ or proofs. They’re there to show how to use the science. And there are a couple that, quite frankly, they were fine, but in the long run I realized I never liked.”
The Good Eats recipe he actually hated
“Our fondue show. I hated that fondue. I started over so that I could have it gone, and now I really love it.”
What’s changed since Good Eats was on the air
“When I decided to stop making Good Eats after a fourteen-year run, it wasn’t because we had bad ratings, it wasn’t because I was tired. It was because I felt that a real sea-change was happening in the way that we consume media—the internet, social media, and the advent of the iPhone. I wanted to step back as a producer and filmmaker and see where that was going to go. I was concerned that we were losing the attention span to watch something like Good Eats. It was a dense, fairly complex show. You have to pay attention to it, certainly, to get any of the humor, it’s an investment of real time. Now we’ve gotten so used to watching these snackable little videos of things that we’re never going to cook. If I have any fear it’s that people aren’t going to pay attention as much as I want them to.
The thing that’s changed about me as a host is that I talk much faster on television than I did before.”
On single-use kitchen gadgets, or "unitaskers"
“I think everything can be hacked. Every single tool that’s come into my kitchen I’ve figured out how to hack to my will. There are companies that make these big claw things to pick up turkeys—they’re horrible for picking up turkeys, but they’re perfect for flipping fish on a grill. Who am I to say what’s a unitasker if someone else can come up with another way to use it?"
On the kitchen tools you can throw away right now
“Anything you haven’t used in the past six months.”
On so-called “smart” appliances
“They’re getting us closer to that food replicator on Star Trek, and that’s great. You can get food out of [them] that’s pretty wondrous. I happen to be a cook, though. To me, the activity of cooking, of understanding what’s going on, of using my brain, using my hands, using my skill, and using my senses are more important to me than the food itself. The self-reliance of knowing how to do these things is incredibly powerful.
Every one of these [smart] tools I can show where their limitations are—I can show you things a pressure cooker can do that an Instant Pot can’t dream of. Just saying ‘sous vide’ in a mirror three times does not make a great meal. If you buy advanced tools without learning how to use the simple tools, then you’re just as bad as those people who were into molecular gastronomy and using sodium alginate before they learned how to cook a carrot.
These are just tools, and it’s more about the brain using the tool. I am not interested in having Alexa drive my microwave.”
The one must-have food at his upcoming wedding
“We are caviar fanatics. We’re gonna have lots of it, good stuff. My fiancé and I are both pretty crazy about fish eggs, that’s the one thing we’re really splurging on.”
How Return of the Eats will be different from Good Eats
“Here’s what’s really changing: The technology is very different. The cameras that we have, the lenses that we have, the post-production systems that we have, the toolbox is very different. Yes, I still have to point a glass thing at something and make sure it’s in focus, but that’s about all that hasn’t changed.
I always said that with Good Eats, I made it for myself. So from that perspective, I took more of an artist’s approach. I’m still doing that, I’m making it for me, but technology is making more things possible.”
What he hopes to achieve with his Good Eats series
“More people are curious about food now than they ever have been, and I know that simply because of the wide array of people that come up to me to talk about it. We used to have a sign above our old studio door that I’m about to put up again that said ‘Laughing brains are more absorbent.’ We are first and foremost about entertainment, that’s why we’re here and why I do this. If, however, I can get you off the sofa to cook something, I win. And if I can get you to cook something for someone else, I win even more.”
Good Eats: Reloaded premieres Monday, October 15 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT on Food Network.