'Good Eats' Returns and Reminds Us There’s Nothing Else Like It on Television
Many cooking shows give us the "how." Alton Brown is back to bring us the "why."
I started watching Good Eats in college. Food Network was both escapism and a means of vicarious cooking, as the dorm I lived in didn't have much of a kitchen. Most of my meals were prepared at the dining hall or the place that sold $5 pizzas. Despite transitioning from dependent student to independent adult without a regular opportunity to hone my cooking skills, for those four years (and many more afterward) Alton Brown was my professor, offering lectures on everything from how to pick fresh fish to how to season cast iron. They're skills I was eventually able to put into practice and which rely on to this day now that I have, you know, regular access to pots and pans. Though the series ended in 2012, it lived on via reruns and YouTube clips, all of which I've referred to when tackling a landmark dish or ingredient time and again. So of course I was thrilled by the prospect of Good Eats: The Return, in which Brown would once again offer his deep dives on dishes. As I watched the premiere episode on chicken parm, one thought kept crossing my mind: There's nothing else like Good Eats.
Premiering in 1999, Good Eats was an early hit for the cable channel that aired it, solidifying Alton Brown as a culinary celebrity who stood out among his peers parked behind their prep spaces thanks to his on-location shoots and affinity for visual pop culture references. Brown himself was inspired by Mr. Wizard, especially, and comparisons to Bill Nye the Science Guy are also apt, as both series offer equal parts education and entertainment with a dash of experimentation. But acolytes of Brown's style don't seem to exist on food TV today. They're instead found in the likes of Adam Conover's Adam Ruins Everything, which uses sketch comedy and meticulously researched data to debunk common misconceptions and reveal the gritty underbelly of things we take for granted. I'd even say YouTubers like Alex Ainouz (also known as "French Guy Cooking") who has chronicled, among other things, his gear- and technique-driven journeys to create the ideal croissant and to master Jacques Pepin's omelet.
Aside from a few beloved personalities like Ina Garten, mainstream food TV has moved on to fast-paced competitions, food porn-filled travelogues, and roundups of ridiculously over-the-top dishes with fewer step-by-step recipe demonstrations. The internet, too, has been guilty of losing its attention span as seconds-long videos of hands and pans, where steps are sometimes completed with a snap of the fingers to save time, inundate social media feeds.
Brown echoed that sentiment when I interviewed him before the premiere of Good Eats: Reloaded (13 remixed and updated episodes of the original series that aired on Cooking Channel) last year, saying, "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."
But Brown shouldn't fear that too much. In the year since we talked, platforms like YouTube and IGTV are finally refocusing on longer-form content, like Bon Appetit's Claire Saffitz's gourmet versions of junk food classics (which also require their fair share of jury-rigging/scientific engineering). Still, by comparison to what's currently on traditional TV, Good Eats feels less akin to Cupcake Wars and more akin to Adam Ruins Everything, just with more recipes and less ruining. Perhaps most importantly for fans, the new season feels just like the old ones in the best way possible.
Episode one takes on chicken parm, detailing its history (spoiler alert: It's not from Italy) and giving a step-by-step guide to sourcing and preparing all the ingredients, which, in true Good Eats style, involves a sketch about Brown explaining how to spot authentic Italian San Marzano tomatoes while buying them from a mustachioed (and seemingly illicit) dealer.
While the focus is on a singular dish, the episode is chock full of sub-threads of information. What should you look for in a mortar and pestle? How do you skin and debone a chicken breast? Which snack food aisle item is a secret ingredient for crispier breading? Heck, even after Brown produces a family dinner-worthy chicken parm in a baking dish, he rewinds and also prepares a single-serving restaurant-style version.
Beyond cooking, Good Eats still delivers on other levels: For pop culture fans, the new season promises more parodies and homages to beloved properties. For trivia buffs, there are still those factoid bumpers in between segments. For DIY types, there will no doubt be more projects like classic episodes showing how to dry jerky with box fan or turn flower pots into a smoker.
In college, watching Good Eats not only gave me a sense of what's possible in the kitchen, but also armed me with the knowledge of how to do things the right way or, at least, a surefire way. Maybe it's because it's nearly September or maybe it's just the nostalgia of it, but either way, it feels good to have Professor Brown's class back in session.