Some folks say chefs are the new rock stars. If that’s the case, you have to hand it to Alton Brown, who has has actually figured out how to take his nerdy culinary scientist persona on the road. His 2016 tour, “Eat Your Science,” kicks off tomorrow night at Charleston’s Gaillard Center. Expect extravaganza. Things might blow up. As Brown was obsessively perfecting his feats of culinary legerdemaine at his Georgia HQ, The Bitter Southerner visited to chat with the biggest culinary TV star the South has ever produced — about food, showmanship, drinking, being Southern and a few other choice topics.
By Chuck Reece | Photographs by John-Robert Ward II
Alton Brown’s test kitchen and sound stage sit on a nondescript street not too far away from the town square in Marietta, Georgia, one of Atlanta’s oldest northern suburbs. From the looks of the neighborhood, Brown is probably the only guy with a sound stage behind his house.
An assistant ushers us in a back door and begins to take us toward the test kitchen. Suddenly, Brown appears at the other end of the hallway, a hoodie pulled over his head and wearing no shoes. In what appears to be a state of panic, he directs us away from the test kitchen to a dining room on the other side of the house.
Oh, no, I think. It’s temperamental celebrity time. But a few moments later, Brown reappears, wearing shoes this time, apologizing profusely for the uproar and explaining that contracts covering the things invented in his test kitchen prohibit journalists from the kitchen.
“I know you didn’t expect to be run out of the kitchen by a guy in a hoodie,” he says.
Apologies accepted, we sit down over coffee and doughnuts for a long chat about the life and times of Alton Brown — a man who has probably taught more people than anyone why the formation of gliadins is so important to a good loaf of bread. One thing is clear. Despite the accoutrements of fame, Brown is still a Big Nerd. He’s just one of the nerds who got his revenge.
Chuck Reece: Are you from Marietta originally?
Alton Brown: I've lived here off and on since the early ’90s. I've gone away but I've always come back.
Chuck: Where'd you grow up?
Alton: That's an interesting question. I was born in Los Angeles, but my parents were from North Georgia. They were both from Cornelia. They got married and went to L.A. on their honeymoon and stayed. And had me. My dad always wanted a radio station, and he had an opportunity to buy a radio station in Cleveland (Georgia) in the late ’60s, and so they moved us back. I went from going to elementary school in North Hollywood, California, to a school where kids came without shoes. Just a few miles from where they made the movie “Deliverance.” Which my father told me was a documentary.
Chuck: It kind of was.
Alton: My grandparents were in Habersham County, some in Banks County. My dad died when I was 10. My mom eventually remarried, so I went to school up in Cleveland through eighth grade and then moved to Lithonia, Georgia, in DeKalb County. They could never really decide if it was a high school or an internment camp. All I know is I got positively ... and I'm going to use this word ... the shittiest public education that was available at the time. As I look back, it is remarkable that anyone succeeded to do anything but become a drug dealer out of that school system. I was saved by the fact that I got very into jazz music, and there was a jazz band there, so I kind of lived in that world. I was listening to Miles Davis records instead of smoking joints in the parking lot and driving a Camaro. Which I would have done if I could have afforded the Camaro.
Chuck: And where from there?
Alton: Then I went to several colleges. I had the disadvantage ... I graduated high school when I was 16, which was not a good thing. I was way too young, so I wasted a couple of years. I was down in LaGrange for a while. It was at LaGrange College when I discovered theater. Then I discovered that I really wanted to be a filmmaker, so I thought I better transfer, so I went to the University of Georgia. I lost over a year of credits transferring from LaGrange, which was a private school, to the university system. At the time, it seemed worth it. It worked out. It turned out to the be right thing to do at the time, I think. Maybe.
Chuck: I've been watching you since the beginning of “Good Eats.”
Alton: Since 1999. Really?
Alton: July 7, 1999.
Chuck: You remember the exact date?
Alton: July 7, 1999. Yes. People have been talking about it because I realized, "Holy crap, I've been on Food Network continually for 18 years." Holy smokes. I called them up and I said, "Come 20, I want a gold watch, by god.” They said, "Don't worry. You're not going to be here that long." Shit.
Chuck: I've always wondered what got you fascinated with doing a cooking show from a scientific perspective?
Alton: I’ve told this story before — it's not a new story — but when I really got interested in cooking was when I was still directing TV commercials here in Atlanta. I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, "God, these are boring. I'm not really learning anything." I got a recipe, OK, but I don't know anything. I didn't even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows. I remember writing down one day: “Julia Child / Mr. Wizard / Monty Python.” I wrote those three things and I thought, "If I could come up with a show to combine those three things," not only the practical knowledge that Julia Child was so good at handing over, but she was also great at making you feel you could do it. She was very good enabler, very good empowerer. Mr. Wizard, the old science show, to explain how everything works and why it works. And then Monty Python because it's freaking funny. I always believed that laughing brings a more absorbent brain. You can entertain people. I had all those years of bad high school to back me up on this: that if you don't entertain, if you're not engaging, people don't learn shit. It's very difficult to teach people. You got to engage brains. I wanted to make a show that was funny and visually engaging. It's got enough science to teach people what's really going on and give them recipes. That was the mission. Then I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.
Chuck: Where'd you go to culinary school?
Alton: I went to New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, which at the time was kind of considered to be a medical school, in a way, because all the restaurants were open to the public and you cooked six, seven days a week. It never stopped. It was a madhouse. They had a very small student/teacher ratio and an older student body. I didn't really want to go back to school at 34 with a bunch of 19-year-olds who were like, "Oh my God, let's drink!" I didn't want to do that. I quit my job. Everybody thought I was insane because I had kind of established a career. But I knew I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. I quit, went to New England and I loved Vermont, except starting about July 4th this white crap falls out of the sky and it's cold and you fall down on it. I don't go up there anymore. My first culinary internship up there, this hard-ass French restaurant, was was at a ski area in Vermont. Coming home every night, it was so cold, you had to take the battery out of your car every night, unless you had a garage, because just forget it: Your car will not start the next day. Three in the morning after working, being screamed at in French all night, you have to be out there. I couldn't do it with my gloves on, so you'd actually time how long it would be before your fingers would freeze. Oh God.
Chuck: You can't live like that.
Alton: Not for long term, no.
Chuck: No, not at all.
Alton: Vermontsters do, but no.
Chuck: How long was it that “Good Eats” was the only thing you had going on Food Network? Maybe five or six years, something like that?
Alton: Up until they called me up one day about being on a show called “Iron Chef America.” It's funny. Somebody was asking me the other day, "How many years was that on?" I had no freaking idea. I remember it was during season five of Good Eats, so that must have been about 2001 that they called me up and said, "Would you be the culinary commentator on this show?" I was like, "Yeah. Who wouldn't do that?" That's a challenge. I showed up to do that job, it's like, "What the hell is any of this stuff? I don't know what any of this stuff is." Those people were coming in with ingredients. I'm like, "I shop at Kroger, OK?" You don't get 16 different kinds of freaking kelp at Kroger. That was big. It was a learning curve. We shot two of those a day.
Chuck: Two a day? That's incredible.
Alton: The actual battles only lasted an hour, and we never varied from that. If you got all of your pre-show stuff done in a couple of hours and your judging done in about three hours, you could get two done in a day. I lived in New York and did those battles. I would come home at night to the hotel, or wherever, and I remember my then-wife would ask, "What was the battle this morning?" I'm like, "I don't remember. I don't remember." I would flush it. As soon as I was done using it I flushed it. All this research, piles of research.
Chuck: You can't keep all that stuff in your head forever. I’m 55 now. I can’t.
Alton: When it gets bad is doing research. I've got another book coming out — my first book in five years is coming out in September — and I was doing research on a particular subject. I was deep down in the Internet, reading a science paper. It was an academic paper. I hit the thing that I needed. I was like, "Yes! That's what I was looking for. It’s even got a footnote!” So I ran down the footnote, and it was from me! It was from one of my books! I was like, "I can't quote myself," especially if I don't even remember what I said.
Chuck: So what came next?
Alton: “Iron Chef America” was the only other show that I did up until they asked me to do “Food Network Star, which I should have only done one season of.
Chuck: Why do you say that?
Alton: The first season I did of “Food Network Star” was a competition between myself, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis. We were each going to get to choose teams and then try to get one of those team members all the way through to win a competition. I couldn't say no to that. I'm competitive, but more than that, I'm kind of Machiavellian. They were all about, "I'm going to get each one of my people to be the best I can be." I'm like, "No. I'm going to pick which one I want to win, and I'm going to use the others as bodies to stack against them." I was going to play it like chess. I wasn't going to pretend to actually care about the individuals very much. The problem is that you realize, when these people show up, their hopes and dreams are riding on this. Every day you have to try to give them the advice that's going to help them get to their dream, when you know, you already know, that maybe only one of them has got the right stuff, and you designed your whole team to get that person across the line. Everyone else is cannon fodder. Then, when you meet them, and you start caring about them, you're like, "Holy crap. What am I going to do?"
Chuck: Because they're people.
Alton: So during that entire shoot, I walked the floor at night trying to figure out to do right by everybody. In the end, I won, or my guy won, but I knew from the moment I met him he was going to win. I just knew I had to keep everybody out of his way. I should have left after that because then they changed the format of the show and they took away that competitive thing. Once that was gone, there really wasn't a need for me to be there. I was just there to be a foil between Giada and Bobby. I had no other purpose. I was the fall guy for the jokes. I was Lou Costello, which is fine, but I didn't belong. But I stayed for another one. That was a bad idea. But by then, there was this thing called “Cutthroat Kitchen” happening.
Chuck: Was that your concept?
Alton: It's funny, you always want great TV shows to come from one mind. You like “Breaking Bad”? Well, here’s Vince Gilligan. You like “Mad Men”? Well, here's Mr. Weiner! “Cutthroat Kitchen” was kind of an amalgam. It had come out of a thing we had actually done during a show that I left out, which is called “Next Iron Chef.” We did this thing that viewers really responded to — this option situation where people would win ingredients by auctioning how little time it would take them to cook them. I was fascinated by the strategy play. By the game play of auctioning. How much are you really willing to bet on yourself? Because that's really what you're doing. In the beginning, it’s more about getting things you really want. In the end, that's not nearly as strategic as bidding on things you want to throw at other people, because then that shows who you're worried about, who you're afraid of, who you want out of your way. How much money am I willing to save to take what you're going to throw at me? That's actually interesting game play. That's like a real game show. That's strategy. It’s really the invention of people in programming at Food Network with a little bit of my DNA in there, and then also the people that are now the show runners at Embassy Row, which is the division of Sony Entertainment that actually produced the show.
Chuck: I find it really entertaining, and it has a degree of delightful meanness to it.
Alton: Oh my God, yeah.
Chuck: Which seems to come from you. Now, that’s purely a function of my own understanding of your television persona.
Alton: It's a character. People say, "What's the real you?" I'm like, "If you've ever seen ‘Good Eats,’ that's me." Remember the old stereos of the ’70s with the EQs, with the thousand little knobs you could raise and lower. We can all dial in different parts of ourselves. We've all got a little Darth Vader in us. We've all got a little bit of the charming, mean rogue. I admit when I was growing up, I didn't want to be James Bond. I wanted to be the Bond villain. He has better clothes, typically, and a cool back story. It was just me deciding to dial up a little bit of fine evilness. A little cold-bloodedness. At first, my aunts really got pissed off at that. It was like, "I cannot believe you are such an asshole."
Alton: Oh, yeah. I had a little campaign on social media, and I invented the term "evilicious." Playful, not really mean. What I did is I just dialed up the comedy aspect of it. I try to keep the show funny/evil.
Chuck: Maybe your perspective on this is different because you've been inside this phenomenon happening over the last few decade. But you and I were chatting before we started about the the variety shows we grew up watching — Carol Burnett and that kind of thing. It seems to me that food has now become the context for that kind of programming.
Alton: I gave a talk to a media group about that. I believe food has actually become its own form of media. Which can really mess with your head if you get really deep. I think is a complete response to the virtual world that we live in, as a culture. We're not really united by anything universal, the way that we were, say, in the 1950s. Back when being famous meant you were either a sports star, a movie star, or Elvis, or a serial killer, or a politician. There weren't that many ways of getting famous. Today, we all live in these kind of microcultures that are defined more by our online presence — who we follow on Twitter, what blogs we read and whatnot — so I think there are very few unifying ideals or unifying subjects that keep us all together. You talk to anthropologists and they will tell you, "There's only two things that every people group on earth, no matter how cosmopolitan or how remote, want to do in groups. One is laugh, two is eat." It's my belief that we keep gravitating around the campfire that is food because, as a species, we require connectivity to each other. Food is actually one of the last universal things that we've got to do that. We don't have it in politics. We don't have it in religion. We don't have it in culture. There are millions of cultures out there. I think that you're right, in a way, food has in it of itself, become the variety show.
Chuck: It's the great unifier.
Alton: Exactly. It is an entertainment that everybody can share some amount of interest in, because we all have to have it. Look, we can all say, "We're unified by sports." Yeah, but that's not one of those things that everybody actually wants to do in a group. It just isn't. That's a spectator sport.
Chuck: The food context is something that everyone literally must do to survive.
Alton: Yeah. Not only must do to survive, but also must do to fit into a group.
Alton: To be accepted. It's funny, I was doing an interview where somebody was saying, "Do you ever find that culinary advice handed down generation to generation in a family is sometimes wrong?" I said, "Yes, but it's important anyway, because even if it's wrong, it provides connective tissue between generations." That's what tradition is. I think that it's not just that we have to do it because we need to eat or we die. I think it's that we need it because we need connectivity between each other. Otherwise, we'd go out of our freaking minds.
Chuck: That connectivity, I think, has been a big part of the magic that the Southern Foodways Alliance has been able to accomplish, because they realized that if we, in the South, are going to talk about our difficult history, the best place to do it is over the table.
Alton: Absolutely. I travel a great deal. I spend a huge amount of time in New York and I spend a huge amount of time in California, and when I talk about being Southern to people who aren't, they don't understand, really, what I mean by that. Because I do not appear Southern. I'm not Larry the Cable Guy or Paula Deen, nor do I seem to fit that. I would say that one of the things that makes me Southern is that I appreciate living in a culture that embraces its darkness as well as its light. I don't want to forget slavery. I don't want to forget the bad things we've done, because those are the things we have to live with. When you start trying to irradiate or erase your bad side, you stop mattering in a lot of ways. You're absolutely right, the table, over food, is where we get that stuff worked out.
Chuck: Down here, we all grew up with whitewashed schoolbooks. It freaked me out when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that piece in the Atlantic after the Charleston shootings at Mother Emanuel, where he quoted all 13 of the Confederate states' secession declarations. You don't have to read much more than a couple paragraphs deep in any of them to see all the references to people as property. What pissed me off was that I was educated in the Georgia public schools, at Georgia's largest institute of higher learning, but no one had ever put that document in front of me in all my history classes. I did not see it until I was 54 years old.
Alton: What an eye-opener, huh? By the way, I want to say one other thing about race. I remember going to culinary school in Vermont, where there are no black people. I want to say that. You can go weeks without seeing a person of color in the state of Vermont, yet people in Vermont will talk about how racist we are down here. First off, don't talk about what you don't know. I don't talk about tapping maple trees, so don't talk about it because you don't understand it. You understand what you're shown on television. You don't live with this situation. I always say situation, meaning reality, which is that we live with our past, we live with our present, we live in this culture. It's easy to be sanctimonious when you're not there.
Chuck: It’s been encouraging to me, though, since we started The Bitter Southerner, it seems like a lot of young people here no longer want to gloss over that stuff.
Alton: I should have worn my South shirt for you guys today.
Chuck: That's right. I remember when you ordered one.
Alton: I wear it when I go to New York, and people always want to talk to me about it.
Chuck: So you’re about to head out with your live show again. You did 105 cities on the last tour?
Alton: I want to say it was 105 over a four-leg period. I can't count shows because a lot of them were doubles. We were fortunate to find that in a lot of cities we would sell out and add matinees. But yeah, coast-to-coast and parts of Canada.
Chuck: What did you learn? Not by doing the show, but by going to all these different places.
Alton: The big thing about learning the towns ... it's funny. We did it over four legs, and I didn't mind that much in the first two, because I was so busy. I treated it like a rock show. You load in, you eat the catered food, you do the show, you load out. Every day becomes exactly, precisely the same. Then when Sarah (De Heer) and I started working together, her thing was like, "We're not connecting with the food of these places," and so she came up with this program called #ABRoadEats, which is a hashtag thing on both Twitter and Facebook. What we do now is that people who know about these hashtag programs will start nominating where we should eat. We always look for one coffee place, I need a breakfast joint, I need at least one lunch joint, if not more, and usually something late-night because we can't have dinner because of the show. Now, Sarah constantly tabulates this stuff. People nominate, we get 100s of tweets and texts, which is great because on social media people can see that it's happening and get involved. People find out, "Crap, I live here. I didn't know about that place." Then everyday we get up, leave the bus, we go to the top places. We take photographs with feedback about them. Now, you can actually walk in a restaurants in the cities that we're coming to and they'll be a sign, "Help us get on AB Roadies," hashtag, blah, blah, blah. Once that program started, it became a whole social studies thing because, pardon me, unless it's a really amazing theater, like the Fox in Detroit, I don't remember the theater. They're all roughly the same. It's just a room with a bunch of chairs. But you remember the food and you remember the people you met who make it. Now, it's become a whole different ball of wax. What I've learned is that there are always surprises. You will come up to a place and you'll be like, "Oh my God, I can't believe we're going to go in here."
Chuck: Tell me about an experience you had at one of these places that is memorable to you.
Alton: It was this little café in Florida that specialized … well … their thing was they did loaded baked potatoes, waffles and grilled-cheese sandwiches. What you would do is you pick, "Well, I'm going to have the grilled cheese with the," blah, blah, blah and the blah, blah, blah. It was this weird system where you pick. Some of the combinations were really weird. It's a bizarre concept. I walked into the place, and I hated it. I hated it the second that I saw it. I opened the door, I hated it more. I was like, "I want to get out of here as soon as possible." She was like, "We're here. We're going to eat." And it was freaking wonderful. They were doing things to freaking baked potatoes, waffles and grilled-cheese sandwiches that I had never had before. It was delightful. Every bite was like, "God bless." Where did that come from? How did they come up with that? We wrote about it and we talked about it. Then the next day, the place has to close at 12:30 in the afternoon, they were out of food. That happens. Sometimes you'll just discover a place that you hope heaven is like.
Alton: The danger is that as food media makes us all so much more food-aware, we tend to start homogenizing. People start opening restaurants because, "That would do well in New York." Or you're like, "I've had this dish. I've had this dish other places, other cities."
Chuck: Eight ways.
Alton: Eight ways. It's the hipster virus, but in the form of the food virus. But for every one of those, they'll be a place that is remaining and sticking to its authentic bones. And you know what? Sometimes it's not the best food, but you have to look at its place in the community. It's funny with barbecue, because the most beloved barbecue places in the South, by and large, serve the shittiest barbecue. I will stand by that. Places that people will drive hours to get to, barbecue's not that great, but it's still there. It's been there. My mom brought me here. My grandparents are from here. I love this place. In the end, authenticity and a sense of place are more important than taste and flavor. That's something that we forget in our Instagram craze — that place and authenticity, history, all matter. That's what really connects us to a place. Good food isn't always the most important. I still put authenticity at the top of the line. Do I want bad food? No. I've had my share. I've cooked my share. But I would say the bad food is still important.
Chuck: I remember when you were doing, I think it was a “Good Eats” episode, when you were in the middle of losing some weight.
Alton: I lost 50 pounds, yeah.
Chuck: And you had this rule. You were like, "Have one drink a week, but make it a good one."
Alton: I don't keep that rule.
Chuck: I kind of figured.
Alton: I went through a divorce. You're supposed to drink once a week and get divorced? I don't think so. Not in the South. No.
Chuck: But I like the fact that if you were only going to do it once ...
Alton: … you should do it and make it count.
Chuck: Make it a martini.
Alton: Make it a big martini. And have one dessert a week and make it expensive and delicious. In the end, if you give somebody just a little something to look forward to, they can do it. You give them nothing to look forward, they fail.
Chuck: Do you ever get a minute these days that isn't scheduled?
Alton: Those are the times that I set aside for panic. I'll be super honest: I'm in a phase in my life where I'm using work, not only because I'm a workaholic but I'm also working to avoid the things that I don't currently have. I'm 53 and single. That wasn't supposed to happen. I think I'm one of those people who uses work as avoidance. I'm eventually going to have to deal with myself, but I'm going to wait a little bit.