Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Alton Brown
First Published October, 2003
An off-broadway theater is filled to capacity with over 100 New Yorkers who have each paid $85 to see a show. The star of the one-man production is witty, smart and entertaining. He doesn’t follow a script, just an outline–preferring to ad-lib and improvise his way through the evening using various props on the stage. Two hours later, the audience is still enthralled by the side-splitting entertainment; but the show must come to an end, and the humble star shakes every hand in the audience… and sure, why not, autographs for everyone.
This scenario could easily have been a “one night only” appearance by the likes of comedian Robin Williams, but it is certainly not like any other show by any other chef. As clever as I try to be, you’ve already guessed that I am talking about Alton Brown (what gave it away? The title? The photo?). His cooking class at De Gustibus at Macy’s Herald Square did not disappoint anyone–Alton had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
But compare Alton to a comedian? Why not? He has been called a scientist, a Home-Ec teacher and an artist… he may just as well be a prop comic. Just don’t call him a nutritional anthropologist.
Alton Brown is the creator, writer and host of “Good Eats,” a cooking show that–as of this writing–is currently beginning its seventh season on Food Network. But to simply call it a cooking show does a disservice to all the hard work, research and dedication that goes into every single second of production. “Good Eats” is a sketch & variety show that tricks you into learning things you never thought you wanted to know.
If you’ve never seen the show about one man’s quest to understand food and heat, here is the scoop: MacGuyver visits Beakman’s World and brings along his 3-pound box of kosher salt. Hilarity ensues.
But try pitching that to a network.
Alton’s professional career has included motion picture camera work in addition to directing commercials and music videos. He put all that on hold to go to culinary school FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE of making “Good Eats.” He pitched the show to several networks and almost signed a deal with the Discovery Channel before a last minute phone call from someone at Food Network offered him a shot. But there was a catch… they wanted him in front of the camera. Along with an amazing crew of researchers and talent that includes his wife and executive producer DeAnna, Alton did what he started out to do… create a new kind of cooking show. One that teaches the “whys” as well as the “hows.”
“What I would really love to see is for American cooks to stop being recipe followers and become hackers… to improvise, to invent and find new ways to get from point A to point D… and through that process–discover,” Alton told me over dinner.
What Alton just told me is pretty important to him. It is one of the prime directives for his show. But you’re not thinking about that, you’re thinking “How the hell did you score a dinner with Alton Brown, you dot-com dullard?!” I’d love to tell you that we actually have some journalistic skills here at Brian’s Belly and that persistence combined with the proper amount of swag scored me a sit down interview. But alas, that is not the case. I scored some steak and brew time with A.B. and his mother, Phyllis Sauls, by being in the right place at the right time (a.k.a. “dumb luck”) and the fact that I run a pretty damn good Web site about food (a.k.a. “Brian’s Belly”). But enough about me stalk… err, scoring an interview.
So what’s all this about hackers? Alton is known for the hack… adopting, adapting and improving his recipes, utensils and accouterments. “I think that my desire to change appliances and hack tools comes from seeing problems in systems.”
One of Alton’s most well-known modifications is the Weber kettle grill he turned into a blast furnace. “The whole thing with the Weber grill came out of wanting to sear tuna steaks. When you sear tuna you need a lot of heat, and so I used to just mound a huge pile of charcoal into my grill and get it going really hot and fire my tuna.
“And then one night after I walked away I realized that all that charcoal was still burning, and I thought ‘this is silly. I’ve wasted all this heat, all this fuel.’ And I thought ‘well, how do I get around that?’ So I started studying charcoal… and realized it doesn’t actually burn, it is a catalyst for the burning of oxygen. So I thought ‘okay, then there ought to be a way to increase more oxygen to the catalyst and decrease the catalyst.’ That led me to blacksmithing where they use a bellows. I realized that all I had to do was supply more fuel across the catalyst and I’d be able to get the same amount of heat in a much shorter period of time for a fraction of the charcoal.”
Exactly one hair dryer and one piece of tailpipe later, Alton had his blast furnace… a grill that got hotter faster and with less resources. And I thought I was clever when I added a thermometer to my Weber kettle grill.
“That is generally the method of problem solving that I go through… I want to get this done, what have I got to do it, and what do I need to learn to make it happen? And so that’s what always leads to the hack. Oh, and I’m a cheap bastard and didn’t want to buy any more charcoal.”
But hacking a grill for more heat is just the beginning. Two years ago, General Electric (the company, not an actual general) called Alton and asked if he would come teach them a thing or two. “They said their engineers want to know more about food, what happens to food when it cooks and what kind of heat food needs. So I started going to Louisville, KY, where their big appliance park is and started teaching. I would go up every few months with a new subject about potatoes, cookies, souffles–whatever it was–and what role heat played in the equation. It really worked for me because at the time I was working on ‘I’m Just Here For the Food‘ which is a book about heat.”
Eventually Alton got focused down to a top secret project to develop a new super-oven, which was taught how to think about food categories. Okay, I added the words “top secret” to get your attention, but “super-oven” sounds just about right.
“Algorithms!” Alton says, as if it were as incredible as 1.21 jigawatts, “we had to develop algorithms so that an oven that’s going to apply radiant, convection and microwave heat at one time, or alternating as energies would know how to do it for whatever food it was cooking.” And I thought my first Video Toaster in 1991 was a paradigm shift. Next, Alton will probably teach SkyNet to become self-aware. Can spread-spectrum spoons, Star Trek food replicators and soylent green be far behind?
The sci-tech references here are not without merit. The user-friendly Alton Brown is highly regarded over at Slashdot, a feature in Wired magazine called Alton “the mad scientist of the culinary world,” and Brian’s Belly called him “the Buckaroo Banzai of food science” (we’re hoping to be quoted somewhere). Although not defining, it shows that Alton is a chef that scores big points with the tech-savvy Internet generation.
Alton has adapted his own protocol (1394 AB) for transferring data from his brain to his audience’s brain… treating his ingredients as software, his tools as hardware and his recipe as an application. “Are you a computer geek as well as a food geek?” I ask, as we finish our first round of drinks.
“I am not a computer geek, although I own five Macintoshes at last count.”
“He buys one every four months,” his mother interrupts. “No, I do not mother. My mother is a liar. And she has Alzheimers. So she’s wrong. I buy a new Mac once a year.” Alton is joking, at least I hope… yes, he is joking… just like he joked with the audience during his class (“pressure cookers don’t work very well when they’re still in the box”) and just like he joked with me when I told him who I represented (“Oh, well then we know you’re not buying dinner… dot-commers have got nothing but Aeron chairs and overdue bills.”) Yeah, joking.
“What I do like is adapting vernacular. It is not that I’m a computer geek, it’s that I’m obsessed with different sub-culture vernacular and it just so happens that the computer industry and culture has a lot of great terminologies that they have invented… and so I adapt them. It’s not because I am a part of them, although I think I understand something of that brain box. It’s been said that I think of recipes as open code, and I like that because with open code the opportunity exists for constant deviation, constant evolution, constant revolution… and I’d like to see that in cooking.”
Although Alton has some clever, improvisational recipes, he’s not known for any particular dish that he makes, nor for being too fancy. “What is your favorite food?” someone asked him during our earlier class. “Hamburgers!,” Alton’s mother Phyllis yelled from the kitchen behind him. “No mother…” Alton remarked, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, “…cheeseburgers.” French fries hold a close second.
I hesitate to call Alton a chef, because food scientist seems more accurate and sci-co (science cook) seems more witty. Also the forward of his first book begins: “Let’s get one thing straight right up front. I am not a chef.” If he could choose his own job title he states, it would be culinary cartographer; brandishing a map–not directions–to cooking so that you are free to choose your own path to the end result. Appellations aside, he’s gone from cook to cameraman to culinary school (the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT) but where in that schooling did he pick up the science aspect?
We Have a Winner:
Alton’s first book “I’m Just Here For the Food” was winner of a James Beard Award in May, 2003. Basically, this is a thumbs-up from the hard-core food community.
“The science part came from not getting the answers I needed when I was in culinary school or in the restaurant work that followed. Most of my ‘whys?’ pretty much went unanswered. So I just started looking and talking to whoever had answers.
“Most chefs don’t know how to articulate [the science aspect]. They feel it in their bones, they understand it enough to do it. Knowing how to do something and knowing how to explain it are two very different things. Yes, on one level a lot of great chefs don’t know what I know; i.e. they can’t explain to you the molecular reasons that water boils… they don’t care. It doesn’t serve them to know. Most chefs don’t need to understand heat transfer, they just want to know when the ribs are done. Because I am primarily an educator, because I am primarily a groovy Home-Ec teacher, I do have to know it. If I have a talent at all, and I’m not saying that I do, but if I do, it is that I have an ability–hopefully–to transfer factual realities into easy-to-digest knowledge. I am a translator of reality, of cooking reality and to something that people can go ‘oh, all right… I get that.’”
It’s becoming clear that Alton has a certain humble quality… but “modest scientist” doesn’t have the same impact as “mad scientist” so you don’t hear about it too much. Whether modest or mad, Alton indeed makes cooking interesting for geeks like me who need to know everything. I’d like to know everything. I currently don’t know everything, but I am on track to by 2012. Then the Mayans come back and will hopefully bring us some more interesting things to learn.
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