2007 flashback: profile of Alton Brown and his ‘Good Eats’ show

Alton Brown in his “Good Eats” studio in 2007. CREDIT: Joey Ivansco

This was posted on September 10, 2007 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

For the intro of Episode 184 of his hit Food Network show “Good Eats, “ Alton Brown last month asked his prop crew to show off knives in a fun way.

For liability reasons (and the lack of a big special effects budget), he couldn’t have knives flying around his 15,000-square-foot Atlanta production studio. So they hooked an 8-foot-long magnetic knife holder to a camera dolly, stuck 20 knives on it and had it rise before him as if it were a body’s soul floating from the grave. Brown watched the installation, bemused.

“This, ” he observed, “looks like a bad execution device from a Kafka novel.”

Fortunately, Brown‘s career path has been far from Kafkaesque. Rather, the Marietta culinary expert with the thinning, unkempt hair and mischievous smirk has become Food Network’s go-to guy. He’s on three different shows, with a fourth on the way.

And just look at the numbers: During the week of Aug. 20, Brown was on the network a whopping 23 1/2 hours, luring 19.3 million viewers. In comparison, Rachael Ray was on air 10 1/2 hours; Savannah’s Paula Deen, 10 hours; and Emeril Lagasse, a mere eight.

In fact, the network recently rewarded Brown‘s signature show “Good Eats” with the coveted 8 p.m. prime-time slot on weekdays, bumping off “Emeril Live.”

“We want to expose a new group of viewers to ‘Good Eats, ‘ ” said Bob Tuschman, senior vice president of programming for Food Network. “People watch particular networks at different times.”

For the uninitiated, Brown‘s “Good Eats” show is a fast-paced, intricately pieced-together educational potpourri starring Brown as the arch-professor. He themes each show, be it knives, pickles or espresso, mixing in food history, gastronomy and even a recipe or two.

He’ll bring in props such as an oversize lemon meringue pie, a weight scale masquerading as a time machine and a life-size fiberglass cow. He’ll dress as Popeye for a spinach show, and parries with a host of fictional characters such as “W, ” a parody of James Bond’s “Q, ” played by Vickie Eng, and the Mad French Chef, played by Steve Rooney.

He’ll also pepper in pop-culture references with Dennis Miller-like precision, from Monty Python to “The Matrix.”

During a sequence in which he shows off different cutting boards for the upcoming knife show, he directs his staff to yell the word “Evil!” every time he passes by various boards he dislikes. When he reaches the glass cutting board, he drops a “Star Wars” reference: “Actually, Dark-Lord-of-the-Sith evil!”

“Why do we do the crazy things we do? Why do we have strange gadgets and props?” Brown said during a break from shooting his knife-themed show dubbed “American Slicers.” “I don’t have the charisma to carry it.”

Brown indeed lacks the smooth sexiness of Giada De Laurentiis, the “Bam!”-like bark of Emeril or the girl-next-door giddiness of Ray. But his fans love him for his pure wit.

Ray, in an interview, called Brown “a huge talent and true original” and laughed off the fact that he teased about her shaky guest spot last year on “Iron Chef America.”

“He’s certainly not a pretty boy like Brad Pitt, but I think cleverness and a sense of humor are hot, ” said Holly Paris, a 47-year-old server at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, who was so inspired by Brown in 2002, she entered culinary school.

Brown isn’t merely a talking head. He’s the director and writes the bulk of the scripts. For him, each episode of “Good Eats” is like a puzzle of a dozen or more related scenes pieced together like a Rubik’s Cube. (His wife DeAnna, nicknamed “Queen Bee” by the staff, handles his production company’s financials.)

Despite the brusque, authoritarian air his character has on TV, the real Brown gives his production staff plenty of creative room. Most have been with him since the early days.

But Brown can get fairly intense when deadlines are hanging over him like a dagger.

Lucky Yates, an Atlanta actor who regularly pops in on “Good Eats” to play a butcher and a dungeon master, said he has to gauge Brown‘s mood on when to goof around and when to just get it done. He recalls playing a mailman and riffing a bit off script. Brown gave him a sharp look and said, “Don’t Jonathan Winters me! I have to get this in the can!”

This year has been an especially busy one for Brown. Besides shooting 20 episodes of “Good Eats, ” he spent a month riding a motorcycle up the Mississippi River and sampling mom-and-pop eateries for “Feasting on Asphalt 2” and another one hosting “The Next Iron Chef, ” a competitive reality show that debuts next month. He’s currently in New York shooting another round of “Iron Chef America” shows, where he plays color commentator.

“It’s like finals in college, ” he said. “Before every battle, I cram every bit of information I can and hopefully I can access it in the hour. Sometimes I’ll pretend not to know things. I think it’s more dramatic. Nobody likes to hear someone who knows everything.”

Brown, a University of Georgia grad, has never run a restaurant or been a head chef. He spent a decade as a cinematographer and video director (including R.E.M’s “The One I Love” video) before graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in 1995. He developed the “Good Eats” concept in 1997 and found a home at Food Network two years later. The show quickly developed a rabid following.

Mike Menninger, a 40-year-old Woodstock stay-at-home dad, discovered it early on and created a fan Web site, which he still maintains. He said it features three types of fans: the wannabe chefs, the nerdy geekazoids and the zealots like him who call themselves “briners” because Brown is a big fan of brining.

In fact, Menninger has transcribed every show, and Brown‘s staff sometimes uses the site for reference.

Brown will have 191 episodes of “Good Eats” in the hopper by the end of this year. He’d like to surpass 200, but his contract with Food Network expires Dec. 31.

“I might be unemployed starting Jan. 1, ” Brown said. “I’m terrified. Look at this place [his studio]. This isn’t paid for. I have full-time employees. I gotta get some work. I hope I’m not done.”

His insecurities may be exaggerated.

“We’re Alton‘s biggest fans, ” Food Network’s Tuschman said. “We hope our relationship will continue long into the future.”

With or without Food Network, Brown is hoping next year to “turn myself into a guinea pig for science, an epic health-related project.”

Sort of like Morgan Spurlock eating McDonald’s fast food for 30 straight days in the 2004 hit documentary “Super Size Me”?

“I’m not going to bad-mouth McDonald’s, ” Brown quipped. “Hate to have them mad at me. I might need the work.”

THE ALTON BROWN FILE

Residence: Marietta

Age: 45

Family: Wife DeAnna and 7-year-old daughter Zoey

Food Network shows: “Good Eats, ” host, producer (1999-present); “Iron Chef America, ” commentator (2004-present); “Feasting on Asphalt, ” host, producer (2006-present); “Next Iron Chef, ” host (debuting Oct. 7)

Favorite local eateries: “I don’t go out anymore. If my wife and I do go out, it’d be Canoe. It’s a great location, and I don’t have to go downtown. I’d rather not go to Buckhead. Between work and a 7-year-old, it’s hard to be a regular anywhere. OK. I’m a regular at Moe’s.”

Favorite foods: “I don’t have a favorite. I’m an omnivore. I eat high on the food chain and low on the food chain. Some days, I’m so busy, all I eat is a can of sardines.”

Least favorite foods: “I can’t eat oysters. I developed an intolerance in my late 20s. I start puking and I can’t stop. I do miss them.”

Best food trend: “I’m glad to see a move away from organics and more about local farmers markets and cooperatives and community-supported places. We can draw a 100-mile circle from where we live and educate people on how to eat within that circle.”

Worst food trend: “Globalization. We have people drink bottles of spring water shipped from other parts of the planet using 25 gallons of diesel. Globalization has only intensified our effect on our planet.”


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