The first episode of Good Eats exploded onto the Food Network's airwaves in 1999, and nothing has really been the same since. Created by and starring a hyper-verbal, dizzyingly smart guy named Alton Brown, the show knocked food television off its predictable axis of stand-and-stir cooking shows, introducing a new visual language of spectacle, snazz, and smarts to the medium.
Seventeen years later, Brown is still a major star: he's the host (and evil mastermind) of the machiavellian cooking game show Cutthroat Kitchen, the author of ten (or is it seven? Or nine? Either way, there's a new one coming out soon) books on food and cooking, and the star of a stage production that plays its blend of food, humor, and music to sold-out crowds across the country — a literal traveling roadshow. Through it all, Alton Brown remains one of the most outspoken, clear-eyed, straight-shooting people in the weird world of culinary celebrity — so, who better to bring in to the Eater Upsell studio with hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, to provide the endcap to Season One?
That's right: this is the end of the first season of Eater's interview podcast. Don't freak out, friends! We'll be back in the spring with a brand-new lineup of incredible guests, interviews by turns searing and hilarious, and all the insidery, gossipy, eye-opening food-world news and stories you could hope for. If you miss us in the meantime, spend some time with the episode archive. Season Two will be here before you know it.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 17: Alton Brown, edited to just the main interview. For Greg and Helen's shameful admission that neither has been to Waffle House, you'll have to listen to the audio above.
Helen: So we're here in the Eater Upsell studio with the one and only Alton Brown.
Alton: My name is Alton Brown.
Helen: Alton, not Alton.
Alton: No, not Alton. I won't answer to that.
Alton: Or I would start calling you Heelen and Greeg.
Greg: I'm going to start calling you Heelen.
Helen: I'm going to call you Greeg.
Alton: Greeg sounds kind of cool, though.
Helen: Heelen's not so great. I had a science teacher in junior high who called me Hecken because he said, "You're not allowed to say hell."
Greg: Oh. He really left a lasting impression there.
Helen: Clever guy.
Alton: Can we make this a little bit more about me now?
Helen: Yeah, let's do that.
Alton: Thanks, guys.
Helen: Alton is the author of — ten cookbooks?
Alton: No. I don't know where they get that. I count seven that come to mind right away. I'm working on my eighth. My eighth will be out next year. I'm on it right now, but I'm pretty sure there's only seven.
"Every disaster has a way of becoming something special, as long as you don't freak out. There are assets in every liability."
Helen: Where do these three ghost cookbooks come from?
Alton: I think that people count sometimes things that I don't count. Like, I did a — one of them was like a cook's notebook, but it wasn't a book. One of them was like an empty journal. I'm not going to count that as a book, so, no, seven. I'm pretty sure there are seven books, because I'm working on number eight.
Helen: Arguably, ten book-shaped objects that a person could buy.
Alton: No, because I think that some of them aren't even in print anymore. Seven, I'm sticking with seven.
Helen: Okay, seven. Alton Brown, author of seven cookbooks —
Alton: There you go.
Helen: With an eighth on the way.
Helen: Also, extremely longtime Food Network host, star, director, mastermind.
Alton: Seventeen years.
Helen: Since '99, you had the first Good Eats, right?
Greg: Seventeen years in Food Network years must be like 87 years.
Alton: I don't know if it's fewer or more. It's hard to say. I think it depends on your pay grade. The only person that's still there — when I went there in '99, Bobby Flay was already there. Bobby Flay is still there. But other than that, we've outlasted everybody.
Helen: And you will outlast everybody.
Alton: I don't know about that.
Greg: If you see Bobby at an event, you guys just nod, like, "We're the —"
Alton: Well, we have rings, we have matching rings for that many years.
Helen: If you hold the rings against each other —
Alton: Something happens, I don't know what.
Greg: You summon the Green Lantern or something.
Alton: No, it wouldn't be anything that dorky. We'd get better tables at Nobu or something, I don't know.
Greg: Well, hey, Alton, welcome to the Eater Upsell here.
Alton: Thanks for having me.
Greg: Seventeen years, that really is — I kind of know the history of the Food Network a little bit, but in my mind, it also seems like Food Network's been around forever. Is that how you feel like?
Alton: Well, I remember when there was no Food Network, so no. It feels like it's been a while. I think that's true of anything that works its way into the cultural — I wouldn't say zeitgeist because that's longer than that, but it's part of the cultural fabric. It seems that way because it's like, you have a cell phone and FedEx, you can't imagine when you didn't have them. They just always seem to have been there.
Helen: But you also, along with the inaugural class of Food Network people, were among — maybe you were the first to really popularize thinking of food and cooking as fun, scientifically-minded experimentation.
Alton: Well, I think Good Eats was the first show to take a non-chef food stance, and look at it as storytelling from a cinemagraphic standpoint, or television standpoint. Then also to focus more on actual scientific know-how than what we'll call chefly tradition, if you will.
Helen: So you have a cinematography background?
Alton: I did, I was a cinematographer and a commercial director for almost ten years before I quit and went to culinary school.
Helen: So much of that, I think, if you go back and watch old episodes of Good Eats, which are —
Alton: We prefer to call those vintage — or classic, heirloom varieties.
Helen: Heirloom Good Eats, which are available on Netflix, and are so much fun to go back to.
Alton: Some of them are.
Greg: I watched "Bolognese" last night.
Alton: Season eight.
Helen: I watched "Pork Tenderloin" and "Spinach Salad."
Alton: Season six, and — I don't know.
"If I've got an intentional choice with any form of media, especially where food is concerned, I'm going to attempt to reinvent it, or break a rule."
Greg: I've got to say, watching it again, I really think that that show has informed a lot of internet cooking, the new narrative for a lot of food TV, in that you pull in other elements of things, you tell a story, you maybe have some fun with the filmmaking of it instead of just, like, you know, demonstration.
Helen: The stand-and-stir.
Alton: I don't know how much we've informed what has happened in the years since, but I do know that the show was invented as an antidote to stand-and-stir. My thing was, as a filmmaker, I was just bored of watching food shows. I was a hobbyist cook, and I would watch all these food shows, and it's like, "Oh my gosh." I watch the first five minutes, and then I wake up and it's over. "This is boring." And I'm not learning anything, on top of that, so the whole goal was to educate while entertaining. We used to have a sign above our studio door that said, "Laughing brains are more absorbent." So the whole idea being, simply, if you entertain people, they will learn whatever it is you're trying to teach them.
Helen: So had you always considered yourself eventually on a path to being an educator?
Alton: No. I was just trying to look for a subject I wanted to make films about. I just put the two things together. I was like, I really, really love food, I love cooking, I want to tell stories about it. I knew I had to find a way to put those two things together.
Helen: Do you think that the cinematography as it relates to food media has evolved since then? Have people taken your lead?
Alton: Oh, sure, not because of me or anything else, but because of technology. The technology in the phone in your pocket right now is better than what we shot season one of Good Eats on. So I think that that has simply opened up — social media, digital media, and technology have changed what it is to be a visual storyteller.
Helen: Though there's still the same visual vernacular for a lot of those cooking-demo shows.
Alton: Well, because, in the end, you're covering a physical event that is taking place. It depends on what kind of point of view you're trying to get across. Are you really telling a story about the food? I think that there's still a lot of people that just want to kind of fetishize the food. It's really just porn, it's like, "Ooh, here come the sesame seeds." Of course you would never say that about sesame seeds, but I still think that there's —
Greg: Somebody says that.
Alton: Somewhere, somebody says that about sesame seeds. So I think that we're still in the visual idolizing phase, idealization phase, instead of the storytelling phase. That's, again, a matter more of the way that we are training your generation, as I look at the two of you, to absorb and consume media, and where you want to put your attention, and where you don't want your attention.
Helen: I think you've brought a similar paradigm shift to the way that cooking and food information has been presented in books, too, though. Your Good Eats books don't feel like standard cookbooks. They have a lot more going on. They're layered, and they are multifaceted. Was that another intentional choice?
Alton: Sure. If I have an intentional choice with any form of media, especially where food is concerned, it's to attempt to reinvent, or to break a rule. Not because I'm trying to be an iconoclast, I'm not.
Helen: With a leather jacket here.
Alton: But what I am trying to do is to shake up forms, and find the dark little corners of any particular media form, and figure out a new way to approach it. Books are the most frustrating of any of them because they do just sit there. They're not temporal. They don't pass, you know, you can't cover a cut with a music cue. It sits there and stares at you, and you stare at it. You've got to approach them differently. My books have never been based on, "Okay, here's a pretty picture of some food. Now here's the recipe for making the food." I don't do that because I don't enjoy that. I want even cookbooks to have a narrative. I want to learn something, and I want to be taken someplace. I want to be able to sit down and just read the book to read the book. That's how I kind of try to write books. My new book is actually as conventional a cookbook as I guess I'm capable of. It's one hundred of my everyday cooking recipes. But the book's arranged by time of day instead of meal. And every recipe gets a full-page photo that's shot on an iPhone. So I guess even then, I can't just do it like other people do.
Greg: Why the iPhone?
"The real game changer, when you get right down to it, was Starbucks. We're starting to value things. We're willing to spend money on quality."
Alton: Because it is the visual tool of our age, as far as I'm concerned. It's funny, it forces you — every photo in my new book is taken from directly overhead. I wanted to come up with a visual language that was more immediate. I'm making a book for the Instagram crowd, you know, and so why not use that tool? Why use fancy cameras and fancy lenses if I can use a tool, and find a new way to take advantage of that tool, and do what it's really good at, and stay away from the things that it isn't very good at. Then a whole kind of new visual thing comes out of that, and I like defining work sometimes by the tools. Instead of deciding on a style and finding the tools for it. I'll pick up a tool and say, "Okay, well, I'm intrigued by the tool. Let's style for it." So the iPhone seems to be the perfect thing to do. On top of the fact that nobody's ever done it. Another good reason, at least to try it.
Greg: So when you go to a restaurant, do you always take photos of food with your phone?
Alton: If I like the meal, I tend to steal something.
Alton: Yeah. I steal check trays a great deal.
Helen: That's an obvious thing — not that it's an obvious thing to steal, but they notice.
Alton: Yeah, I know, it's obvious meaning that — I sometimes don't take mine, though. I might steal one off another table so that somebody else takes the rap for my criminal activities. And I don't know why I do it, exactly. It's like, I like them, and I like having a souvenir of that meal, so I'll steal them and then I'll, like, write on the back where I stole it from, and when it was, and all of that. It's a thing.
Helen: Do they vary a lot from restaurant to restaurant?
Alton: Yeah, they do. People are putting a lot of attention into their check trays.
Helen: So it's a meaningful theft.
Alton: It's a meaningful theft. I'll even steal one that's just a crappy old, "Thank You!" plastic one, as long as I can write on the back of it. I don't know why it has meaning to me.
Greg: Have you ever been busted?
Alton: No. I haven't been busted yet.
Helen: Is this one of the perks of celebrity, or do you think you're genuinely stealthy?
Alton: It's going to happen. I think that they're just letting me think that. They're letting me believe that I'm stealing when they actually know completely what I'm doing.
Alton: A couple of times I've actually left notes, "I stole your check tray. Love, Alton Brown." They're not going to stop me, because then I'll tweet that I got food poisoning or something.
Helen: Of course.
Alton: Then that shit's done.
Greg: It's like the premise for a very bizarre sort of thriller, like, "What do we know about the criminal? How can we track him?"
Helen: "He wrote his name on this piece of paper."
Alton: "He wrote his name on this piece of paper, and he tipped 40 percent, so leave him the hell alone and get another tray out of the storage room."
Helen: I love it.
Alton: Is usually how it goes.
Helen: Yeah. Do you take pictures of food when you are not doing it for your cookbook?
Alton: I do, but not for the reasons — it's usually to keep track of an idea, or, in this day and age, it's a way of rewarding if a place is doing something really well, you know, they want a post. They want some social media love, and so you take photos of food in order to kind of dole that out. It's like an endorsement, which it really is, in a lot of cases. Sometimes I just take photos of food just to remember an idea, or remember, "Don't do that in the future." But I'm not one of those people who takes a photo of everything I eat.
Helen: Are you the photographer for your cookbook, or are you working with —
Alton: There's kind of a team of us. The woman that's actually my DODO, director of digital ops, her name is —
Helen: That's a great title.
Alton: Yeah, DODO. Sarah DeHeer is actually pushing the button on all the photographs. She's a fantastic internet photographer. She did all the photography for my website, and I liked that style so much, I was like, she has a fantastic Instagram account, so I asked her to do it. I didn't want to be the one actually taking the photos because I want to be the overall creative director on the job, so I'm kind of attacking it the way I would a campaign.
Greg: Start to finish, what is the process of writing one of these books? How long does it take? What's the first step?
Alton: Well, this book's really different because I'm not slaving recipes, or, as I call them, applications, to trying to teach a particular theorem or whatever. This is just taking 100 of my, this is my cooking. So it's a personal — the book's called Everyday Cook, and the tagline is, "This time it's personal." Because I'm not being presentational, this is my food. That's why it's arranged morning, coffee break, noon, afternoon, it's like, "Here's when I eat it." Even around to late night, and the last picture of the book is me laying in bed with a plate of French fries on the pillow next to me.
"Whether you're writing a blog, you're doing a show, opening a restaurant, running a farm, it kinda comes down to what makes you different from everybody else."
Greg: Great final meal.
Alton: Yeah, it is, right before I go to bed is the French fries. For a book like that, where I've already cooked most of the food, but I haven't quantified it. It exists on cocktail napkins, or I have these white cabinets in my apartment where I actually write things with pencil on the inside of the cabinet doors. That's how I keep up with what I'm cooking. So getting that converted into workable recipes, there's probably about, for only 100 recipes, maybe a three-month period for that. Then, if you're actually writing as you go along, you've got to add maybe another month to two for that, and then the photographic process, in our case, is long, because we're not just taking pictures of food, we're setting up tableaus and doing different things in the photos. We're only shooting about five photos a day, but every single recipe gets a photograph, so that changes the dynamic there. So I'm going to say seven months.
Helen: Wow. That seems pretty speedy, actually, I think, for most cookbooks.
Alton: Yeah, it is. That's just to get the manuscript turned in in. The book's not coming out until October of next year, because of printing and blah, blah, blah.
Greg: Sounds like a publisher's dream there.
Alton: Oh, no, ask my publisher. The folks at Ballantine shiver when I call because I'm a pain in the ass.
Helen: So are the recipes healthy? I know a couple years ago you were very open about introducing a lot of regimen to your diet and lost a lot of weight.
Alton: Well, I needed to. And I still do. I've put back about 20 of those pounds, I think. [pause] That's where you're both supposed to say, "Yeah, but you look great."
Helen: You look spectacular. This is a podcast.
Alton: It's too late, you both blew it. The book's not set up to be that. There are certainly recipes that are, but I didn't put them in there because they were healthy. I put them in there because they freaking taste good. I've learned how to use a lot of things that I used to stay away from. There are quinoa recipes, for instance, and I used to say, "Who the hell wants to eat quinoa." But then I came around. I'm like, "Yeah, okay." There is some stuff that I would call healthy, and then there's some stuff that I would say if you eat every day you're going to have a heart attack before you turn 40, but you got to have balance.
Greg: So you're gearing up, if I have my facts correct, this spring, you're going to be doing another tour, is that correct?
Alton: Yeah. The tour thing was really — I kinda did that as a lark. I put together a show a couple of years ago called the Edible Inevitable Tour, which was a complete variety show. Very large, very bizarre food demonstrations. Live music, I was doing some of my food songs. All kinds of stuff, and we played that in, I want to say, 104 cities, I guess? I guess about 104 cities.
Greg: One hundred and four cities? I can't even list 104 cities.
Alton: Well, I can't either. I can only ride in a bus to them, but in the U.S. and Canada. Then we decided to do it again in the spring, but when most people do shows like this, they only change out about 30 percent of the show. I can't do that, so it's 100 percent new. So it's a completely new show, and this tour's called Eat Your Science. So Alton Brown Eat Your Science will boot off in April.
Helen: What's it like to be on tour? You're doing full rock star? You're in a bus, you're sleeping in bunks.
Alton: We live in buses because it's the practical thing to do, you know, because you can come out of the show at the end of the night, you get in bed, and you wake up in the next city. It's really the way to do it. It's a wonderful way to travel.
Greg: That sounds cool.
Alton: It is. It can be. It can also be just a real serious pain in the butt, especially depending on what time of year. If you get out of the bus and it's 20 below zero, there's just no way to not make that suck. These are nice rock 'n' roll tour buses, but it's not like we have Jacuzzis and weight rooms.
Greg: Is your face on the side of the tour bus?
Alton: No. I don't wrap the bus. We lay low. We may have some design elements from the show on the next bus, but no, we don't do that.
"I've gotta say, Memphis, Tennessee: probably my number-one food town in the U.S."
Helen: You're glossy black? Keeping it —
Alton: We keep it matte black. I want it to be almost invisible as it rolls into town.
Greg: As it rolls through the night, yeah.
Helen: Does not appear on radar.
Alton: No, actually, it doesn't. It's completely stealth technology. Any of the flat surfaces we make balls of black gaffer's tape and stick on the outside so it kind of looks like a giant black goiter, but nobody can see it with radar. What's it like? I think that it's a new — it's funny, celebrity has changed so much in this country. It used to be, you're either a movie star, a sports star, or music star, or serial killer. It was hard to be famous doing anything else. You were Led Zeppelin touring in '73 and playing Madison Square Garden. Now there's a whole other realm, which is that I'm playing mostly preforming-arts centers. Twenty-five hundred to 4,000 seats, typically. We get a few 5,000-seat houses, but I rarely fill them. But the people that come treat me likes it's Zeppelin in '73. It's an interesting kind of stardom. And it's fantastic if you're a performer because you're cutting out the middleman completely. You're right there in front of them every night for however long you're on the road. I enjoy it a great deal. I try to get it right every day. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you feel like you don't get it right. It's scary, I realize that, if I was going to do a variety show, that I was going to have to play music, because you can't do a variety show without music. And I had not played in a band since I was 21 years old. It was like, get out a guitar, learn how to play again, learn how to start writing songs. And the audience — I thought if I start singing in front of an audience again, a guitar and start singing, they're going to be like, "What the hell is happening here?" But the songs are funny, and they turned out really, really enjoying them, so we're actually going to release a CD next year.
Greg: Whoa. So you did this with a band?
Alton: It was always a combo. I had a trio in the first two legs of the tour. And another guitarist, a real guitarist, and a percussionist, and we did the songs as pretty large production numbers, and some of them were pretty loud. We do a punk-rock song about Easy-Bake Ovens. It was really loud. But I slowly came to learn that the smaller the music — if songs are trying to be funny, they're funnier if they're acoustic. So in the end, I got everything knocked down to just me, an acoustic guitar, and a percussionist, and they were funnier because you've got less sound separating you from the audience. We went from a more of a rock 'n' roll style, power trio, down to something more folk-rock, indie-feeling, but it worked better in the end.
Helen: That's one of the sort of secret rules of comedy, that comedy lives in intimacy.
Alton: It really does, and when you're working a line, you know, it's like — I do a song called "Airport Shrimp Cocktail," which is about getting food poisoning on an airplane. And it's done as a country-western number.
Helen: Of course.
Alton: Of course, because it's about love gone bad, so you had to do that. And I noticed that when it's just acoustic, and I can really hear the audience, I can change up the timing and work the timing to them. So it's really stand-up routines, in a way. That was just something that I had to learn over time, which is you can't force funny. You've got to pare it down, and so I'm not going to make that mistake again.
Greg: So how do you pick where you go on these tours?
Alton: I don't. I have people that choose that. That's a very — what we call rooting, is a very complex issue that's based upon where you've played, who wants you back, what kind of deals, who's promoting what. And so my agents and my touring company, a bunch of folks called Magic Space Entertainment, will just lay it out in front of me and say, "What do you think?" I'll be like, "Pfft, yeah, okay." After you do it a while, you're like, "Oh, I remember that theater, I'm not ever going back there." Or, "Oh yeah, we're definitely, they had really good catering."
Greg: Do you have a favorite theater?
Alton: The problem is I can't remember the name of it. They've got this great theater in Milwaukee where, up on the top floor of the theater, they've actually got a coffee shop, restaurant, and lounge with a record player, and albums, and stuff like that. It's a really cool place to hang out, I just can't remember the name of the theater.
Helen: That's really cool.
Alton: But I mean, there are great theaters all around the country. Then there are also just complete dumps, there are dumps, there are terrible dumps.
Helen: Any big disasters?
Alton: You know, it's little things, or things that aren't very dramatic. You can have missed cues, or you can have something that doesn't happen when it's supposed to happen, but every mistake like that — you know, it's funny, if something goes wrong, and you've planned properly, then thing are never going to go so wrong that they stop you. In the end, it's interesting, what an audience wants is something unique to them. If your sound system died in the middle of a show in a 2,000-seat house, and you just sit down on the stage with an acoustic guitar and do a thing anyway, that becomes the memorable event. So every disaster has a way of becoming something special, as long as you don't freak out. As long as you find the options. There are assets in every liability, if you can find them. We never had anything happen that was like, "Oh crap, do you remember that time?" I mean, you know, the worst things that can happen when you're on the road is your get sick, and you still have to do the show, and you're like, "Oh my God, that was miserable." We did a double-header in L.A., and I had the flu, and I wanted to die. But, you know, that doesn't make for very good stories.
Helen: Was there a moment when you realized you were famous?
Alton: I remember the first time I got asked for an autograph. I mean, Good Eats had been on maybe three months, and it was in Atlanta, where I lived, and I was completely taken aback by it. I hadn't thought about, this will happen. Because I was executive producer, I was writing the show, I was directing, all this stuff. I was so busy doing the work that I didn't think about getting famous, and there was no social media. There was barely a freaking internet in '99, to be honest. It's hard to imagine. So there was no feedback. I didn't know anything was happening. But I would get asked for an autograph, but then I remember my first book coming out. And I remember showing up at the very, very first book store for the first book signing, and there were 2,000 people there, and it was like, "Oh. Oh." And that's when it's like, "Okay, something's changed here." And then it's kind of funny. Celebrity is just weird, it's a weird thing, especially in this day and age. I can be in an elevator today, and, with five people, and one will kind of recognize me from somewhere but not know where. Another one will kind of be a fan and like my shows. Two of them will have never seen me before. And the last one will think that I'm Elvis. I mean, a fan to that level of fanaticism. So it's just, yeah, it's odd.
Greg: You've been traveling across the country for various projects, various reasons, and things like this tour, now for a very long time. In your experience as a food personality, as someone who works on these things, what's the big difference? How has food changed since 1999? In small towns, I guess, I'm specifically curious. I know that's a very vague question.
Alton: Yeah, but it's a good one. I'll be honest with you, it's one that I've wrestled with before. You're not the first to ask, you know, "What has happened?" We've all become aware. We're hyper-aware. The biggest changes since I started — we're all very, very aware because we're absorbing and consuming food media. But the real game-changer, when you get right down to it, for better or worse, was Starbucks. Because Starbucks is everywhere, and now we all accept paying $4 for a coffee. Everyone does now. So what happened is then, of course, anywhere that Starbucks was, you eventually got third-wave coffee. So now we've got funky pour-over coffee shops, so we're all starting to become very sophisticated in our palates. We're starting to value things. You can look at Starbucks, whether you like it or not, and then Whole Foods, as being something that, really, in 1999 wouldn't have existed at the level that it does now. So we're all extraordinarily aware. We're willing to spend money on quality. What's funny, though, is I think that we're more sophisticated as eaters than cooks. You know, I know people that can detect the difference between whether we've made the bouillabaisse with, you know, Turkish saffron or Iranian saffron, but couldn't cook the seafood in the bouillabaisse if you held a gun to their head, you know, so — we've become far more sophisticated as consumers. Whether we have as cooks or not, I don't know.
Helen: That seems like a logical parallel to the way that food has evolved as part of our culture. Because I think it's not infrequent that food is analogized to the rise of music in the '70s and '80s. Music saturation in America was not the creation of music, it was the consumption of music, and that seems like the route to popular culture. You become a thing for people to purchase, and identify themselves around, and know things about, rather than become experts in the creation of.
Alton: It's interesting that you would mention consumption, because that has a lot to do also with changing business models. You know, I've had conversations with people, because I have interest in music, about when things really changed. And people talk a lot about the touring year of 1973, which I mentioned a few minutes ago. When Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Alice Cooper all went out on these massive arena tours that changed the way the business of rock 'n' roll was done. And I think that what we've done is we've gotten ourselves in a place where we've changed the way that the food business is done, very, very much so. And so I think it's a good analogy, we are consuming at that level. The only real difference is is that not everybody has to consume music. Everybody does have to consume food, or we keel over dead.
"Cooking is an incredibly intimate thing to do for people. Sex is intimate, but in a way, also completely non-intimate, depending on how you approach it."
Helen: Right, and that's where what you were saying about Starbucks becomes really fascinating, because it primes us to learn how to fetishize ingredients and foods and dishes.
Alton: It does. It also very much carves out a status area. What's funny is it used to be, well, "Oh, our town got a Starbucks." And now we talk about Starbucks like it's the bottom-of-the-line coffee shop, you know. But the importance of what it did as a global model is incredibly important. Now we're seeing that with — I see the Shake Shack sticker there on your computer, just under Dolly Parton, and across from what appears to be Robert Redford about ten years ago.
Helen: That's the mascot of a poutine shop in Toronto, Canada.
Alton: There's a poutine shop using Robert Redford? Does he know?
Helen: It's a mediocre poutine shop. I just liked their sticker.
Greg: That is Robert Redford.
Helen: Is that actually Robert Redford?
Greg: I think so.
Alton: Just look at it. That's Robert Redford, right around the time of — isn't it?
Helen: Yeah, it totally is, and he's wearing his aviator glasses.
Greg: Helen has amazing stickers on the back of her laptop.
Helen: I try to put restaurant stickers on my laptop.
Alton: Well, what restaurant goes with Dolly Parton?
Helen: That is just the great state of Tennessee.
Alton: There's nothing wrong with Tennessee.
Helen: No, no, just a big fan of Tennessee, Dolly Parton.
Alton: Matter of fact, I would say that going by — when I'm on tour, I do this thing called AB Road Eats, which is, I'm online, or a social media food thing that I do is we ask people everywhere we go, "Where should I eat?" then go there, and do reviews and things. And I've got to say, Memphis, Tennessee: probably my number one food town in the U.S.
Helen: It's a hell of a town.
Greg: What is it? What's the thing? Or what are the things?
Alton: Gibson's freaking doughnuts, man. Outside of Memphis proper is this doughnut place called Gibson's, which makes not just the best doughnut in the United States but, as far as I'm concerned, if all the other doughnuts went away and I still had Gibson's, I'd be okay. They've also got the best chicken, and maybe the best hamburger in the United States. So, Memphis good.
Helen: The hamburger and the chicken are also at Gus's, or they're in Memphis in general? Or at Gibson's, I mean.
Alton: No, you got to go with Gus's for the chicken.
Helen: I just preempted that.
Alton: I would say Dyer's on Beale Street for the burger. Pretty fine stuff, but just a great, great food town.
Helen: It is a great food town. Well, you know, what we were just talking about a minute ago with the rise of food as consumption culture, and Starbucks leveling the playing field for loving food. There was a really fascinating interview with you in the New York Times a couple of months ago, and you said something that resonated beautifully with my soul. I felt so known and understood. Which was, the interviewer was asking you about people loving food, and you said that everybody loves food, and people try to convince you that they should be on Next Food Network Star, or they should be getting whatever job because they love food.
Alton: Because they love it so much, yeah.
Helen: And you said this great line, which was, "At best, love is the gasoline. It's not the car." And I think about that all the time, and it feels very correct. You know, Greg and I, when we're not podcasting, we write and edit, and we work with a lot of people who are interested in breaking into the food world. And that happens all the time. That people who are interested in exploring food culture think that the road in is just a deep, passionate love.
Helen: And it's so much more than that.
Alton: Yeah, I mean, if you don't have the passion, you're probably not going to get anywhere, but the passion in and of itself is not terribly interesting. And, yeah, we do see that all the time.
Greg: I feel like everyone loves food now, and I don't know if that was the same as 20 years ago.
Alton: I think people just didn't think — you know, there was a time when people simply were thinking about how to get enough of it, you know, or having to get it on the table. My grandmother, my late grandmother, who I adored, never could get her head around the idea of Food Network. She was in an episode with me that turned out to be one of my favorites ever, called "The Biscuit Also Rises" — no, "The Dough Also Rises." But she was like, "I got to get up at six o'clock every morning and make breakfast for Bob, why the hell would I want to watch that on television?" Because it was a thing you do, it was a chore. It's like chopping wood, or anything else. It wasn't celebrated. It wasn't like, "Oh my gosh, this apple butter is artisanal." It was like, it's food, you know. So I think that we were mostly just consumed with that. Then, of course, the '70s came, — well, more the '60s, post–World War II, it's all about convenience foods. And the new style of entertaining, which was, you know, "Oh, well, I made this out of three cans of cream and mushroom soup, and some tater tots." And everybody was really, really into that because, suddenly, we were in the new age of food, and then we collapsed back down. And now we're growing back out into this kind of global thing. People didn't talk about it. You didn't talk about it, you said, "Damn it, Helen makes a fine casserole." And that was it. Then, also, remember that women cooked, by and large, unless they were French guys, and then they had tall hats and yelled at people. But it wasn't a point of discussion, it wasn't something we sat around and did together.
Helen: But now everybody loves food, and there has to be more. So what is the more, do you think? What is it that will catapult someone from an enthusiast to a professional?
Alton: Well, there's so many different ways to be a professional. But in the end, I think it all comes down to a unique point of view. Whether you're writing a blog, you're doing a show, opening a restaurant, running a farm, it kinda comes down into what makes you different from everybody else. We're in the age of uniqueness, you know, because we've got so much that now it's just a matter of, how do I separate myself. Yes, quality has to be there, but story, narrative has become as important as product. So it's not just, "Do I make good bacon?" It's, "What's the story of my bacon?" Narrative is king.
Greg: That's very exciting to hear you say that, because I kind of thought about that in various ways, to see how food media has evolved a little bit. One thing I've been kind of bemoaning is the fact that everyone — people that used to write blogs, like, I love strange, personal food blogs. There are so many less of them now because I think people are channeling that energy into Instagram.
Helen: Oh, that's interesting.
Greg: Which is just, like, the photo, instead of, "I'm going to take a photo of my food, go back to my apartment, and write, you know, 500 words on it." It's like, "I'm just gonna put it on Instagram. Here's what I ate." But that doesn't tell us the same story.
Alton: No. We're slowly forgetting how to read, yeah, in general, which I worry about. And therefore, writing is not as valued as it once was, and point of view, and discovering something through people's words is not as important as discovering it through their Instagram account. And while I understand Instagram, I appreciate Instagram, I Instagram, but I know people where it's like, you can go onto their Instagram accounts and you're like, "This is 5,000 pictures of food." In the end, I don't know that I want to look at 5,000 pictures of food. Eventually, they're all going to start looking the same to me. I'd rather see some other things. You know, there is life — food is part of life. It is not actually life. It's still just one part of life, and I think that food's a lot more interesting when we see where it actually does plug into the other things you can't eat.
Helen: So you actually tweet primarily in pictures, which is an interesting spin on this.
Alton: Almost exclusively.
Helen: And they're pictures of text.
Alton: Yes, Post-it notes.
Helen: Which is great — right, so, Alton has this style, I don't know, Greg, if you're as obsessed about this as I am.
Greg: Oh no, it's great.
Helen: But it's so terrific, where you will respond to people's tweets by writing a message or drawing a picture on a Post-it note, sticking it to your computer monitor, taking a photograph of it, and tweeting that image along with the relevant hashtag.
Alton: Tweeting photographs, yeah.
Helen: And that occupies an interesting middle ground because it's text, but it's a picture of text. So, in a way, for those consumers of Twitter, which is a primarily text-based medium, who are just scrolling looking for the photos, you'll pop out, and you're tricking them into reading words.
Alton: I didn't mean to do that. It was just not wanting to constrain myself to 140 characters. I wanted to be able to draw. I want to be able to do — I'm a visual person, so I chose a canvas which is a square, yellow Post-it note. I never use color, unless something's really wrong. You see me start tweeting on blue, call the police because it means I'm being held hostage. Then that just became my language. It just became — it's what I do, and it allowed me, also, if I'm replying to someone, allows me to share that communication with a larger audience. What I didn't realize I was doing at the time was that I was, like, doubling, tripling, quadrupling the click-throughs that I was getting on traffic because of people looking — if somebody wanted to know if I answered them, they had to look at everything. And they had to click on everything. Which hugely changed my trajectory in social media, but I had no idea it was doing that.
Greg: Very good strat.
Alton: I didn't know — it wasn't a strat. It wasn't — it was completely just a fluke. It was just stumbling onto a way of doing something.
Helen: Accidental brilliance.
Alton: If it's accidental, is it brilliance? I don't know.
Helen: That's a really good point. Accidental thing that could be perceived as brilliant if you decided to take intentional credit for it.
Greg: Just take credit for it. Happy accident.
Alton: It was a happy accident. And the thing is, I used to say, "I'm not ever gonna do social media. I hate social, I hate the idea of it, blah, blah, blah." And then, when I discovered that one thing, that I could find a way to express myself as an individual, then it was like, "Oh, well, this is actually kind of fun." And you know, now I've got 1.75 million followers, I guess, or something like that.
Helen: But who's counting.
Alton: Well, you know what, I don't actually count, because you can't — people get fascinated by those metrics. But in the end, I'm far more interested in simply being able to have a communication with fans. Which, by the way, is something that's completely new in our generation. I mean, once upon a time, famous people got bags of mail, you know, and dictated return letters through secretaries, and they went out, and that was personal and lovely, and maybe you'd get one, and maybe you wouldn't. But now, on a day-to-day basis, there's this status of, "Look who answered me." Now, all of a sudden, I start getting followers because such and such answered me, or somebody famous follows me, and now I'm really in. So it's an interesting dynamic. It's currency, it's just like money now.
Helen: Do you feel like you have a sense of a certain monolith that your fans are? Like, do they seem like they're one type of person, or one type of voice that they interact with you?
Alton: Cooking is an incredibly intimate thing to do for people. You know, sex is intimate, but, in a way, also completely non-intimate, depending on how you approach it. Laughter, comedy: very personal. Food: very personal. If we all watch the same comedian and then met them on the street, we would assume we knew him or her because the intimacy of comedy. The same thing happens with food. If you cook on TV enough, and people watch you, they assume a level of intimacy that may not actually exist. So when you do what I do for a living, everybody that communicates with you communicates with you as a known member of the family. Which defines my communications, really, with people on social, as is true of almost anybody that touches food in mainstream media. What's interesting about mine is that I have two very, very specific camps of people. I have Cutthroat Kitchen fans and I have Good Eats fans, and they do not always meet. Matter of fact, there's only about a 20 percent crossover between them. And so I find myself having to communicate two different sides of myself to those two different groups.
Helen: How do they differ?
Alton: Not all Good Eats fans like Cutthroat Kitchen, and a lot of Cutthroat Kitchen fans don't like Good Eats, or simply weren't around when it was on prime time. You know, I see tweets every day, or things on Facebook, of, "I discovered the show called Good Eats on Netflix." It's kind of like, "Wow, you mean John Lennon was in a group before Yoko Ono?" Not, please, not saying I'm the Beatles, okay. But you realize, "Oh, well, there are people that, when enough years have gone by, it's like, wow, you get how that could happen." So, good dilemma to have, being able to touch different generations with different kinds of things. My absolute rule with social media, and with communicating with these people, is everything's got to be absolutely authentic. I do it, that's me, yes, I have help. My DODO, as I mentioned, schedules things, because I might say, "Oh, gee, I'm going to Facebook this at seven in the morning." She's like, "What are you, a moron? No. Your people are on at blah, blah, blah." I'm like, "Oh, okay." So I give it to her and she does it, but you have to be authentic, and it has to be your real voice. You know, I don't take money for doing it. It's an honest line of communication. But also vital, because I know what my fans are thinking and doing and cooking, and what's going on in their kind of collective life, which is good.
Helen: Do the Cutthroat Kitchen fans, in particular, I would imagine, have a really interesting relationship to you? Because you are the consistent element on that show. And Cutthroat Kitchen is very unlike other cooking shows. There is cooking —
Alton: Designed for that cause, yes.
Helen: There's actual cooking that happens on it, but the really fascinating thing — for me, at least — when I watch it is that it is an extraordinarily complex, multi-component strategy game.
Alton: It's a game, it is a game show. And the reason that Cutthroat is different from the world of culinary competition shows is that culinary competition shows are based on, "All right, we're gonna make you jump through this hoop. You're gonna cook this food, somebody's gonna eat the food, and then somebody's gonna go home." You can't win that way on Cutthroat Kitchen. You must play the game. So it is a true game show, and yes, there is cooking, but above all, like you say, there's strategy. Cutthroat Kitchen is won or lost in the pantry, when you're shopping. During the bidding for the sabotages, how you dole out the sabotages, and then, ultimately, finally, how you bet on yourself. In other words, okay, you — Helen is going to buy a skillet shaped like a hashtag. And I know she's going to spend X amount of money on it. Am I willing to take it, or do I really need to spend money not to get it? I'm going to bet on myself, "You know what, I can do that. I can use that thing," and so now I'm going to bet on myself by making you spend that money. That's when things get really interesting; it's not what sabotages people put on each other. It's which ones they're willing to take themselves, and that's fun.
Helen: It's really fun. I mean, I think that what particularly appeals to my nerd brain is that there are lots of different paths that lead you to strategic victory. You can play to win, or you can play to make other people lose, or you can play to not lose yourself. And there are a lot of different paths, and a lot of my friends who are also Cutthroat Kitchen fans are not people who watch any other food TV. And it's a really terrific point of entry, I think, for them to start understanding that food is — that cooking is a skill, and that there are elements, and it's difficult, but it's beautiful and it's intimate.
Alton: Well, and in the end, Cutthroat Kitchen is problem-solving. You're going to have to put up with something, and isn't that kind of like cooking in regular life? How often, "Oh my gosh, I've got to make X, and I didn't bring any flour. Crap, what am I gonna do?" It's interesting that you mentioned the kind of multi-level strategy of how you could possibly win. It was beautifully done. We're in the middle of an all-star tournament. It comes on Wednesdays, and watching last week is — I can't even remember who the chefs were anymore, but the main thing that they realized is that Duff Goldman was in the competition. Under no circumstances can he survive to the final round, because if he survives to the final round, he's going to kick everybody's ass, because it's going to be dessert, and he's a baker. So it wasn't about, "I want to win, and you want to win." It was kind of like you and me, Helen, ganging up, "Okay, Greg has to go."
Helen: You gotta go.
Alton: We, you and I, and then we, will be on a level playing field, one of us will win, one of us will lose, but above all, he's got to go. That doesn't happen very often, but I just loved watching that because they changed the entire dynamic of the match.
Helen: Just watching them slowly realize that —
Alton: What had to be done. What has to be done. Which, in this case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Helen: Exactly, until the next round, when he becomes my enemy.
Alton: Until the next round, and then he's my enemy again, but for right now, we need to team up.
Helen: And there's something so deeply gratifying about watching people awaken to strategic thinking. You know, watching the contestants on the show realize that. It's like watching someone solve a puzzle.
Alton: Well, it's interesting. Somebody told me not too long ago that they liked Cutthroat Kitchen for the same reasons they liked Game of Thrones, because in the end, it was all about strategy. It was all positioning. It was all play. In one case, a long story arc's for power, and the other short-story arc's for some money.
Helen: Do you still have fun shooting it? I mean, is it — it looks like it's a blast.
Alton: Some days, it's a whole lot of fun. When unexpected things, when we have really great sabotages, it's a lot of fun. The days that it isn't fun is when I sometimes get tired and frustrated with the level of skill that some people that call themselves chefs have. And it makes me want to pull my hair out, or better yet, take their knives away, or something. I don't know, because I do get sometimes frustrated. It's like, "You shouldn't be here." I hate to say it that way, but it's kind of like, "Wouldn't this be a whole lot more fun if you were experienced enough to know that without this flour over here, you could've reached over here and done this." And every now and then I'll even be like, "Please, let me." I'll be talking to the producers, "Please, let me just go in and do one thing, please. I can change the whole dynamic." But then if I do that, I have to do it for the other people as well, and so I end up just knocking my head up against the wall.
Greg: That comes out of, it sounds like, an appreciation for the game and the craft there.
Alton: Yeah, but it's kind of like, I want better players. We're always just looking for better players, because, you know, they're good cooks but crappy players. A lot of times on that show, the worst cooks have won because they could play, and they were willing to play. And they knew they weren't going to get by on their food. Sometimes the best chefs walk in and they're like, "I'm the good chef, I'm going to win the game because I'm going to make marzipan, blah, blah, blah." And then they're out in the third round, they're like, "What the hell just happened." Sorry, I automatically use a French accent for that; I shouldn't.
Helen: All the least-sympathetic chefs are French. I think we can agree on that.
Alton: Well, no, it's — I was trained by people that yelled at me in French, but then, you know, they also taught me how to eat food, and love food, and a lot of other things. But it's just an icon.
Helen: How do you feel about restaurants these days?
Alton: More great restaurants in this country than there ever have been before. It's more challenging than ever before because the customers know what they're freaking doing, you know. I mean, America's full of fantastically well-trained eaters now. We know what's going on. You know, I know seventh-graders that can look up and say, "That's not an aïoli, that's mayo with garlic in it, what are you trying to pull here?" I mean, it's a rough room. I think that we're moving more and more to really thinking about our food as we eat it. Really tasting our food, we're not just chugging it down the way we used to. And even for things like, as I look at the Shake Shack thing on your computer. We're even paying real attention to the flavor and quality of foods that used to just be, "I'm gonna eat that in the car," you know. And so I think it's really, really rough to be in a restaurant. I'm really glad I did my time on the line. I hope not to ever again. I wouldn't own and cook in a restaurant if you put a gun to my head. It's too freaking hard. It's just too hard. I would maybe do other things in food, but that job, that's for crazy people. Crazy in-love people. People that really, really, want to do it, and the folks that can do it night after night, and do it well. Oh my gosh, to consistently run a great restaurant is absolutely one of the most miraculous tricks, because it means you've got to be a great manager. You've got to be really good at your job. You've got to be good at money. You've got to be good at marketing. There's a reason that restaurants fail as often as they do. It's because it's the hardest job on Earth.
Greg: Well, we have come to the time in the show that we like to call the Lightning Round.
Helen: Dun dun dun.
Greg: Yeah, this going to be terrible.
Alton: I'm typically not good with lightning rounds, but I'll give it my best.
Helen: We can go with a slower —
Alton: We can go with a — well, what's slower than lightning but faster than —
Helen: Cheetah? Cheetah. The Cheetah Round.
Alton: Cheetah, lets go with cheetah.
Greg: The Cheetah Round. "Cheetah Round" sounds good.
Alton: I'll try the Cheetah Round.
Alton: I'll take the Cheetah Round for 100.
Helen: All right. So we're just going to ask you a bunch of questions. Say whatever you want to say, doesn't even have to be relevant to the words that come out of our mouths.
Greg: So Cheetah Round question No. 1 is: You're at an airport, you got an hour and a half to kill. You have money in your wallet. What do you do? What's the thing you do?
Alton: Leave the airport. Unless I'm at very, very few airports, I'm going to leave the airport and try to find something nearby. I might just get in a cab and say, "Where should we eat? I need to be there in 15 minutes."
Helen: Plot twist: The security line is really long, and you can't go back out through security.
Alton: Holy crap. Um, fine, then I'm going to the airline club and hiding.
Helen: Oh, that's probably actually a very smart move. Anyway, if you walk into a bar you've never been to before, what is the drink that you order?
Alton: An Old Fashioned.
Helen: Any specific requests?
Alton: No. Just tell them to make one and watch how they do it, because it involves several different skills most of them ignored.
Greg: I feel like maybe 12 percent of the bartenders in Manhattan know how to make a good Old Fashioned.
Alton: There are a lot of really, really good bartenders here. The problem is is that most of them call themselves mixologists.
Helen: That's a difficult word.
Alton: That becomes sometimes a problem.
Helen: What if you walk into the bar in Heaven, and you know they're going to make you the best version of whatever drink it is that you order. What do you get then?
Alton: Wow, there's a bar in Heaven?
Helen: There is.
Alton: Or Heaven's a bar?
Greg: There's many bars, actually.
Alton: So it's a multiplex bar.
Greg: They have one that opens pretty early, and then it's kind of more of a lounge, but.
Alton: I think I would first just ask for a martini. I would go for a martini first, because how they're going to make that martini would tell me how my time in Heaven is going to go.
Helen: I like that you're applying strategy to these.
Alton: Do they validate parking?
Helen: They do, of course, it's Heaven.
Greg: You can never get too drunk in Heaven either.
Helen: Well, I'm also setting you up with this question because I recall, several years ago, I interviewed you for a different story, and you told me —
Alton: You interviewed me on the phone.
Helen: I did, I did. It was a phone interview, and it was really fun. You were drinking a drink while we were talking on the phone that I have gone on to make for myself many times that you called Brown's Bitter Truth.
Helen: Do you still make that?
Alton: I do, but because I'm obsessed with bitters, and as more and more great bitters come onto the marketplace, I change it up a lot. But yeah, I still do make it, how do you make it? We talked about this, I had just come up with that drink at the time.
Helen: Really? This is, like, 2010, this is a really long time ago. It's kind of Manhattan-ish, so the way that I now make it, which I'm sure has deviated from your original, is equal parts bourbon, Campari, and vermouth, and a lot of bitters, and usually an orange twist.
Alton: I mean, it's really closet to a Boulevardier —
Alton: But not quite. It's not quite a Boulevardier because of the vermouth.
Greg: All right, so next Cheetah Round question: You're on a solo road trip. You're rolling down the highway. You're blasting some music, maybe singing along to it. What is it?
Alton: ELO. I don't know why, that was the first thing that came to my mind.
Helen: Which album, or which song?
Greg: It's one of the greatest bands of the '70s, there's no question.
Alton: I'm going to go with, for some reason — what am I driving? Anything?
Greg: You're driving a Honda Civic from 1987.
Alton: No, no, I'm not, because I never would do that.
Helen: You're driving a '68 Dodge Dart.
Alton: No, I have a 1971 BMW 2001 manual, so I'm listening to "Mr. Blue Sky."
Helen: All right, yes, you are. That's really good. So if you were not Alton Brown, multihyphenate producer of every facet of food culture, what would you be doing with your life?
Alton: Meaning I'm still me, I just can't have the job I'm doing now?
Alton: Um, can I apply for skills that I'm not 100 percent sure that I actually possess?
Alton: Okay. I'd probably be a painter.
Helen: Art or house?
Alton: Art. I'm a pilot, so I could say I'd be a professional pilot, but in the end, I actually don't know that I want to be a professional pilot all the time. So I'll go with painter.
Helen: Do you paint?
Alton: I really suck.
Helen: But you're a good drawer, sketcher.
Alton: No, I'm actually a really bad drawer. It's just I'm really good at doing things really fast for putting it on Post-it notes. But if I have time, and somebody one day tells me, "You can actually take up something," then I would paint.
Helen: That's very inspiring, I like that.
Greg: Well, Alton, that's all the questions we have for you today. Thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell studio.
Alton: Fantastic. Glad to be here.
Helen: It was such a pleasure.
Alton: I'm still really wanting to know why a poutine joint has Robert Redford's face on a sticker.
Helen: I really would like to know as well. I picked it up because they just had these giant stickers by the register, and it's a seven-inch-high weird sticker of a face that's the logo of the —
Greg: It could also be 2014, 2015 Brad Pitt, trying to act like — he looks a lot like Robert Redford now.
Helen: I'm going Redford on this.
Alton: Yeah, I'm going Redford, too.
Helen: I'm with Alton.
Greg: Fair enough.
Alton: Thanks, guys.
Helen: Thanks for coming by.
Greg: Thank you.