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Alton Brown on Remixing ‘Good Eats’ and the Problem With Director’s Cuts

The new versions of the old episodes premiere this week on the Cooking Channel

The Cooking Channel

Before diving into a full-fledged reboot of his wildly popular Food Network series Good Eats, Alton Brown decided to pluck some old episodes from the archives and rework them so that they meet his current standards for food TV. This new iteration of his old hit, dubbed Good Eats: Reloaded, premieres on the Cooking Channel tonight at 9 p.m. EST.

Although this project was originally born out of a desire to update some sequences and fix a few lingering issues, the remix of Good Eats quickly morphed into a new creative endeavor entirely. The author/TV star notes that the episodes are “65 percent new” on average. Brown also believes that this redux project helped him get ready to dive into the process of creating an entirely new batch of episodes, which will launch next year under the banner Return of the Eats.

Eater caught up with the food science star a few days before his recent Charleston boat wedding to chat about returning to the Good Eats universe, the problems with director’s cuts, and his plans for a brand new live show.

How did you select the episodes to remix? Is this like your greatest hits, redux?
Alton Brown: It’s funny, this whole thing happened because I was cleaning out my DVR and accidentally turned an old Good Eats episode on that I hadn’t seen since the day I finished editing it. And it was like, “Holy crap! I’d do that completely differently now.” They’re mostly episodes from the first four seasons, when I was still figuring things out, and I wasn’t the director of the show yet — I didn’t start directing till Season 5. But really, it came down to realizing that there were episodes where there were recipes or procedures that really have evolved a lot, because I never stop in any one place. There were some places where I just hated the recipes from the get-go, which is true, for instance, of a fondue recipe which I’ve completely redone, and now I love it. And there were places where I’ve just made mistakes.

I thought, “Well I’m just going to go in and do some nip and tuck.” And then I ended up doing these massive renovations, because I think we figured out the average is that each one of these shows is now 65 percent new. It’s a heck of a renovation. But the original DNA of the shows is still there, and a lot of times, the “now” me is on screen with the “old” me, which is a difficult thing to confront — your own age and mortality.

That’s kind of cool, though. You’re going through your back pages and confronting the past before moving onto the future.
I felt that I had to. I felt like before I could move on, and completely reboot with Return of the Eats, I had to go back and fix these things. But what I didn’t expect is that once I started shooting them — they’re very challenging to do from a technical and narrative standpoint — I find that I like them a whole lot. I think they’re some of the best shows we’ve done. And it’s funny, my fiancée said, “These are just new shows with some flashbacks.” Which, I’m kind of like, “I guess you could kind of see it that way.” I think now that I’ve made 13 of them, and I’m looking at them, I realize that what I’m really doing is working out how I’m going to do the new ones, because technology has changed, our camera equipment has changed, and our post-production capabilities have changed. So maybe I’m fixing things, but then also giving myself an appetizer, you know what I mean? I hadn’t thought about that before.

I have a sort of tangential question. I know you’re a film buff. Do you have a favorite director’s cut or redux version of a movie?
It’s really interesting. I was having a conversation with some of my crew members about this. Umm, no. And the reason why is that I almost inevitably feel that directors fall in love sometimes with the wrong things. There are no recuts, for instance, of Stanley Kubrick’s films. Why? Because Stanley Kubrick, my favorite filmmaker, had final cut in the first place. So he did what he wanted to do the first time. And as I was going though, I couldn’t find a single one on the list that we made of re-ups that I thought was better than the initial release. And, of course, we argued for hours about Blade Runner, because, you know, there are four different versions there, and I kept coming back to the original. Same with Apocalypse Now and a few other things.

So, no. And I went into this process fully aware of that. I treated this as very much a reductive process — I removed, I didn’t just add. One of the horrible things about director’s cuts is usually they get longer, because they’re so in love with this scene, or the light was so great. No. In fact, each one of these episodes is one minute shorter than the original, because to be on the Cooking Channel, what we call “the clock” is different. I actually had to bring these in at a minute shorter than the original.

The style and the energy of Good Eats kind of pre-dated internet memes. You’re very savvy about social media. Did internet culture influence either Good Eats: Reloaded, or the new series? Were you thinking about how this is not just going to be on TV, but out there somewhere on social media?
Oh yes. Because remember, the biggest development in filmmaking or exhibition in the last however many years is the iPhone, the smartphone. And one of the reasons I stopped making Good Eats when I did wasn’t because… well I was tired, but I didn’t stop because I was tired. I mean, I shot for 14 years, and we didn’t get cancelled. But I thought there was going to be a real sea change in how we consume media. And, you know, I remember having discussions with people at Food Network when they got onto me because I was shooting cooking scenes looking straight down. Nobody had done that. Nobody had done that! And now it’s kind of like, “What hasn’t been done?”

My opinion is that every one of these shows has to be visually arresting, because in the end, we have to look as good as the commercials, because that’s where most of the money is spent. But now, that’s not really the case anymore, because I’ve got to be visually arresting on something the size of a pack of playing cards. And, in fact, we’re putting a lot of attention and time now into a very different kind of visual design. These shows have moved into a completely different range. And you’ll see it in composition, you’ll see it in lighting, and you’ll also see it in the influence of the filmmakers I watch now. I mean, people are probably going to see some Wes Anderson in my stuff now, because I soak things up.

And, of course, we’re now dealing with a very set aspect ratio. When we started making Good Eats, it was still “four by three” television. There wasn’t even high-def yet. But now I’m not composing for television. I’m composing for phones. And I’m not thinking about how this is going to look in somebody’s living room. I’m thinking about how it looks when they’re holding their phone on a subway train.

Do you think there’s a greater need for feel-good entertainment like Good Eats now that we’re living in an era when there’s so much bad news and political tension all the time? Do the times influence what you do at all?
The times only influence what I do in as much as that food information, food politics, and food stuff changes. You know, the USDA changes the ratings for the size of a broiler-frier chicken, which they have done. But politics, I have no… that is not why I’m here. And for instance, on my social media feeds, I have never said anything political, other than I may have criticized the USDA for a silly decision about, I dunno, cereal. Everyone’s a politician now, and we don’t need any more.

Do you feel like you have a mission to keep making this kind of entertainment, for your fans?
I think that in the end, it’s my job to keep people curious, ultimately, and to entertain. I am, in the end, an entertainer. And that’s my first job, and if by doing that job, I can make people curious enough to get off their sofa and go to the kitchen, then I win.

You’ve done a lot of TV since Good Eats went off the air over five years ago. Do you feel like there are people who are fans of your work, but are not familiar with Good Eats at this point?
There are, and I know this because of the people that I meet when I do my live touring shows, which I’ve put a lot of attention into over the last few years. There are a lot of kids that know me as the Cutthroat Kitchen guy. But a lot of young kids’ parents grew up on Good Eats, and so they turn their kids onto Good Eats. So overwhelmingly, people will say, “Hey, I really like that show, now when are you bringing back Good Eats?” Let’s put it this way: everybody wants Good Eats back.

Are you thinking about doing another live show?
Yes. I will go back out on the road. I am now planning my next tour — it’s going to be a holiday show. In fall 2019, we will take that show out, right after Halloween. And right now I’m negotiating to do that for three years running. I’ve always wanted to do a live holiday thing. Having toured two shows, I think that would be the next thing to do. So that’s going to be next year. But I’ve got to make some TV shows first.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Good Eats: Reloaded [Cooking Channel]
All Food TV Coverage [E]