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Alton Brown Gave Everything He Had for ‘Good Eats: The Return’

When it comes to making “Good Eats,” there are no shortcuts

Food Network

After a seven-year hiatus, Alton Brown is back making new episodes of Good Eats, the Food Network show that catapulted him to stardom two decades ago.

While the series hasn’t changed much in terms of the general style and format since the last season aired in 2012, Good Eats: The Return, as it’s called, does feature a whole new set of recipes, plus some filmmaking flourishes that reflect Brown’s ever-evolving tastes in movies and TV. “After this many years, if I’m going to take another shot at this, I better do it right, because I probably won’t get another chance,” Brown recently told Eater. As always, Brown is the writer/producer/star/director of Good Eats, and some members of his crew have been working with the Food Network icon since the very first episode of his show. The first pair of episodes premiered on Sunday night, and fresh cuts will keep airing weekly into the fall.

During the last week of shooting, Brown took a break to chat with Eater about how he comes up with new Good Eats episodes, his filmmaking influences this time around, and the art of making a complicated process look simple.

What are you fired up about this time around, recipe-wise or innovation-wise?
Alton Brown: That’s a multi-faceted question. It’s a food show, so everybody always want to know about recipes, but we don’t consider ourselves a cooking show. We look at every one of these shows as a short movie about food, and they all have themes. Food hasn’t changed that much — it has in that we can certainly use ingredients now that we couldn’t use even a few years ago, because the internet has made so many things available that people just couldn’t get before, so that’s been a game-changer. But the real big change for us has been the shooting technology, the production tools that I’m kind of fully abusing now. The show is much more visually rich and complex from a story standpoint. My crew likes to say that I “hand-carve snow flakes for a living,” and that has certainly been the case this season. I’m very excited about the show, just from a production standpoint.

From a food standpoint, we’ve been able to tackle some things that I had always wanted to do or was waiting to do. For instance, we’re doing an immersion circulator show, and I couldn’t do that even six years ago, because the machines were really quite expensive back then. Now they’re a lot more reasonable, so I can deal with things like that. Also there are some things that a few years ago, no one was really interested in — sourdough starters, for instance. Now a lot of folks are interested in them, so we’re doing a post-apocalyptic sourdough episode. And then we’re tackling some American classics, like chicken parmesan and ice box cake. We’re doing a one-hour turkey special, and we’re doing shakshuka, which a few years ago we probably couldn’t have gotten away with because not enough people could get some of the ingredients that would go into that.

I think the food landscape has changed a great deal, and that is one of the things that’s enabling us to take on the stories that we’re doing. A lot of people are just more aware of things, too. We’re doing a show on ancient grains, and a few years ago people were like, “What the hell are these?”

When you’re putting together the show, do you decide to base an episode on foods like sourdough starters or ancient grains because you perceive that there is a public interest there?
No, I never think that. I actually never, ever, ever think that. These are all things that I was interested in years ago, they just weren’t ready for primetime. I don’t want to make shows that people aren’t going to watch. These were mostly subjects that I had shelved for that very reason. But I never come at it from [the angle of], “Wow, this is hot! Let’s do it!” I just make the shows that I want to make and hope that people watch them.

As a home cook and food enthusiast, has your interest grown in any particular way since the last time you were making Good Eats?
My interest in food continues. It’s a source of infinite connectivity to the world and to culture. But in the end, if it’s going to make it on Good Eats, it has to be a story. You can’t taste the TV screen. We work very hard to make sure that not only is the food good, but that the recipes are designed in such a way that people can make good food out of it. But what I’m really after, as a filmmaker, is to make really good half-hour stories about food. And at the end of the day, the food better, by golly, taste good. But my interests in food are constantly shifting.

What are your main film influences this time around? And are you going to be doing any homages?
I’m like a rolling piece of Velcro — I pick up a lot of things — and any given show might have a scene that’s an homage to something. For instance, we riff often on Monty Python. The only thing that’s funny about that now is that so many young people who watch the show don’t know the original skits that we’re riffing on. So if I have a bunch of guys come busting in saying, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” A lot of people now go, “Wow, I don’t know what that’s about.” We have an entire show — the shakshuka show, in fact — where we riff hard on the movie Casablanca, but it’s actually shot in Academy aspect ratio, in black and white.

I will say that because I’m now composing more and more for people who are watching on phones and tablets, I’m a lot more graphic. And I don’t mean graphics, as in text, but graphic as in compositions, and I tend toward a lot more symmetry. I guess I would have to give a nod to Wes Anderson for that, but I’m as much a fan of early Orson Welles as I am of him. But I think everything I see, I pick up something from, and I started to cut a little bit differently and have swiped some styles from the BBC for that — for instance, Fleabag. I’ve also lifted from What We Do in the Shadows. But it’s not just lifting and stealing, but being influenced by [these shows] and saying, “That looks fun, let’s do this.” So if you’re a TV fan or a cinephile, I think you’ll find a lot of inside giggles when you watch the show.

We’ve also worked hard to create a visual style that, frankly, nobody else is doing. We have a rule on the show where every day, we have to do a shot that we’ve never done before. For instance, we’ve got a shot in a Renaissance festival that involves a dolly mounted on top of a dolly pushing another dolly on which another dolly was mounted. So 58 wheels were moving in one shot in order to get the camera to go where I wanted it to go. Luckily, because I own the production company, I can decide which days I lose money, and so that’s what I’ve decided to do this time.

This is a love letter, this is the best I can do. These 13 shows, if I die tomorrow — well, I still have to shoot tomorrow — but if I die as soon as post is done, then I’d be able to say, “Yeah, that’s the best.”

What is your favorite thing that you’ve filmed? And what do you think will either take off or surprise viewers this time around?
I think longtime viewers are going to get what they’ve always gotten and liked, which is that we try to eliminate the “why” and the “how” of the things that are going on in the kitchen. And I’m very fortunate that I was finally able to afford a real science officer. I’m working with someone who is a real food scientist named Dr. Arielle Johnson, who helped Noma do their fermentation program. Now I can push harder, because I know that my brain will only go so far. I don’t have a degree in science. I’ve read a lot, I’ve studied a lot. But at the end of the day, when you’ve got a PHD in flavor science, you’re a pretty strong force. So now we’re able to go a little deeper into science, for those who want to do it. But even if you don’t — if you just want to have a good time watching TV and maybe make some food — we’re still trying to provide an unfussy level of cuisine that people will respond to, I think. We are doing a holiday show about low-alcohol cocktails, because I would rather drink all day long when my family’s in town.

But to answer your question if I think there’s anything that’s going to catch… I don’t think that way, I have no idea. There will be shots that when they go by on television, I will wonder if anyone will catch what we just did and how complicated it was. It’s like a magic trick: the best magic tricks look simple when you watch them. You can work for five years on some little card trick, and when people see it, they say, “Oh my god that’s simple,” but it’s not. We have shots where whole chunks of sets had to move in order for a camera to get someplace. People won’t realize it — they won’t. There’s no way that they’ll know that it happened, but they’ll just hopefully see it and think that it’s cool.

I just want, at the end of the day, for them to say, “Wow, I watched a half-hour of a TV show and I’m really glad I did.”

The last time we spoke you mentioned the possibility of doing another live show. Any update on that?
I am going to tour one more time, and it’s going to be a long tour. We’re going to go out next fall, November 2020. And then I’m going to take that same show out for probably about an eight-week run in the beginning of 2021. It’s a farewell tour — I will not tour again after that.

New episodes of Good Eats: The Return air Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST on the Food Network.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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