Serious Eats

We Sit Down with Alton Brown

Shortly after wrapping up production on the final episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown is on tour with Welch's grape juice to promote his new book, Good Eats 3: The Later Years. We had a chance to sit down with him and talk about the show, his feelings about modernist cuisine, the social importance of food, and some very strange ice cream.

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Good Eats was so much more than a cooking show. What do you think is its legacy? I'm the last guy to ask about that. I do the work and I move on. I do know that if a show's been in production for 13 solid years, something's gonna stick, just from the longevity. But legacy? Oh, I'm not about to talk. I have no idea.

What would you say was the core audience of the show? I don't have any idea. I never made it for an audience—I made it for me. I think the people that gravitated towards the show were smart, curious people who like to know why things happen, who were looking to understand the culinary landscape, not just get another recipe. Which turns out to be a lot more than we ever thought. The original show list for Good Eats was only 50 episodes long. We never expected to make it beyond that.

Good Eats sought to perfect a lot of dishes. What about the search for perfection drove you? It was really about making sense of ingredients. We had a sign over the studio door that said "laughing brains are more absorbent," so one priority was to entertain people, and the other was to educate. What did we do on Good Eats? We made sense. I wanted to make sense above all.

Did Good Eats, especially its focus on regional American cuisines, influence your personal tastes in food? It changed my perspective on what American food was. I always wanted to make a show that was based on working with people's established tastes. I never wanted to invent new food. You know what mac and cheese tastes like—I want to help you get there. It was never about inventing new dishes. It was about using technique and science and understanding to get what you want out of the scrambled eggs, to get what you want out of the chocolate pie. Sometimes we'd go way off and make our own ginger ale, but there was always a point to why we were doing that.

The changes that I went through had more to do with becoming a father. I've got a daughter who's 11, who never knew a world without Good Eats. Cooking for her, for someone who wanted things pretty simple at first, made me tear everything down to elemental levels, to where my cooking isn't about trying to conquer a new food, it's about trying to get out of the way of the food. Let the food be what the food wants to be. And come up with simple techniques for capturing it.

It's been some time since your big diet. What was your experience of it, and have you been able to maintain it? That diet was color-coded: so many times a week I needed to get this much purple, this much orange (like sweet potatoes), this many dark leafy greens. I tried to craft a system for things that I needed to eat instead of things that I shouldn't eat. When you're on a restrictive diet, you fight it, so I tried to be on a proactive diet. You can't go back to the old ways, which is why I made some foods illegal forever. I gave up milk, not because dairy's bad, but because milk made me do bad things. It made me eat the Girl Scout cookies. And I gave up diet soda, which was the single hardest thing to do.

Now I have a set weight, and if I ever cross it I go into emergency mode, because it's very easy to fall off. If I ever go above my set weight I go back to the sardines and avocados. I still drink a purple smoothie every day.

Some people claim you're against modernist cooking. Is that accurate? My issue with molecular gastronomy is not that I'm against it. I'm against people jumping over regular cooking to get to it, which is what a lot of young cooks today are doing. They're saying, "ooh methylcellulose," instead of "cook the carrots." All of the great practitioners of it are simply using it as another tool in their toolbox. But when something becomes a movement people have a tendency to over-focus on it. I don't have anything against molecular gastronomy, other than I don't like foams very much. Nobody craves foam. Except on a cappuccino.

I use those ingredients all the time. I use xanthan gum to keep my salad dressings from separating. During the summer we always keep liquid nitrogen around so we can make lightning fast sorbets and ice creams out of things. My daughter and I come up with the weirdest ice cream combinations, and that's always a lot of fun. I use all kinds of stabilizers, but I'm not making them the star.

What's your favorite bizarre ice cream? You won't believe me.

Try us. [Ahem.] Gin, Welch's grape juice, gummy bears, and prunes. It had to have the gin or I wouldn't have liked it as much. The gummy bears were my daughter's choice. I went with the prunes. We were kind of battling, but it turned out to be really good. But you can't use the green gummies. The green gummies threw everything off in a really bad way and I don't know why.

TV chef celebrities have become a dime a dozen. Do you think they've been beneficial to the American culinary landscape, or harmful? Both. A lot of food media idolizes food. We've done food some disservice by objectifying it, which may very well have played a role in some of the obesity issues in this country. That idolatry takes food out of context, out of its proper place, and makes it about that item rather than cooking for your family, breaking bread with each other, the spiritual aspects of cooking.

On the other hand, people are more aware about food, and are better able to use tools in the kitchen. As to whether we've done mostly good or mostly bad? I don't know. I did a lecture at Kent State to a sold-out auditorium of kids that grew up on Good Eats, and they're culinarily savvy. Whether they'll take that knowledge on and cook, who knows. Some people can go into restaurants and detect Spanish saffron but can't boil an egg.

You've talked a fair bit about the social aspect of food. What about that is so important to you? We live in shattered, fragmented culture. We don't worship in the same places, we don't have common political beliefs, and we share very little with each other. The reason food is such a powerful subject is because it's one of the few things we still have in common. We still need to connect with each other. Very little does that: food, and death, and dead people don't talk very well. The real miracle of food is that connectivity. People ask, "what's the most important tool in the kitchen?" I answer, the kitchen table. If you don't have a kitchen table to sit down at and feed people nothing you make matters.

About the interviewer: Max Falkowitz writes the weekly Spice Hunting column and co-authors ice cream recipes on Scooped for Serious Eats. Follow him on Twitter at Max Falkowitz.

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