Alton Brown: A storyteller, not a chef
He’s best known as a television show host with a distinctive way of presenting the art of cooking, but Alton Brown ultimately sees himself as a storyteller, not a culinary expert.
“Even writing a recipe is telling a story,” Brown told the Syracuse News Times in an April interview. “I approach everything that I do in media from a standpoint of the story. Even a single Instagram photo should tell a story. I see it all as fun, as one function: storytelling.”
Brown brings all of his skill sets — from storytelling to cooking to music — to “Eat Your Science,” his latest stage show that makes a stop May 20 at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino.
“Eat Your Science” features a wide variety of media apart from the wild food demonstrations that Brown’s former TV show “Good Eats” is known for. There are also videos and songs about food (Brown plays guitar and sings) and some audience involvement, if you dare.
“There are plenty of new therapy-inducing opportunities during our audience participation segments,” Brown said in a news release about the tour. “I don’t want to give too much away, but this time we’re going to play a little game while we are at it. Plus, you’ll see things I’ve never been allowed to do on TV.”
Cooking and science
That last statement is pretty curious, since Brown’s shows are known for being messy but fun endeavors. His TV life started after he graduated in 1997 from the New England Culinary Institute. He told the Syracuse News Times that cooking wasn’t his first career.
“I spent 10 years as a cinematographer,” Brown said. “I directed TV commercials for a little over eight years before I attended culinary school and decided to make food shows. As a hobbyist cook, I couldn’t find a show that I found entertaining and educational. And so I thought, ‘You know, I bet I could make a better one.’”
Just a year after graduating he put those filmmaking skills to use for a PBS pilot called “Good Eats,” which ended up being bought by the Food Network. Brown’s concept was a cooking show with a science vibe that often employed homemade devices that anyone can build. The show was on the Food Network for 12 years and won a Peabody Award in 2006, likely for its educational elements as well as its cooking tips.
Bon Appetit asked Brown in April what most people say to him when he’s recognized in public, and his answer is telling about the show’s appeal.
“The largest number of people that say something to me will say something like, ‘You’re that science guy,’” he said. “I appreciate the irony of it, because I flunked most of my science classes in high school and had to take several of my college ones twice. The fact that I am now ‘the science guy’ says something very peculiar about something.”
A loyal following
Peculiar or not, “Good Eats” earned a loyal following and is still in repeats on Netflix. Brown told culinary website Spoon University in an April interview that his favorite episode centered on garlic.
“It was in the fifth season, so relatively early on,” he said. “We shot it all from the point of view of a vampire who was trying to get over its fear of garlic. It was a fun show because it had so many visual challenges of storytelling. Although we did things later on that were more involved and visually complex, that was the first time that I realized the show could go to whole new places as far as storytelling went.”
Among Brown’s other Food Network show credits are as a commentator and announcer on competition show “Iron Chef America” and as the current host of the game show “Cutthroat Kitchen.” That show came up in conversation with Bon Appetit when they asked Brown for a popular food obsession that he doesn’t understand.
“Sriracha — it’s not that good,” he said. “It’s fine, but everybody goes gaga over Sriracha. On ‘Cutthroat Kitchen,’ the chefs put it on everything, like it’s bottled bacon or something.”
At the same time, Brown told Spoon University that food trends are usually positive.
“Even if you eventually get really sick of it, it tends to open people’s eyes about certain things,” Brown said. “I mean yes, I still like avocado toast. In fact on ‘Good Eats,’ we were one of the first shows to even talk about avocado toast, and it opened a lot of people’s eyes to the concept of having avocado at breakfast. Avocado is such an amazing food that I think it kind of deserves it.
“Now the rainbow bagel, to me, is just kind of silly. There is not really anything redeeming about that. But I think that any food trend opens people’s eyes and then burns itself out.”
Brown clearly knows his food, and as such has authored a bunch of books on cooking, including a series called “I’m Just Here for the Food” and “Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen.” As far as other non-TV works go, “Eat Your Science” is his second live show, after the successful “Edible Inevitable” tour of 2013-14. He told the Syracuse New Times that he carefully watches what resonates with the audience.
“One night an audience will laugh at one point, and maybe another night they don’t,” he said. “It depends on so many different factors. You have to learn how to read the room and pay attention to the audience to know what they’re going to laugh at and what they’re not going to like. You have to be ready and change your methods.”
As for future projects, Brown told the Syracuse newspaper that he’s working on a web-based project that’s going to be similar to “Good Eats,” as well as a book out in September called “EDC.”
“It stands for Every Day Cook,” he said. “It will feature 100 original recipes of the food I cook on a daily basis. It’s a special project, because it’s the first time we’ve produced photographs to include in the book. They are very stylized and cinematographic; all the pictures were taken with an iPhone.”