SALON TALKS

"[I] had a really punchy face": Alton Brown on acting with his younger self on "Good Eats: Reloaded"

The TV host appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss reloading the most hated "Good Eats" recipe & post-pandemic plans

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Published June 27, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

Host Alton Brown, as seen on "Good Eats: The Return," Season 15. (Anders Krusberg/Food Network)
Host Alton Brown, as seen on "Good Eats: The Return," Season 15. (Anders Krusberg/Food Network)

Alton Brown says that he has always made "Good Eats," his hit Food Network television show, for himself. That's evident when you go back and compare the original episodes of the series to the other food shows airing on television in 1999. 

In the height of the stand-and-stir era, he put cameras in his refrigerator and oven, went deep on food science and introduced viewers to a rotating cast of puppets and fictional characters. It was quirky, colorful and informative. And it worked; well enough that Brown brought back "Good Eats: Reloaded," an exploration and update of some original episodes, in 2018, as well as "Good Eats: The Return" in 2019. 

"Reloaded" is now in its second season and, Brown says, he's still doing it for himself — though this time, with himself. 

"I see myself in a slightly lighter light, which is why I think I now enjoy making the 'Reloaded' series," Brown said. "I actually enjoy them more than I like making new 'Good Eats' episodes, because I do get to riff off that old version of me."

Now that you've seen the first segment of our "Salon Talks" interview with Brown, watch the second half of the interview here or read a Q&A below to learn more about how the explosion of "foodie culture" impacted the return of "Good Eats," his thoughts on Southern cuisine, and the potential return of another of his old television series. 

In addition to [your home-produced] "Quarantine Quitchen," we're also in the middle of a new season of "Good Eats: Reloaded." Pulling back a bit, I was curious how, or if the explosion of food media, foodie culture over the last two decades impacted how you revamped the show, or came into the show? What I mean by this, "Good Eats" originally launched back in 1999, and I feel like we've seen a real saturation in the market of food media. I feel like even the most basic home cook is maybe familiar with terms, or techniques that, 20 years ago, they might not have been. Do you feel like people are coming from a different frame of reference? If so, did you have to adapt the show in any way?

The only thing that particular phenomenon has done for me is opened up the avenues of what I can and can't do. When I first started making "Good Eats," we would literally get on the phone — remember, this is when the internet was still dial-up, mostly. We would get on the phone and call grocery stores around the United States to ask if they had certain ingredients. We would try never to use ingredients that were not available to people.

Now, with the internet, I can talk about chilies, I can talk about spices, and things that people can get the next day, that they used to couldn't get at all, or had never even heard of. Machines – immersion circulators, for instance – things like that, 10 years ago that was crazy talk. Nobody could get that kind of stuff or afford that kind of stuff except high-end restaurant cooks. Now, they're commonplace.

Technology has changed, but above all, delivery, and what you can order and access has changed. I think that because of social media, our awareness of certain foods has changed enough, too, where nothing seems strange anymore. Certainly, our general appreciation, and acceptance of a wide range of ethnic cuisines and dishes, that we don't even think of as being ethnic anymore. Ramen is ramen. We don't even think of where that came from anymore. It's been completely pulled into American culture. Really, for me, in making these shows is, I'm going to confess, I do not watch — I do not allow myself to watch any cooking shows.

Really?

Because, I don't want to know what other people are doing, or how they're doing it because it might change the way that I do what I do. I really still follow the rule that I followed when I was originally making "Good Eats," which is, I make them for me. I don't think about what the audience [thinks]. I know that the zeitgeist has changed, that the general culinary gestalt has changed. I'm aware of that, because I'm inside of it, but I don't think about that when I'm doing the shows.

This is kind of a "squishy" question, I guess, but has it been emotional, or cathartic to revisit old episodes of "Good Eats"? What I find interesting in "Good Eats: Reloaded" is, it's like you're acting with a younger version of yourself. And I wondered if that brought up any feelings?

Feelings? I had to figure out how to do it. I had to look at this 20-year younger version of me and figure out, "How do I feel about him?" It also forces you to realize, "I'm older. How do I feel about that?" You know? Because you don't think about that when you're just zipping through life. It just kind of happens, and then one day you die, and that's that.

I think that once I realized that he was another character that I could interact with, that I could stop and make fun of, or make fun of myself now, then it's okay. I think catharsis is probably there in smaller doses, in that, when you live a lot of your life in front of a camera, you can either embrace that version of you or you can pretend it doesn't exist, which is what a lot of actors do when they don't go to see their movies, or TV shows.

I have to live with it all the time, so I think that it's helped that. I think I see myself in a slightly lighter light, which is why I think I now enjoy making the "Reloaded" series. I actually enjoy them more than I like making new "Good Eats" episodes, because I do get to riff off that old version of me, who said some crazy s**t. Sorry, who said some crazy stuff, and did some things that I don't agree with, and wore really ugly shirts, and had a real punchy face. He's the brunt of the joke, but then sometimes I'm the brunt of the joke, this version.

I was curious how you chose which episodes you'd wanted to revisit. Like, this last week it was the pot roast episode, which you were pretty open about the fact that not everybody was crazy about that recipe.`

Oh, everybody hated that recipe. It was one of the most hated recipes of all time on "Good Eats." The way that we choose is really a mixture of things. One, we've got to feel that we can really improve upon the recipe or the application; the dishes that were involved. Number two, it's really best if there have been updates in our understanding of a procedure, or understanding where a dish comes from.

Then, the other thing is whether or not I can make the show feel new across four acts. If I'm only changing stuff in the second and third act, and somebody has to sit in and watch the whole first act in its original form, I don't want that. I want to be able to change something in every act so that the whole show feels new. Some of the shows are really tough to do that. In fact, the pot roast show had been on the original list for Season 1, but I hadn't figured out how to do it yet. I hadn't figured out how to weave the story, so that one was too hard.

In the first season, I focused on shows that had three recipes because I knew I could break up things into acts. That show had one [recipe], so that made it much tougher. 

By the second season, because we had figured out how to deal with our green screen, our composite shots, and how I could talk to myself, we had finally figured that out. Even though the shows are about 70% new, there's still that fiber from the original episode. That's really what it comes down to. It's a mixture of factors that help us decide what shows are going to be appropriate, and which ones aren't.

That's great. In addition to seeing a rise in foodie culture over the last couple of decades, we've also seen a real celebration of Southern food over the last decade. You've been in Georgia, on and off, since the '90s. I was curious what it's been like for you, living in the South, while the region's food is finally getting its national due, I think.

I'm a fan of Southern cuisine, I'm a fan of all regional cuisines. Look, there's only two kinds of food: good food and bad food. Once a food gets branded as a very specific type, I bristle against that a bit. It's like, grits are good. We don't necessarily have to say, "Well, that's good Southern food. Y'all come in and have some of these grits. We going to drink ice tea out of mason jars, and maybe we'll have some bourbon later." Kind of like, okay, enough with the Southern thing maybe, for a minute. 

Southern culture did have to rise out of the good old boy media reckoning that was the "Dukes of Hazzard," or even darker things than that. I think that Southern cuisine had to get legitimized and come into the 21st century. There needed to be an understanding that Southern cuisine, at its root, is very agriculture-based. It ain't all ham, fried chicken, and bacon, baby, it just ain't. 

So the reality of what real Southern food is had to overcome the stereotypes — but now I think it is time to just call it food. And to appreciate it as much as we appreciate something from Maine or Minnesota, although lutefisk is still a push for me, no matter what.

Well, so I personally especially loved your exploration of the South though, during your show "Feasting on Asphalt." And I was curious if you could talk a little bit about the genesis of that show and if you were intentionally trying to showcase Southern places, Southern food?

Well, "Feasting on Asphalt," which I want to point out happened before "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," was a desire to make a real road documentary. To basically say, "We're going that way." And just go and find the food along the way. And so we did two seasons, one that was East to West across the country and the one that was up the Mississippi river. And the reason I wanted to go up the Mississippi river wasn't just because I wanted to eat a lot of Southern food, but it was also, I wanted to kind of appreciate and understand the fact that the Mississippi was the original freeway. It was the original highway of the United States, where a majority of the goods moved up and down. The aforementioned bourbon, for instance, probably wouldn't have really happened, except that it's an easier way of moving corn on a river.

But we did encounter a lot of Southern food and Southern food that I wasn't necessarily expecting. But I wasn't after that, I just wanted to see what was there. And I didn't know what was going to be there. That's kind of the whole point of the documentary is that active discovery, which I think is really crucial. If I learned anything about Southern food along that trip is that having connections to very old food ways and to old food traditions is something that the South is really good at. We're good at holding onto those things. And we're good at understanding and appreciating tradition, even if there are easier, cheaper, faster ways of doing things. 

Sometimes there is a reason to keep doing them the way that our grandparents did them. And I think that that is something that the South, because of our particular ideas about heritage and hospitality, that we tend to cling to.

And also knowing though, that it doesn't have to be fussy. A good Southern cook will reach for a can, absolutely will reach for a can. And so I think I got some appreciation for that. I would love to do another one of those trips. But the problem is it's hard now to find a restaurant that "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" hasn't been to. I'll make a show about just, "Have you guys been on 'Diners, Drive-ins and Dives'? You haven't? Okay then we're coming." 

But when we did that show, we didn't know where we were going. We would literally stop at a place, check it out for a second and say, "Hey, can we bring the cameras in?" And most of them are like, "Who are you?" Because that was still before foodie culture had quite permeated the airwaves. So for me, it was still a new frontier.

So I was actually going to ask back in February before the nation was on lockdown, I'd seen that you purchased this really gorgeous vintage BMW, which led me to wonder if 'Feasting on Asphalt' was actually maybe coming back?

Well, I don't have rights to the title, Food Network owns that. So, I would very much like to — and that was the impetus for the purchase, but then, I'll be honest, I haven't ridden because I'm afraid if I have an accident, I'll have to go to a hospital. I don't want to go to hospital. I don't want to go to a hospital ever, but I especially don't want to go to a hospital and take up resources now. 

So, the really interesting thing is that everything about food and our ideas about food are changing at an accelerated rate. And then also travel, I think that we're all going to start traveling on the road again. I don't know when I'll get on an airliner again, I don't want to go to an airport. Luckily I know how to fly small airplanes so I can do that and get around to places. But I think that a show like "Feasting on Asphalt" may have new resonance in the COVID age.

That leads me to ask — where's the first place that you do see yourself riding or driving when restaurants are open again and open again at full capacity?

Well, I will probably, since I'm married to a woman who designs restaurants for a living, I will probably go to her restaurants, which are most of our favorites anyway. I love going to places that my wife designed, because if you were married to Beethoven, you'd probably like to listen to his symphonies. Well I'm married to a really good designer, so I like eating in her spaces. So I imagine that the first places that we'll go back to will be some of her restaurants here in Atlanta. 

We really miss our little New York apartment, which we haven't seen in four months. So, I can't wait to get back to New York and go to some of my favorite places there, including my favorite bar on the lower East side and a couple of burger joints. So, I will never take it for granted again.

And I'm thinking about it in new ways. How much of the restaurant experience is that communal experience of sitting in a crowded room and in a place like New York, where the restaurants are loud? What's that going to be like? And will it be any fun anymore? I don't know. I don't know if it'll be fun anymore.

It's going to be a really interesting rediscovery to figure out what food really means. Because I know a lot of people that are saying, they know where they're going to go when they can again, and then I know other people that are saying, "I don't know. And I don't know if I will." 

Elizabeth and I don't know when we'll go out. It's not that we're scared of getting sick, but let's face it, the longer more people stay home mathematically, the better the equation is. So, you know, we order take-out and we're homebodies. So I don't know if we'll ever go out the way that we used to.

Interesting. So finally, there's this quote of yours from a few years back. I'm not sure if it still holds true, because we are in the middle of a pandemic, but [you said] "If you're going to have one drink a week, make it count." I wasn't sure if you were sticking to that, and if so, what your quarantine choice of cocktail is these days?

Oh, well, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I'm only having one [drink a week]. That was when I was 170 pounds, which I'm not anymore. And I've come to accept that. No, my quarantine drink of choice is always going to be a well-made martini. Martinis are my drinks. I make excellent ones. I feel very civilized when I drink them. And if I was only going to have one drink a week, it would absolutely be a good gin martini.

 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's deputy food editor.

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