Mr. TV: Food for Thought

The Food Network has never been my first cable destination. Not even top 10. Or top 20. Other than preparing my specialty, franks and beans, the only dish I know to make is, well, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So, I had some research to do when I agreed to interview Alton Brown at The Food Network party at The Summer Press Tour in August.

Host of the Peabody winning Good Eats, which celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special on Saturday, Oct. 10 at 10 p.m., Brown is also a commentator on Food Network competition Iron Chef America, a best-selling author, and an ongoing contributor to Bon Appétit, Atlanta magazine and Men’s Journal.

How did you come up with Good Eats? What most people don’t realize is that science is involved in cooking. We deal with scientific issues when we prepare our meals. And my goal is entertainment first. So, I wanted to combine the influence of people like Julia Child, Mr. Wizard and Monty Python in a show that people could learn new things and be entertained by at the same time.

I noticed on your resumé that you spent a decade as a cinematographer and video director. How did you end up host of a show on The Food Network? Well, I am still a filmmaker and will always be one. I just happen to now make films about food. Growing up, I loved Julia Child and Jacques Cousteau and always thought of food as a lot more than just digesting something. My parents were very into the process of preparing all types of food, so my interest began at a very early age.

What kinds of films did you make prior to landing on The Food Network and how did that begin? I got a degree in theater at the University of Georgia and immediately began directing films after graduation. I shot all types of commercials…everything from cameras and tires to hospitals and cable television…but it was frustrating for me because I didn’t control the creative content. Someone else was writing the words, and I was basically just the messenger. I used to watch cooking shows to keep me occupied, but they were just plain boring. My wife suggested I do something about it, so we moved from Atlanta to Vermont and I attended the New England Culinary Institute.

How did you land at the Food Network? One of the reasons I went to culinary school was to write and produce a cooking show, and I made two pilots of Good Eats shot on Super 16 film. It was never my goal to be on camera, but the investors wanted me and the budget was so low I was the only choice. After Eastman Kodak streamed the shows on the Internet, Food Network took notice and they too wanted me to host.

What is the novelty about a cooking show? Why do they seem to be so popular now? As society becomes more fractured, we lose commonality. And food is basically the last communal connection we have to one another. It gives us the chance to communicate and interact in a comfortable, sometimes challenging, and often fun setting. It’s a productive place where we can sit back and forget about our troubles. It brings us together in a world where not many things can.

You also host Iron Chef America. What is that experience like? People love a good competition, particularly in this day and age. And I serve as a sports commentator, keeping the action fast and furious in a completely spontaneous environment. Good Eats is pre-planned; anything can happen on Iron Chef America. They are very, very different shows.