LIANE HANSEN, host:
"Good Eats" has become a staple on the Food Network. But it's not a typical cooking show. Chef Alton Brown created the Peabody Award-winning program to be a mix of "MacGyver," "Mr. Wizard" and "History Rocks."
When we last spoke with Alton Brown, he had just finished his motorcycle tour of America's road food. His new book came out this month. "Good Eats: The Early Years" is the first of a three-volume set. And Alton Brown is in our New York bureau. It's nice to talk to you again.
Mr. ALTON BROWN (Chef, TV Host, "Good Eats"): It is very nice to be on the program again.
HANSEN: Now, "Good Eats" celebrating its tenth anniversary on the air. You're going to do a set of three books. When you started out to do this, was it hard to remember what you did, say, in the first season?
Mr. BROWN: Well, it was certainly painful to look back, in some ways. You know, when you're kind of just starting out you make a lot of mistakes. And I would watch the shows and see my inexperience as a performer or my inexperience as, you know, being clumsy as a director or certainly as a writer.
We took each one of the applications - that's what we call recipes 'cause we don't like the world recipe very much - we retest it, we make big changes. And sometimes that was a matter of taking a viewer input. If four out of ten people write in and say this didn't work, then there's got to be something wrong. It's not them; it's got to be me. So, you go back and you reexamine things with new people, fresh brains and fix things.
HANSEN: You discovered something about yourself and about your diet doing this show over the last ten years, right?
Mr. BROWN: Oh yeah, I've learned all kinds of things. I think that this book, in looking back over this time, as I slowly watched myself bloat out, led to finally in March my deciding to make some serious changes in me, which has resulted in losing 50 pounds.
Mr. BROWN: I've lost 50 pounds since March just kind of trying to apply what I actually know about food in a more productive, proactive kind of way. Yeah, it's hard to watch your, you know, it's like I sat down, was watching one of these early shows with my daughter, who's nine and doesn't know a time when there wasn't a "Good Eats." And she was watching a show from the very first season and kind of slyly, she'd turn to me and say, hey, dad, who's that thin guy with hair?
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, little witch. I can't do anything about the hair, but I can certainly do something about a paunch, so I jumped on that.
HANSEN: Is it true you cut out milk because it was the gateway to cookies?
Mr. BROWN: You know, it's funny. When I was really looking at the whole issue of diet and the philosophy of diet, I made this list of all the kind of bad things that I used to eat and there was always a companion food. And a companion food, nine times out of ten, was milk. It was, you know, cookies and milk, ice cream, milk, cake, milk, you know.
And so I thought, jeepers, it's milk's fault. Milk's the evil friend telling me it's okay to do whatever, you know, blah, blah, blah was. So, I noticed that I found that, you know, when you get rid of the milk you don't want the whole tube of Girl Scout cookies anymore. So, that made it a whole lot easier to do what needed to be done.
HANSEN: Given everything that you've done and the way that you've explained it, is there much more to cover after 200-some episodes?
Mr. BROWN: I'm not sure that it's a matter of new material. I think that in the end there are only 20 or 30 basic tenets of cooking. The theme becomes figuring out ways to artfully repeat it. Any good teacher - and I've asked teachers about this, about how do you really teach, how do you really get things to sink in - and I've had more than a few of them say that it is artful repetition. It is going at perhaps the same issue from different angles, from different points of view, from different presentation styles that really make things sink in and become embedded.
I try to not to repeat - in fact, my mantra was to not repeat for about the first 200 episodes. And now I'm starting to think more of, well, no, it's time that you do repeat.
HANSEN: One of the things about your program, "Good Eats," is it really broke down what they call in theater that fourth window. Cooking shows - you think of them, they're usually - there's a cook top and people standing behind it and people talking and making things and there's something already in the oven and they bring it out and say, see, this is what it looks like. Yours look like something out of Nickelodeon. I mean, you really wanted to break down those boundaries, I guess, of cooking shows. 'Cause you used to watch them and you thought…
Mr. BROWN: I did.
HANSEN: …they were dull. Yeah.
Mr. BROWN: The dull kind of presentational aspect of food shows and a lot of information-based programs was one of the things that really put me off. I think that a lot of food shows, especially when we started "Good Eats" back in the late '90s, they were still really about food. "Good Eats" is not about food, it's about entertainment.
If, however, we can kind of virally infect you with knowledge or interest or, you know, some kind of curiosity about food, then all the better. But, you know, laughing brains are more absorbent.
HANSEN: Kind of like Alton's playhouse.
Mr. BROWN: Well, it is, and I've got to tell you something, "Pee Wee's Playhouse" was an inspiration. I mean, there were several…the original memo that I wrote to myself was Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, Monty Python. And then after that, I wrote down, "Pee Wee's Playhouse" was a big one and a BBC series that hasn't been around for a long time called "Connections."
And those were all things that I kind of wanted to dial in on. And, yeah, the playhouse aspect is still there. I still think we do that.
HANSEN: Yeah. Well, you have recurring characters. I mean, whenever…
Mr. BROWN: Absolutely.
HANSEN: …you have to go shopping for a gadget or something and you want to point out to us which one the best is, you know, you have that nemesis in the house wares.
Mr. BROWN: W, yeah, W in house wares, yeah, who was cast strictly because she took an immediate dislike to me, which I found somehow very comforting and I don't know why. But she really, really didn't like me - still doesn't. But it seems to work pretty well.
HANSEN: It's great because, you know, the show as entertainment has lasted for ten years. And now we have this first volume of a three-volume set with some of the recipes from the shows.
Mr. BROWN: I think this is the first time that a show like ours has waited a decade to do a book, and I felt so strongly about that. Because, of course, people came to us very early on. I was like, no, no, there's nothing new to say. It would just be repackaging something. No, we need some distance. And I think I turned out to be right, because when I open up the book and look at it now, I feel closure.
Mr. BROWN: I feel some closure for this set of shows. But, you know, it's a trilogy. I'm almost done with the second book, which is "The Middle Ages," "Good Eats: The Middle Ages." And then there'll be a "Good Eats: Tomorrow and Beyond."
Mr. BROWN: And that one, we don't know how it's going to end because we don't actually know when this will be over.
HANSEN: I mean, it could go on for another decade.
Mr. BROWN: Oh, I kind of doubt that.
Mr. BROWN: I kind of doubt that.
HANSEN: What would you do if you weren't doing the show? I mean, I know you do other things. I've seen your grape juice commercial, you know, and I…
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, well, one can only live so long on a grape juice commercial.
HANSEN: And you're doing "Iron Chef."
Mr. BROWN: I do. I'm the host and commentator on "Iron Chef America." If I wasn't doing "Good Eats" - I mean that's a scary question because my entire identity, at least to myself, is wrapped up in that program. So, it's something that I think about a lot and it scares me. It's one of the few things that keeps me up late at night, because I know it'll end and I'll be the one that ends it. I'll be the one that decides, you know what, I can't keep it at 100 percent and I will not let it drop from that. I will not have worked this long and hard to jump the shark and go downhill. So, I'll put the bullet in it. And I hope I see a little snippet into the future before that time comes because I don't know.
HANSEN: You also do a lot of things that are outside the kitchen. We know your motorcycle riding because of the books that you've done - "Feasting on Asphalt," for example.
Mr. BROWN: Feasting, yeah, and that series.
HANSEN: You want to get a private pilot's license.
Mr. BROWN: Oh, I've had that for a while.
HANSEN: You did?
Mr. BROWN: Yeah, I'm just about done with my instrument rating. A matter of fact, I'm starting on a book tour this weekend and I'll be flying myself.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah. And that's probably - I won't say that it's the great love of my life - and next to cooking. You know, it's funny. Part of what I like so much about cooking is that it's about self-reliance. But flying a plane by yourself at night, that's self-reliance. You know, there's certainly a lot to that as well. But, yes, aviation, aviation history, and I could definitely see myself doing some aviation-related programs.
HANSEN: You brown bag it when you fly?
Mr. BROWN: Yeah.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah. The meals on my plane are pretty good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BROWN: The service, not so much. You know, it's tough to serve to the back when you're sitting in the front seat, you know, and, you know, manning the controls.
HANSEN: All right. Well, I have one more question, Alton, to ask you about food and I'd like to know. It's more or less an ingredient. What do you think of ginger?
Mr. BROWN: What do I think of ginger? Ginger's one of the most powerful ingredients that there is from both a flavor standpoint and from a chemical standpoint, from a logical standpoint. It is unique in a way that most foods aren't. You know, nothing tastes like ginger but ginger. I'd put it in as one of my kind of top ten ingredients, frankly.
HANSEN: Well, excellent. The reason I'm bringing this up is because our program, WEEKEND EDITION, is having another recipe contest, and this one's going to be Thanksgiving themed. And this is my 20th anniversary as host of WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY so…
Mr. BROWN: Wow.
HANSEN: Yeah, I know.
Mr. BROWN: Congratulations.
HANSEN: Thank you very much. So, for my prize, I got to pick the ingredient, and I realized I really love ginger. I've got candied ginger, ground ginger, fresh ginger, ginger ice cream and so forth. So, we're actually going to use this as our secret ingredient. Let me tell our listeners what we have in mind.
What we want is your best original ginger recipe, and you can send those to recipes@NPR.org, and you have until Thursday, October 22nd. And NPR food essayist Bonny Wolf will choose her favorite three and then I'll get to pick a winner. We should have you hear, too, but you're flying around somewhere, right?
Mr. BROWN: I'm flying around, but I might send in a recipe.
HANSEN: Oh, do that. That would be great fun. We would love it.
Mr. BROWN: Let's see how I fare against everybody else.
HANSEN: Oh, excellent. All right. Well, that's Alton Brown. He writes, produces and is the host of the Food Network program "Good Eats." The first book in a three-part retrospective about the show came out this month. It's called "Good Eats: The Early Years." He joined us from our New York bureau. Alton Brown, thanks a lot.
Mr. BROWN: Thanks for having me.
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