By Lori Acken
Yes, Alton Brown knows how sad you are about the impending end of Good Eats, his long running, game-changing Food Network megahit. He hears about it at each performance of his month-long Good Eats 3: The Later Years book tour, which has him cracking up — and educating — audiences in different cities across the country nearly every evening in October.
But rest assured, lovers of Brown’s acerbic wit, large vocabulary and quirky sense of narrative — you haven’t seen the last of him. Not by a long shot.
“My wife is the president of our company (Atlanta’s Be Square Productions), and we decided that 13 years was a good run,” Brown explains of his decision to end the franchise with a few hourlong episodes that will take him past the 250 mark. “Good Eats was a very handmade, time-consuming project that I refused to compromise on — so I could never do anything new. I decided at this time in my life, it’s time to turn to something new, now that I have the momentum of Good Eats behind me.”
And a three-volume set of Good Eats books in front of him, the third of which — his favorite — arrived on Brown’s desk on the morning we spoke. “It’s kind of remarkable,” he says. “It’s here. And it’s heavy.”
The hefty tomes, which have been as much a labor of love (and sometimes just plain laborious) for their author as the series that inspired them, are Brown’s attempt to “re-master” all of the Good Eats good food and good times into book format, complete with show stills, personal photos, hand-drawn diagrams. And with Good Eats 3, a kit to make your own version of the show’s legendary sock puppets.
“It’s the best of the three, which I am glad about,” Brown opines. And that’s not just because you can turn your orphaned knee-high into a talking replica of yeast.
“It’s because the shows were better,” Brown says. “I think we improved until the end. And because we were actually still making these shows when we started the book projects, we had a mind of the kind of things that we would have to have. You know, photographic record from the first few years of the shows — as evidenced in Good Eats: The Early Years — we didn’t have much to work with. We were just trying to survive. To make sure we had stills from behind the scenes? We never thought about that. We were just trying to get a job the next year.
“The shows that are in the third book, we already had a really strong feeling as to what these books would look like, so we made sure we had more materials, especially photographic materials.”
As Brown talked about the thought and effort and angst that went into producing the triology, I wondered if knowing that he’d ultimately have it all down on paper — with his signature perfectionist polish and attention to detail — was the catalyst to bringing the series to an end. Or even, the purposeful idea behind it.
Nope, he says. But it was incentive for him to put even more into each new episode.
“Once the Good Eats books starting coming out, it made me work harder, because I felt myself being really critical of the earlier shows,” Brown explains. “I had to face them in document form — and unlike most books from food shows, we actually redid everything. We took all of these recipes apart and put them back together again in a new form for the book. So although the outcomes are familiar, the recipes — or applications, as we call them — are redesigned; they’re complete rewritten for the book. And because of that, they’re their own endeavors — they’re not simply print records of something that happened.”
“Although there is some of that there — and that’s the fan part of the book, I suppose.”
“I always kind of had my eye on 250 episodes,” Brown says of the show’s denouement, “at least for the last two years, I had. And I thought, when I get to that point, I’m going to re-evaluate my own life, my own work, where I’m going, why I’m here and all that, as I crash into middle age myself. I turned 49 this year, so it seemed like the thing to do. And I think that was the only thing that influenced it. The books did not bring about the demise of the show — let’s put it that way.”
But they do serve as a nostalgic — and delightfully comprehensive — record of Good Eats for its legion of fans. And a multi-emotional record of a decade of his life for Brown.
“As I sit here looking at [Good Eats 3], flipping through it for the first time — and of course I wrote it, so I recognize it — but seeing all these pictures of my crew who played all these different characters and, of course, my daughter who has changed so much over the years, it’s a nostalgic and thoughtful experience,” says Brown. “Certainly there is some catharsis there. But nothing that would make me believe it was time to put the show to bed. There was never a moment where we were jumping the shark or anything. We were never phoning it in.
“There’s never a moment that makes me wince,” he concludes. “Not in this book…”
Wha?! In which book then?
“I wince at things from the first book, when we were still figuring out how to do the show,” Brown admits, “on top of the fact that there were some very painful things that happened in my life that are set like ants in amber in the first Good Eats book. There’s a lot of wincing. The first Good Eats book is a very painful thing for me to look at. There were some personal things that went on at that time — and you can’t look at those pictures without getting nostalgic.”
Oh, I want to know. But I don’t ask. But I do wonder what I missed and remind myself to go home, get the book off the kitchen shelf and go searching for clues.
“Let’s not get all melancholy,” Brown laughs. “Ask me another question.”
So I ask what lies ahead, for him and for his latest tenure with Food Network. And the first is a doozie.
Beginning, Oct. 30, Brown will host a slew of his Food Network colleagues including Alex Guarnaschelli, Anne Burrell, Robert Irvine, Geoffrey Zakarian and other famous foodie faces in a “Super Chef” fourth season of Next Iron Chef, specially tailored for its savvy cast, including a Chairman’s Challenge and a sudden death “shoot-out” for the two cooks who finish in the bottom two of that challenge. One survives to cook another day and the other one goes home.
He won’t spill any particulars, but assures skeptics that, “The one thing that I can tell you for absolute sure is that there was no network manipulation of judging or outcomes based on the fact that some of these people have shows. The things that will happen, I 100-percent guarantee, are unmanufactured.”
Beyond that, Brown has crafted a much-anticipated follow-up to his 1999 Good Eats classic “Romancing the Bird” that will premiere Sunday, Nov. 20 on Food Network and serve as something of an, er, swan-song-with-a-wattle to the Good Eats series.
“One of our last one-hour specials that we produced as part of the Good Eats package is another Thanksgiving special to follow up on our original Thanksgiving special, which kind of became the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer of Food Network,” he says. “They show it every year and it’s kind of a classic. They asked us to do a follow-up to it and it has a very interesting twist to it in that there’s only one recipe in it. That’s for the entire Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a four day recipe that encompasses everything…everything you need for Thanksgiving in one recipe. The show’s called Countdown to T-day and there’s some new processes in there that I’m really excited about. It’s going to be a good show.”
Then with the new year looming, the master multitasker says he’ll continue to work on his 2012 debut in the e-book market while hosting a new season of Iron Chef America and tackling a series-regular role on the upcoming season of a newly-retooled Food Network Star.
Sounds like a lot? It’s just the beginning. During the Milwaukee stop of the Good Eats 3 book tour, Brown hinted at a developing “Good Eats Academy” that may or may not be related to the e-book adventure.
“I’m also working on a miniseries called Foods That Changed The World,” Brown says, “but I’m still playing with the structure of that show. I have to mess with form as well as function. I can’t just do a straightforward show about the history of something — I gotta mess with it from a narrative standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint.
Chalk it up in part to his exacting nature and in part to his refusal to let anything be added to his body of work that doesn’t live up to his personal and professional standards — a condition that Brown freely admits can get him into trouble with colleagues and fans alike.
“”I always treat every project like it’s the last one I’m going to get to do, which may be appropriate,” he laughs. “Nobody lasts forever. Plus, I have a reputation for being really hard to work for. Nobody who works with me in television typically wants to do it again … and that, of course, cuts down on my opportunities for work.”
All evidence to the contrary for Food Network fans. And a backhanded bonus for the network.
“I am what I am,” Brown shrugs. “I’m an exacting perfectionist and I’m a control freak and those are the kinds of people who are really hard to work with in television. The upside is that, if you’re my client, you’re going to get 100%. Or 110%. I dare say that as a producer, I have put more of Food Network’s money on the screen in the last decade than anyone else. Because I choose, on some days, to lose money. For my art. Go figure. So you’re lucky if I’m working for you, but if you’re working under me, or next to me? Aw man! There are whole support groups for that!”
I ask him if he gives much thought to that fissure between his personal self-assessment and the smarty-pants charmer that so many TV fans have come to love. “Most of the people that love me don’t know me,” he says.
As for the one that loves him most? “Oh, I feel for my wife,” Brown laughs. “People say to her, ‘You must laugh all the time!’ and she says, ‘Oh HA HA … eeennhhhh.’ She thinks that’s the funniest thing in the world. Because I’m a complete pain in the ass to live with. And even worse to work for.”
But he’ll give himself credit for being a super-fun dad — evidenced by his current collaboration with 11-year-old daughter Zoey that puts any televised cupcake contest you may have seen to shame. And makes me wonder if he’s pulling my leg just a little. But the idea is so jolly, I’m willing to roll with it.
“We’re actually working on a game right now — a computer-based game called ‘Cupcake Apocalypse,’” Brown says. “And it takes place at a time on Earth when all the weaponry is cupcakes. That’s all we have to fight each other with. The last battles of all mankind are fought with cupcakes. So that’s why I need the cupcake [trend] to hold a little longer. We’re going to be putting cupcakes with zombies and that’s a first!
It certainly is.
“Certain kinds of cupcakes can kill a zombie,” he continues, “while others make them stronger. So you’ve got to be really, really careful. It’s going to be a very tricky apocolypse. That’s the way it goes.”
Given the subject of pastries and zombies, I ask him if he’s seen the 2009 horror-comedy masterpiece Zombieland, in which Woody Harrelson’s non-zombie character, Tallahassee, spends much of the movie searching for civilization’s last Twinkie. Not for any zombie-killing purposes, though. Just because he wants one bad.
“Twinkies and zombies,” Brown says, bypassing the “has he seen the movie?” part and heading straight for the science. “Well they’re both undead. If you think about it. You can’t really kill a Twinkie. But you can kill a zombie — it’s the head shot. The double tap.”
In either case, Brown believes he’ll stick with cupcakes. Mostly because, “you want to use buttercream on zombies.”
It’s that sort of “damn the torpedos and frost the zombies” thinking that made Good Eats such a hit with Brown’s littlest fans, whom he further accommodates by bumping them to the front of the line at his book-signings and occasionally fudging on his no-hugging rule.
“I’m the kind of dad a kid would like to have around,” Brown says of his tot-charming powers, then goes on to bolster the afore-mentioned notion that Mrs. Brown might have an issue or two with his antics. “Things explode in my house, experiments go wrong. I think one of the great things about being a kid is having a parent that will allow controlled danger. It’s knowing that ‘I’m safe, but we’re right on the edge of it.’
“It’s all risk management. It’s all about risk management — you can’t put life in a bank account.”
And that’s good advice from the Good Eats guru.
Find out what Alton Brown and his Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs costars Anne Burrell, Robert Irvine and Chuck Hughes think of the upcoming season, the food-tv boom and what makes a great Thanksgiving in the November issue of Channel Guide Magazine.
Photos and video: Food Network
Book signing photograph: Rik Acken