Seated in a booth at a Waffle House in Cobb County, I'm waiting for Alton Brown to arrive. He's the host, director and writer of "Good Eats," a wildly popular cooking show on the Food Network, and so far he's a no-show.
The phone rings behind the counter. I hear the waitress give directions to someone who, from my side of the conversation, seems to be lost and frustrated. It's gotta be Brown, I think.
Ten minutes later, Brown walks in and sits down in my booth. He's mumbling under his breath.
"This is a weird place to do an interview for Creative Loafing," he grumbles.
"Since we both live in Marietta, I thought it would be convenient," I respond. "Besides, your publicist said you love Waffle House."
"She lied," he snaps. "We could have at least met at the one between our houses on Roswell Road."
"But this is the best Waffle House in Cobb County!"
"Well, that's good," he concedes. "You can't be too careful with these places."
Luckily Brown's funk passes once his coffee and waffle arrive. ("Might as well try their namesake," he mutters after he places his order.)
For those who don't know, Alton Brown is not your typical cooking show host. After all, would Martha Stewart admit to being "a dark, pessimistic person prone to depression"? Would Emeril reveal that he first learned to cook for the same reason most musicians learn to play the guitar: to get chicks?
The fact is, Brown isn't even really a chef. Granted, he completed a stint at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, but that was just to get the credentials to host "Good Eats." A theater graduate from the University of Georgia who built a career directing commercials and corporate films, Brown is first and foremost a showman.
"I'm a filmmaker," he says. "I like to make short films about food."
Indeed. "Good Eats" is a quirky half-hour show that combines the science of cooking and the history of food with a handful of recipes, wacky camera angles and boomer-era pop culture references. Often the shows parody popular movies like the upcoming episode "Down & Out in Paradise," which riffs on Castaway, or the really twisted take-off he did on Misery, which made fun of Brown's own celebrity.
The absurdity of the notion that he has achieved celebrity status does not escape Brown. After all, this is a slightly goofy-looking guy with a Bart Simpson haircut and bookish eyeglasses whose show is filmed in his producer's Vinings home and is edited in her basement. Nevertheless, "I can't even go to San Diego," he says. "I'm like the Bay City Rollers in San Diego."
Brown's fame stems in large part from his entertaining nature, but it's also due to his ability to fill a much-needed niche in this retro era of renewed domesticity. His cooking style takes a comforting no-nonsense, do-it-right-the-first-time approach that empowers home cooks instead of making them feel inadequate like celebrity chefs often do. You'll never learn how to make pistachio-encrusted salmon steaks served on a bed of lemon-scented couscous from watching this show. In fact, says Brown, "There are no 'beds' on 'Good Eats'!" What you will learn, though, is how to brine your turkey before you roast it so that it stays moist and flavorful. Or why using kosher salt is better than regular table salt. Or that the best way to peel a freshly boiled batch of potatoes is to rub them with a clean dishcloth.
"Good Eats" is one of the most expensive shows to produce on the Food Network, and 300 pages of reference material are generated on the topic du jour for each show. For fans who just can't get enough of Alton Brown, he's published his first cookbook -- I'm Just Here for the Food -- which replicates the quirky style of his show by including lots of interesting factoids, illustrations and recipes with names like Hollandaise Takes a Holiday and Miller Thyme Trout.
The book focuses on various methods of applying heat to food and is divided by cooking methods -- searing, frying, braising, microwaving, etc. It also features an index of handy-dandy cooking tips, including a "Critter Map" that illustrates which cuts of meat come from which parts of the animal. A go-getter of the first order, Brown is already working on volume two, I'm Just Here for More Food: Wet Works, which will focus on baking, batters and dough.
In talking with Brown, it becomes apparent that educating Americans about the art of cooking is more than a career choice; it's a mission. He gets impassioned to the point of agitation when he talks about how little our culture values an expertly prepared home- cooked meal.
"In our society, food is a disposable sensation. It's even getting that way here in the South," he says. "But in Italy, they're passionate about food. They don't have to wait for a fancy magazine or TV show to tell them how to do it. I can't imagine cooking shows in Italy. They don't need it. It would be a freakish novelty."
To what does Brown attribute this polarity in lifestyles? It's simple. In Italy, multiple generations live together in homes where older family members teach younger ones the art of food preparation. In America, not only does Grandma live apart from the family, but Mom works all day and everybody eats carry-out for dinner. Nobody's learning to cook at home anymore.
But Alton Brown is out to change all that. So who can blame him for being a bit grumpy?
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