Alton Brown's initiation into the social media zeitgeist started with bonuts. "You would not believe how many people in the last 10 days have made these bonuts and taken a picture and put it on Facebook," says Brown, of his donuts made from biscuit dough. "If you hit the sweet spot of personal connectivity, people will do it. And once people have done it, that changes the whole relationship."
The creator of Good Eats, TV host, game show emcee, and podcast producer is still pushing himself creatively, even if the medium is a five-minute-long Facebook video. And in his newest book, EveryDayCook (out September 27), Brown says he is being 100% himself for the first time in his career.
You’ve done so much since Good Eats went off the air, but you certainly weren’t writing cookbooks. What made you want to dive back into this medium after so long?
I’ll be honest: I kind of went on a mission in the last five years. Ever since Good Eats, I was trying to stretch the boundaries of my capabilities for food entertainment. And so, I took on a game show format and a traveling culinary variety show, which is now on its second incarnation for a third year. And I needed to remind myself that I can cook; I needed to get back in the kitchen on a project.
For 14 years, I made Good Eats without ceasing. And so I was constantly production cooking, I was constantly recipe-developing. I knew exactly who I was culinarily-speaking. And then all this other stuff happened. But eventually you turn around and you're like, Wait, who am I as a cook? Am I still a cook? What the hell? I think I was starting to feel kind of lost. So, I thought, well, what I need to do is look at the food that I actually cook on a day-to-day basis. So, that’s why I made EveryDayCook. That’s probably a real skimpy reason.
When I was watching Good Eats growing up, I always enjoyed the educative aspect of it. Is that learning element in EveryDayCook as well?
I purposely made EveryDayCook to be useful, but not preachy or teachy. I explain why I do what I do, but it is not a Good Eats book. All of my books up until now have been, basically, science books where the recipes function as proofs.EveryDayCook is just me personally sharing my food and it's a statement of who I am. So, it is not like that. It is in essence half a photography book and it was completely photographed with an iPhone. [ And it’s] a personal love letter to food. Not only because I'm making this roasted salsa, but because when I plate the roasted salsa and chips, I do it on a hubcap of a mid-70s Mercury. That’s why the photographs are there because I wanted to share with people how I think visually about food.
Do you think there’s a big gap between how people perceive you through television and who you are in real life?
I think people perceive bits and pieces. I have never been 100% me until now. Anything that I do in front of a camera is presentational for a reason. It’s funny: A few years after Good Eats got started, I got the opportunity to do Iron Chef America, which was basically a sporting event. That’s like calling an NFL game. It’s a different skillset. So, the person that I was on Good Eats, which was more presentational, theatrical because what was a very theatrical show became a slightly different part of me for Iron Chef. The me on Cutthroat Kitchen is a character that I play. It’s based on me, but it’s kind of like an equalizer on a stereo. You bring up the bass or you bring up the midrange or you play up the treble. There are all these different dimensions that you play when you’re a performer or when you’re a writer.
But, eventually, you have to do a self-portrait. If you’re a painter, eventually, you’re going to do a self-portrait. If you’re Rembrandt, you do a crap-ton of them. I just turned 54. It’s time for me to figure out who the hell I actually am [and] I don’t ever just be myself. EveryDayCook, I’ve got no defense. I made what I wanted to make, I photographed what I wanted to photograph, I worked with the people I wanted to work with. And if you don’t like it, you don’t like me.
Between the book, the variety show tour, the hosting gigs, and a new CD of music from your variety show, how do you stay productive and on top of everything?
I suck at that. I’m the worst organizer in the world. I tend to focus very well on specific work projects as they’re going on and everything else spins in utter chaos during that time. So, the first thing is that I don’t have a life by-and-large. I don’t. I work. And then when I’m not working, I’m looking for things. And I don’t know how I got to that. I’m not someone to follow. The only positive characteristic that I possess is I’m very good at self-editing and I'm constantly pushing to find something else that I haven’t done. I’m constantly trying to find the edge of my skillset. It’s like when I realized, well, if I'm going to do a culinary variety show, a variety show has to have music. Well, I better start writing songs and learn how to play guitar and do this. And that relentless pursuit of my personal, outer boundaries is the only real characteristic that I possess that’s of any professional value. You know, you make stuff happen or you don’t make stuff happen.
Speaking of your variety show, you're taking it to Broadway. What made you decide to do an eight-show run on such a big stage?
What happened is that I played my first tour, The Edible Inevitable Tour. I think we played 144 shows in 120 cities. And that did really well. And then I started a new show in the spring called Eat Your Science. And that has done well. My tour manager said, ‘Well, there’s a Broadway theater that’s going to be available in November. Do you want to go play Broadway?’ I'm like, "Yeah. Of course, I want to play Broadway." For me, it’s like, you know what? I graduated from college with a theater degree [and there's] all those people that said that a theater degree is the stupidest thing, you’re never going to amount to anything. As I stand on a stage on Broadway, whether I deserve to be there or not, I can say it's a big deal.
Though, I feel like a lot of people who get to Broadway have to get themselves into someone else’s production whereas you carved your own path.
I think that’s kind of a testament to the changing nature of entertainment in our country and in our time that a guy that does what I do is even allowed into the lobby of a Broadway theater. Not because theater has gone downhill. It hasn’t. It’s just that the nature of what people see as entertainment and what they will sit and watch [has changed]. Our show is very fast-paced and it’s very informative. I think that's it’s fairly entertaining, it’s funny, there’s live music. It’s a good two hours in the theater. Is it Eugene O’Neill? Is it Tennessee Williams? Is it Hamilton? No! But it’s a darn good evening of family entertainment. So, I'm gonna do it.
Let’s switch tracks here and talk about recent food trends. I feel like they’ve maybe gotten a little bit . . . ridiculous.
Let’s talk ridiculous and be specific: What’s ridiculous? Tell me what you think is ridiculous.
Well, obviously diet trends have existed for—
Exactly. But I feel like the diet trend now is in the direction of taking so many things out of your diet. Gluten-free for those who haven’t been diagnosed with Celiac’s disease because it’ll give you more energy or Paleo’s the secret or turmeric is a miracle spice. I keep thinking to myself, there’s never been a better time for a Good Eats-style debunking of all these things.
If somebody decides that something works for them, does it de facto work for them? I don’t want to use the word ridiculous because I think that each one of us has a slightly different lifestyle, tastes, and bodies. And the thing about being gluten-free is actually you’re just not eating so much crap anymore because the truth is that gluten is married to white flour and we eat way too freaking much of that stuff. You felt like shit because you ate 10 ounces of white flour every month or whatever. It works, but it’s not working because of what you think.
I think a lot of these labels are things that people like to dress up in. It’s almost a status, like walking down the street in yoga clothing. Like, for some reason, I feel a bit of rage every time I see someone with a yoga mat over their back because what they’re really saying is, ‘Look at me, I do yoga. Oh, I have the time to do yoga. Oh, I'm probably affluent.’ For some reason, yoga mats just piss me off. I will carry a yoga mat when it can be concealed.
Another trend question I had is that in the past year or two, there’s been a meteoric rise in these 1-2 minute food videos from BuzzFeed and Tastemade, where you watch a whole recipe be made using time lapse. I mean, I like watching the videos, but I rarely act on them. What are your thoughts there?
I’m glad you bring this up. This is something that I think about a lot because I’m basically getting ready to start Good Eats 2.0. It won’t be called Good Eats because I don’t want to use that title again and it won’t be on TV, it’ll be on the web. The trend toward making it shorter and shorter and shorter has worked. I recently put up a video on Facebook that’s about a five-minute video of me making what’s called "bonuts." It’s donuts made out of biscuits. And it’s had over a million views in the week and a half since I put it up. It was shot very, very simply and edited fairly generally, but what I refuse to remove was the human connectivity. I am on camera, I am talking to you. And because of that, it changes your perception of the food and here’s what’s interesting: You would not believe how many people in the last 10 days have made these bonuts and taken a picture and put it on Facebook.
Why is personal connectivity so important when it comes to cooking videos?
The difference is that if you hit the sweet spot of personal connectivity, people will do it. And once people have done it, that changes the whole relationship. I would argue, and I may be wrong, but I do believe that that the shorter the video is, the more condensed the information is, the more inclined you may be to watch, the less inclined you are to make it. I have a relationship with my fanbase, so if they see me doing it and I'm talking about it, we can already plug into an existing relationship. That familiarity is important. Why? Because they’ve cooked my recipes and they’ve tried them and they trust me. I’ve earned that trust. I’m not screwing it up. And most of my fans are consuming 60% of their media on mobile devices. So, I’m now going to be producing specifically for the phone and my sweet spot is five minutes. I’m not even thinking about how it looks on a computer or a TV screen. If it doesn’t work on a phone, I’m not going to do it.
When would this new web show be coming out? And why give cooking shows another go?
Next year. I’m not giving a release date yet, but it is my primary objective for next year. Because you know what I did? I stopped making Good Eats for a couple of reasons. One, I was tired. It was extremely labor-intensive. The research, it was a scripted show shot with a single camera. It took three days to make every episode. I could only crank out about 22 a year. And I said no to a lot of other really great projects that I could have done because of it. The other thing is that I saw the trend and certainly The Food Network—I don’t think they would have canceled me—but what they were being told was what people wanted to watch was reality and competition shows. That’s all that they wanted to watch. So, I was like, you know what? Okay, I quit. I would rather put myself out to pasture at 252 episodes.
But then, without telling me I might add, Food Network decides to rent Good Eats to Netflix. And all of a sudden, people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a show where you can actually learn about cooking and Alton Brown’s doing it for Netflix.’ And I’m like, "Dude, that’s a 14-year-old episode of Good Eats on Netflix." So, all of a sudden, there’s this onslaught on social media of my fans telling me, ‘Do it again, do it again!’ So, you know what? I am going to do it again because now the time is right. I had to see what was going to happen to media consumption and I have.
How has your relationship with media changed?
When I quit making Good Eats, I wasn’t even on social media. At all. And my website was just a little, puny placeholder. Now, for a latecomer to the game, I have a fairly robust social media presence. Almost 3.3 million on Twitter and coming up on 1.5 million on Facebook. Doing okay on Instagram. And my website is strong now. That was partly because of my podcast series, which is also coming back by the way. So, the landscape has changed [and] I’m ready to come back in that mode because I understand the landscape again. It’s a new world. So, I'm ready for it.
When Good Eats arrived on Netflix, I thought it was awesome, but they released the show as these collection of episodes from different seasons. Food Network is sharing them very slowly because I think Good Eats is still an asset for them.
You know, because I don’t own it, I wouldn’t talk to me about it. I was a nobody. The only way I could get that show was to sell it lock, stock, and barrel. They couldn’t make it without me, but I don’t share in the residuals and I don’t know about the business part of it. But I think they got their money’s worth out of that show.
So, the difference with this new show you’re working on is that you’re going to have full control of it. And you’re coming from a position of power this time.
I have to say, over the 14 years that I made that show on Food Network, I was given unprecedented creative freedom. All they ever made me do was tell them every season what the shows are going to be about and a one-page synopsis of each script. The only two times that they ever said no to me on something were both places where I had done something with comedy that was too risky for the audience. And I was okay with that. Two times in 14 years? I can live with that. Of course, Food Network could do no wrong in those years and those were reflected in the ratings. But now, the television landscape is so much more competitive that I would never be given that level of creative freedom on that network. There’s just no way. My stuff would be picked apart, focus grouped. Good Eats never went to a focus group. It was like, this is what I'm going to make and if we make the numbers, everybody leaves me alone. And they did. But it wouldn’t happen today. With this project, I’m going to have creative freedom and I’m going to own the intellectual property. And you know what? It’ll rise or it will fall, but I think I’ve earned that opportunity. Of course, you don’t earn opportunities. You make opportunities. And the truth is, I’m pretty sure that I can do that on my own online. I need to do that. And who knows? Maybe it’ll end up on Food Network and they’ll get the broadcast rights. That would certainly be fine by me. But it’s something that I’ve got to do by myself.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix came knocking. They want everything.
They might. Or it might be Amazon or it might be Hulu. It’s such an exciting time to be producing content. But oddly enough, the last place that appeals to me is television. I mean, I like hosting TV shows, but as a producer, it’s a horribly frightening landscape. I would have ulcers in a week.
Will you film the web show in Georgia?
Yes, it’s going to be in my facility here in Marietta, where my test kitchens are. I have a soundstage. I’m going to produce everything here.
I always enjoyed the fact that Good Eats was filmed in Georgia and in a time when it wasn't the big filming location it is today. What are your thoughts about staying where you are and trying to make the best of what you have versus chasing a bigger dream in a bigger place?
I came up as a commercial filmmaker. So, a lot of the crew people that I knew, we ended up where the work was. If you’re going to be a cameraman, guess what? There’s more stuff shot in Los Angeles than in Peoria, Illinois. [But] I’ll be honest with you, a lot of [the reason I stayed] was because of the tax credits that I took full advantage of when I was making Good Eats. It is a great deal! At least for me, it was like, well, what do I need? I need access to this crew. I have them. I need access to a good, reasonable, task-based real estate. Okay, I can do that here. I need a decent place to send my daughter to school. Okay, got that. I need access to a world class airport. Got that. So, why would I…?
You know what I miss? I don’t go to parties or premieres because I'm not where they are. I get invitations, but I don’t live there. I don’t live in New York. And I don’t need to [live there] anymore than I need to move to Los Angeles to work. I could not have done what I did and what I’m going to continue to do in either of those places. I'm better off staying here, staying in Georgia. That was certainly true of Good Eats. It would not have happened anywhere else. It couldn’t have. You know, Teddy Roosevelt, my favorite American of all time said, ‘Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.’ And I think that a lot of times people don’t evaluate what they have before they go running off to something else.
Do you think you’ll ever leave Georgia?
I know that I will not stay here forever. I'm here right now, honestly, because my daughter is just starting her junior year and I’m not going away until she goes away.
Where do you think you’ll go once she graduates?
I love New York, I spend a lot of time there, and I see myself living there one day. I've always wanted to be a New Yorker. I’m a walker and I can’t walk or ride a bike in Marietta because every housewife with a Suburban wants to kill me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.