Alton Brown wanted to talk about something else.
“It’s not that I’m uninterested in the food,” he wrote, “but frankly that’s all anyone ever wants to talk about.”
I’m exchanging e-mails with Alton Brown because the Food Network show that launched his career in food media 20 years ago, Good Eats, is being rebooted after a seven-year layoff.
To borrow a trope, there simply was nothing quite like it. Good Eats was Mr. Wizard and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse through the lens of food; it featured a wacky cast of recurring characters and satisfyingly obscure pop cultural references; it was Dan Ackroyd as Julia Child-level of off-kilter, equal parts entertaining and surreal, and you’d always come away with some new insight about cooking.
But what drew me to Good Eats was that it shattered the form of how food was presented on television. The way it was filmed—the cameras inside unexpected places, the intricately choreographed camera movements—often felt more arthouse film than Emeril Live. It’s not so surprising when you realized Brown considers himself more a cinematographer than food television personality (he directed the music video for R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”).
Which brings us back to our e-mail conversation. Brown is out promoting the return of Good Eats to five dozen outlets, and much of the interview questions are likely variations on the same food theme. He told me he’d rather nerd out about the filmmaking on the show, and as a fellow filmmaker, so would I.
(Good Eats: The Return airs on Food Network with back-to-back episodes on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 10 p.m. Eastern. The full episode of that first show, on Chicken Parmesan, is embedded here.)
The Takeout: Cooking shows in the 1990s were set in their dump-and-stir ways. How did Food Network executives react when they first saw the pilot for Good Eats?
Alton Brown: It took them over a year to watch the tape but once they did, they wanted it immediately. At the time we produced the pilots, which we shot on film—that’s how old-school we were—they were still producing everything in-house. They were recycling shows, like Two Fat Ladies from the BBC, but they weren’t commissioning shows. Our first contacts (at the network), they wouldn’t even look at the tape. And then what happened was because we shot on film, at the time Eastman-Kodak was producing a new iteration of 16mm film with a pull-down that was better suited to high-def transfer. Their feeling was people who needed high-def video would still originate on. We were some of the first people to shoot this.
So when we were done with the first two pilot episodes, Eastman-Kodak wanted to know if they could put some on the footage online. Now I was still using a dial-up account. No one had streaming video, it was very advanced stuff at the time. But we said yes. So they put some of the footage on their website, and a junior programming executive at Food Network happened by the Kodak website, saw it, and immediately called us. We were in New York taking a meeting the week after that, and we had a contract the week after that, and started production in March 1999. So it happened not at all, then very, very quickly.
TO: I spoke to someone associated with Good Eats who told me the show’s production was quite expensive for the time. The figure he gave me was it was close to $50,000 per episode, compared to other cooking shows that were closer to $2,000 a show. Did the network understood the show needed that sort of budget right away?
AB: If there was, I didn’t know about it. The first two years of production were not done by my production company. I was basically a talent and writer, and didn’t direct the first two years of the show. I wasn’t privy to any of the production stuff, other than we really didn’t have much money. I can only speak of what happened from 2001 on, when my company took over production in season five.
TO: When your production company took over, were there noticeable changes in the aesthetic of the show?
AB: Definitely. I have a very different shooting style. At first I was the writer, and then the director, but also the host and the person who oversaw post-production. It was more cohesive simply because I wasn’t having fights with myself. One person, one show-runner driving it forward. So things changed radically from a visual, production, design standpoint.
TO: The show had a very specific look and feel, and it certainly broke a lot of rules of food TV at the time. Tell me about that motivation: Was it about breaking the mold? Was it to be more accessible?
AB: Before I went to culinary school, I was a commercial director and cinematographer, and I was a Steadicam operator. I knew that I wanted to shoot Good Eats with a Steadicam because I wanted the long, choreographed shots. That fluidity would give it an aesthetic that would break the plop-and-stir mold that you mentioned. At the time, I instigated the use of a lot of Dutch angles. We were still shooting 4-by-3 then. With that frame I went through a lot of my personal influences from film noir of the 1940s, John Alton, German expressionists.
I was also attempting to “world-build”—building a world that was not the real world. And that comes from kids shows. I was heavily influenced by Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Mr. Rogers. I wanted to build a world, and a world had to have recurring characters, it had to have a visual and sound style. We never used needle drop on that show—throughout the entire 252 original episodes, every show was scored. Every show was screenplayed. I always thought we’re telling stories. Food is great, but we’re storytellers. At the time, we had three commercial breaks. When you cut away from this show, you’re going to the most expensive television on Earth, which is the commercial. I’ve got to make sure the show is visually arresting and playful enough to compete with that.
Of course now, I’m competing with devices themselves. With this new shows I’m framing things differently, I’m building shots differently. I’m literally using a phone to watch playback. So we’re always aware of the overall world and environment we’re making our show in, and what it takes to get eyeballs.
TO: There were so many hallmarks with the show I’ve never seen before in a food show, from placing the camera in unexpected places to the long-tracking shots. Am I correct that you don’t shoot with a B-camera?
AB: We’ve never shot coverage. It’s a single-camera show. My thing is if you shoot coverage, someone else will you tell you to try a different cut. I learned from Hitchcock that if you shoot it one way, you can only cut it one way, and no one can tell you to cut it differently.
TO: What I got out of placing the camera in an oven is you’re changing the perspective of the viewer, figuratively and literally. What did you want the home viewer to see?
AB: From the get-go, my job was to entertain. If you learn, great. If you get off the sofa and cook, fantastic. But this is a television show. I’m here to keep you watching through commercial breaks. I’ve always wanted to make a show for the MTV generation. Music videos broke open this idea of changing the narrative form visually. I just wanted to make it interesting and fun. Our motto was always: “Putting cameras where they don’t belong since 1999.” If I can figure out a way to put a camera that was wacky but still communicates the information properly, then great. What I’ve realized since is whenever we’re shooting with our cabinet or refrigerator cam, it’s a theatrical device. It’s a stage, it’s a proscenium. Because of that, it changes the way that information is conveyed. Look, if I can find a more visually interesting way to get the information across, why would I not do that?
In the early days of Good Eats, we used a lot of pro-sumer (cameras) because the technical specs for the show were so loose. This was before HD, before 16-by-9. So we could do that on a MiniDV cam that we got from B&H and shove it in the back of a fridge. The original shows were shot in a real home, we weren’t cutting out the backs of (appliances) until I built the set in season five.
TO: About that oven: Was it a working oven?
AB: Originally it was a working oven that we used a very small Sony handycam, duct-taped to the back of the oven with a cheap wide-angle adapter. Later on, when things got more sophisticated, we cut the back out of the oven. The season we just finished we’re still using the same oven we’ve been using since season five—a convection oven where we cut a hole in the back and put the convection housing back over it with velcro.
TO: How much of it was looking at fresh and original angles and trying to fit them into a scene that makes sense?
AB: A lot of times it was a cross-cultural reference. The first oven-cam shot was in season one of Good Eats and it was for a show about chicken. A couple of guys were looking into an oven, and the line where I said, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal,” well, that’s stolen from 2001! I wanted the get the chicken in the frame, but I’m going to have to put the camera behind the chicken. I wanted to use the window as a framing device. And it just stuck.
TO: How do you work in moments of improvisation?
AB: So the show is completely scripted. My (director of photography) and I would talk about lighting, but as far as the camera movement, I usually keep in my pocket until I’m there.
For instance, we have a shot in our upcoming culinary cocktail show where it’s a cabinet cam shot, then we have two maps that pull down behind me, and the maps go up and there’s a whole theatrical place that takes place with Christopher Columbus and some of his men deeper in the room. There’s seven lighting cues during the shot. I knew we had to push the camera all the way through and out the cabinet, but I didn’t think through the possibility until it was available.
A lot of folks might think to use a low-profile camera like a GoPro and push it through the room. We’re using a Panasonic VariCam that’s fully geeked out. What we were planning to do for this cabinet shelf we can’t get past was to connect our dolly to that, then boom up that shelf so the camera comes through. But then I realized I missed the opportunity that it’s not any good unless the audience sees it happening.
So we rejiggered it so that now when the shot starts, before we push into the room, the shelf with all the stuff on it magically moves upward. And the camera comes in. I would not have planned that, that had to just happen. And it’s freakin’ amazing—this entire shelf levitates up. And we like to do all that stuff in camera, we don’t CG anything. All of that had to be improvised and the only reason I can get away with it is because my key grip, Marshall Millard, has been with me since the first episode of Good Eats. And my D.P., Lamar Owen, has been with me over a decade... that helps.
If you plan everything you miss spontaneity. It’s like jazz, you can’t improvise if you don’t know the structure. You plan as much as you can so those things can be allowed to happen.
TO: My favorite of the early shows was an episode where you focused on biscuits and your relationship with your grandmother.
AB: That was in season one, and the show was called “The Dough Also Rises.” It was very much about my grandmother. She died about a year after that show was made, so I’m really glad that we did it. It was at a time when I thought the show could still have unscripted spontaneity in it. I’m glad we did it, but it was a model we moved away from after the first two seasons of the show. I realized it’s difficult to do a single-camera show with people just talking randomly. But it was an emotionally strong show for no other reason that she and I had a close relationship.
TO: The last original episode of Good Eats was filmed in 2012. What has seven years of advancing technology allowed your show to do that wasn’t possible in 2012?
AB: (Our crew agreed that) the single biggest advancement, unanimously, was something you wouldn’t expect: the changes in lighting technology. Cameras are still cameras, the format changes, but it’s still a stack of glass that light comes through. But it’s LED lighting and the ability to control lighting through an iPad control unit. There’s a lighting fixture called the Astera Tube which is this magic wand of light that can be controlled to generate any color of the rainbow at any given time. It’s being able to program very intricate lighting cues, so that if we’re talking about a particular ingredient, if I gesture with my hand, 12 special lights might come up, all controlled by my gaffer, Stan Fyfe, with an iPad. Seven years ago, pulling off a quarter of that would have required a massive lighting board like you’d see at a Broadway show. Lighting is number one: How we can treat light as a character, how we can change a scene in the middle of a shot with just light. That is a massive advance.
TO: While technology has become more advanced, these new episodes retain the show’s low fidelity. It seems you could have pushed the filmmaking ambition but that would have ruined the charm. It’s called Good Eats: The Return, not Good Eats 2.0
AB: I know what the DNA of the show is. I know what its bones are. A certain wankiness—whether it’s sock puppets or some effect where you can see the wires—is important. Part of it is we may strive to do things in a sophisticated way, but we don’t try to make it look sophisticated. It does come down to: Don’t make anything like super polished, and never make something from scratch if you can recycle something. We’re in a world where we want things to be sticky for viewers. If we use Hot Wheels tracks, we want people to recognize that. I want everything to look like it could’ve been made with a glue gun. Now sometimes, that’s tricky. We’ve done a shakshuka show with several scenes that were complete mimics of frames from Casablanca, right down to the aspect ratio, the black-and-white, and we built this scene in a marketplace set that matches the film—and that scene isn’t wanky. But otherwise, that wankiness came out of the fact we didn’t have money. We made things with coat hangers and wires, and we owned it.
TO: As a filmmaker, where do you stand on the overhead hands-and-pan, sped-up cooking videos all over social media?
AB: I hate them. It’s not for me, it’s not what I want to watch. Nobody cooks from that. Nobody’s learned anything from that. It’s high-speed eye candy. It goes to the visual fetishization of food. Even with Instagram: I’ll watch people in restaurants take a picture of food, post it to their Instagram account without having tasted it. Which I find comically tragic, or tragically comic, I’m not sure which. As someone who’s an advocate for actual cooking and eating, those things are not something I’m interested in.
TO: Proponents of those videos will argue that it’s aspirational.
AB: Sure, it doesn’t mean I like it or agree with it. I could call a video of me petting my dog aspirational. I find them anti-creative, nothing ingenious about them. I’m a 57-year-old man, I do not know one person who’s cooked from those videos, and I’ve been in the food world awhile. But are they harmful? They’re not hurting anybody. If it floats your boat, by all means.
TO: YouTube has democratized food media, and anyone can have a cooking show now. I’m sure people ask you for advice all the time: How does one break through the noise, and how can you make a living from this?
AB: Those are two very different things. I’m still trying to figure out how to make a living at it. On YouTube, there are a lot of people making a lot more money than I make.
I’ve never examined the marketplace, I’ve never looked at the business model. I just make my stuff. It’s either going to stick or it’s not. I’m often asked: “How do I get a show on Food Network?” My answer used to always be: “You can’t.” And the reason I’d say that is it always stop the conversation, and only one time did I get the right answer. It was when a 14-year-old kid in Washington, D.C. asked me that question. I said, “You can’t,” and he said, “Why not? You did.” And I said: “Bingo. Right answer. You’re the first person to get it right. No one should be able to tell you, ‘you can’t.’”
For the people who say you’re not going to do it, don’t listen to them. When I quit my job to go to culinary school so I could make Good Eats, everyone thought I had lost my freakin’ mind. But I had a feeling that food media was going to be the next big thing. In the end, make your stuff. There’s no excuse not to anymore. My iPhone today has better resolution than the shows that most of Good Eats was shot on.