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'Good Eats' host has good time in the kitchen

Thursday, September 11, 2003

By Karen Carlin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

By his own admission, he's not a chef. Not in a traditional sense, anyway. When asked what he considers himself, he answers without missing a beat: "Lucky."


Alton Brown's literary influences:

"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" by Harold McGee.

"Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed" by Shirley O. Corriher.

The 1962 edition of "Joy of Cooking," and not just because it was the year he was born. "It was revolutionary and it shows," he says.

And then some: "There are so many great books. I would have to give you a list of 100 more before I could give you just one more."


The modest filmmaker-turned-television-cooking-host and author may credit luck and timing for being "a freak of career nature," but you don't land a cooking show on the Food Network two years out of culinary school and nab a James Beard Award your first time out unless you have something going right in the oven.

Alton Brown, 41, has all that going for him. The genial host and creator of "Good Eats" will drop in at Barnes & Noble at the Waterfront Saturday to sign copies of his latest book, "Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen."

On his Food Network show, Brown doesn't tell you how to just make a dish. He shows how the dish works, combining his love of good food with food science, bits of pop culture and props, ranging from puppets to a mixer that boasts hot-rod flames across its motor housing. Like a "groovy home ec teacher," as he's been described, he takes you behind the scenes (and the molecules) of what's being prepared.

In a nutshell, Brown created the type of show he was searching for when he was getting more interested in things culinary.

"I wanted to learn how to cook, and no one on TV was teaching me. I was very frustrated that cooking shows by and large were insipid. They didn't teach anything and they didn't entertain anyone," he says on the phone from his office, not far from the Marietta, Ga., home he shares with his wife, DeAnna, and their 3-year-old daughter, Zoey.

That's not how he envisioned a cooking program should be. "My attempt is to give people some basic understanding, to open their eyes to how things work and why they work."

When asked what's the one thing cooks should know, Brown thinks for a moment. If the kitchen is already stocked with tools and equipment, "The No. 1 thing I'd want to teach is how to properly read, interpret and think through a recipe before they touched anything."

Brown says cooks don't often sit down with a pad and pencil and just read a recipe, think on it, perhaps even question it -- digest it all before getting into the kitchen to try it.

"I think if people did that, they'd find there is an opportunity to learn what's going on inside the recipes."

Brown's goal is to reveal just what is going on inside.

"A recipe is just a list of directions to get you to a certain point. We're trying to draw a road map to show you where you are. ... I want people to go, 'Oh, that's what makes my eggs rubbery.' "

Brown began his own trip inside recipes when he quit his job directing commercials and his wife quit hers as a producer and they moved to Vermont so that he could attend the New England Culinary Institute. After graduation, the seeds for his show began to grow.

The confessed "reference hound" pulls what he can from other volumes besides cookbooks, from the Merck Manual of medical information to dictionaries. "For me, I don't limit what I learn and know about food to things written about food. ... Food is a switchboard; it's a connection."

As for TV, he was inspired by "Connections," an old BBC series that showed how seemingly unrelated things connect.

"For example, how you would go from a laptop computer to a glass of wine," he says. "It's how small things make big differences. I remember watching that when I started writing 'Good Eats.' "

"Good Eats" premiered on the Food Network in July 1999, and a month ago Brown and crew taped the 100th episode. Again, he gives credit to luck and timing. "We knew how to be filmmakers; we didn't know television. We didn't know we couldn't do it."

His first book, "I'm Just Here for the Food," was published last year and won a 2003 James Beard Foundation Award in the reference book category. Its author almost didn't go to the awards ceremony and "was totally flabbergasted" to hear his name called from the podium.

Its follow-up, "I'm Just Here for More Food," will concentrate on baking. It's scheduled for release in fall 2004.

"Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen" came out this month. He put it together in response to many fans who ask about the tools he uses, some traditional, some unorthodox. (Yes, he really does use an old record player when decorating cakes.)

It includes a six-month plan that will help cooks "debulk" their kitchens, Brown says. He hopes it gives cooks enough knowledge to wisely choose items for the kitchen, decide what to get rid of and figure out how to get the most for the money.

"What it comes down to, in a lot of ways, is the places you go that have the most [kitchen equipment] have the fewest people who know how to talk about it. I'm taking the place of good salespeople," Brown says.

Pittsburgh is one of 14 cities he's scheduled so far to visit this fall to promote the new book. Such appearances give him an opportunity to get feedback from fans, something he believes is "critically important."

"When the ego says you can dictate to fans, that's when you get into trouble. So I spend a lot of time listening."

Listening, combining, experimenting, then passing it on so other cooks may learn.

"Cooking is its own reward. It's not about the food, but the cooking itself."

Alton Brown will appear at Barnes & Noble at the Waterfront in Homestead at 1 p.m. Saturday. Call 412-462-5743. "Good Eats" airs at 9 p.m. and midnight Wednesdays; 9:30 a.m. Saturdays; and 9:30 a.m., 6:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. Sundays on the Food Network.

Contact Karen Carlin at kcarlin@ or 412-263-2588.

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