In the almost two decades that Alton Brown has been on television, he's gone from the cult favorite informational cooking show Good Eats to becoming one of the Food Network’s best-known culinary ambassadors. He ran his own podcast, helmed the compulsively watchable game show Cutthroat Kitchen, and hosted Iron Chef America, as well as put out several books and inspired a legion of fans and do-it-yourself cookery wonks. We spoke to Brown after he had returned from his latest nationwide tour with his popular live show about food television, creative kitchen sabotages, and why he'd be happy if he never saw a bottle of Sriracha again.
What's the first meal you make when you're back at home in your kitchen after touring?
Believe it or not, it's usually scrambled eggs. Just scrambled eggs. I don’t make some big elaborate meal. Depending on when I get in, it may just be a pot of oatmeal.
When you're out on the road, you take recommendations from fans as to where to stop and eat. Do you have a go-to dinner order?
No. I guess I don’t. I'm always being told what to have at a certain place. When I'm on the road, I only eat where people recommend, and I usually only order what they recommend. I usually don't always have a standing order. Every place is different. I guess if I had to choose, it would be a meat-and-three. I'd go with meatloaf and two vegetables.
When you started out on Good Eats, in 1998, food television was a very different place—you're on record as saying you started the show because you wanted something that wouldn't be boring and was accessible. How have you seen it shift in your almost two decades on the air?
Well, of course, I've watched food programming in general move from a relatively narrow realm of instruction and travel. Shows then were either instructional or they had to start from going someplace. There was no competition or reality food television. But as food television became more mainstream and producers got more creative with it, it became a format, a milieu if you will, for any different kind of entertainment. It went from narrow to as wide a spectrum as you can possibly imagine. That’s what I’ve witnessed and taken part in to some degree. I still prefer my own work, the original stuff. I consider myself to be a fan of instructional cooking shows like Good Eats.
How has your viewpoint on food shifted, if at all?
My viewpoint on food did not really change one bit. If anything, I’m even more solidly in the same camp, which is that you should cook your own food. The food you make yourself is going to be better. Nothing intrinsically has changed in all these years at all.
Do you think that the ramping up of food television has inspired more people to cook at home?
I don't know. For every person I meet who thanks me for teaching them how to cook, I probably get at least as many saying, "Gee, I don't really cook but now I'm more aware of ingredients." My personal belief is more people are cooking with a more diverse range of ingredients, based on the people I see at the grocery store. Of course something we have to address is that there's still a miserable poverty situation where a lot of people don’t have access to those ingredients still.
I will say that now, people seem to be more aware of where their food is coming from. That's part of marketing. Twenty years ago, people went into a restaurant and ordered oysters. They didn't care necessarily where they came from. Now it's part of the narrative of the food.
You have such an incredible array of fun, weird work under your belt, from your podcast to your guest spot on Archer. How do you decide which projects to tackle?
Well, I will never do anything just for money. Money can make you make bad decisions. Number one, I have to look at whether or not it works with my brand. I never want to do work that my fans say, "Ew, why would you do that?" I remember when I did Cutthroat Kitchen, I got a lot of fans saying, "It's not the you on Good Eats."
Really? It seemed to me to be sides of the same problem-solving-about-food coin.
Yeah. I think what they didn’t realize is there is an educational standpoint to Cutthroat Kitchen. It's all about watching people figure out how to get around problems. You have to use your brain. I actually use things people do on that show in my own cooking. I'll see a clever way to go from point A to point B. I've used a few different hacks. I build a lot of things out of tinfoil now, or I might adapt something I would have originally done on a waffle iron. I've even finished a sandwich with an iron that I would normally iron my shirts with.
How involved are you in coming up with the sabotages for the show? They're so diabolical—from making people cook in a child-size kitchen to having a prep station in a wading pool.
It's me and the producers and writers, so there are nine of them. We have to make sure that they're entertaining but doable. If we find one that's too much, we don't do it.
As a fellow Southerner, I have to ask: What’s the most underutilized Southern ingredient?
Okra. Definitely okra. Okra as an ingredient is very underused. There are three misrepresentations: stewed, pickled, and fried as soon as they come in. It's a fantastic ingredient that we know how to deal with in the South extensively, and not many other places do. Except African countries, of course, which is where it came from in the first place.
Are there any food trends you wish would go away?
I'm sick to death of Sriracha. We need a moratorium on Sriracha. Young cooks just put it on everything. And I'm really just about over bacon. But if I never see another bottle of Sriracha again, I'll be happy.