Alton Brown pulls back the curtain

New cookbook shows a more personal side of Food TV showman


The afternoon sun had melted most of the ice in the Mason jar that held Alton Brown’s sangria. At 54 and recently divorced, the king of the food-science geeks and master of ceremonies to the first Food Network generation rocked gently on a backyard swing and pondered the big questions.

What is the nature of God? Can he bring himself to vote for a Democrat for the first time since Michael Dukakis? Will people like his new cookbook?

“Here’s the problem with a book like this,” he said during a day that had started with morning cocktails and bee-tending at the suburban Atlanta compound that serves as his studio, kitchen workshop and man cave. “If they don’t like it, they don’t like me.”

The book, “EveryDayCook: This Time It’s Personal,” is his eighth, but the first in which he offers at least a small peek behind his curtain, at the ways he cooks and eats at home. Peeks don’t come easy for Brown, who has always been more of a controlled showman than a freewheeling chef.

Alton Brown is an outlier among food celebrities. He is a private, politically conservative Southerner who sometimes carries a Bible and a firearm. He is a pilot and a devoted student of film. He is the opposite of cuddly. And he is probably much smarter than you.

“I think he’s the greatest genius that Food Network ever hired, with Mario Batali a close second,” said Allen Salkin, a former New York Times reporter who wrote the 2013 book “From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network.”

“EveryDayCook” is an eclectic and appealing collection of 70 recipes in Brown’s regular rotation and another 30 he created to bring the book to a respectable size. The photos were shot entirely on an iPhone at the compound, each picture taken directly overhead, like an Instagram image.

In one, he lies among the hardware-store items he prefers as kitchen tools. On another page, he offers a list of 30 favorite pantry items that begins with amaranth and ends with white cornmeal.

The recipes range from simple with a twist (warm Saltines brushed with dried mustard, hot sauce and butter) to delicious gimmicks (a breakfast carbonara) to science experiments (pancake batter powered by nitrous oxide). He even makes cold barley water steeped with lemon and sweetened with honey seem ridiculously appealing.

The book offers a more personal version of the pun-laden shtick that fans have come to love from “Good Eats,” his first TV hit, mixed with the polished authority he showed as the master of ceremonies on “Iron Chef America,” a job he likens to circus work.

“It’s an hour of juggling well while standing on the back of a horse,” he said.

At its heart, “EveryDayCook” is a midlife-crisis book. “It’s ‘Who the heck am I?’ time,” he said. “I’ve spent years projecting and presenting this thing, but in the end, what am I? I thought it was important to put something on paper.”

Brown, who describes himself as “difficult” and “a terrible workaholic,” has never been in a more reflective period. His divorce from DeAnna Brown, his second wife, with whom he had a daughter and built an empire, became final on May 13, 2015. She got the 7,000-square-foot historic brick home in Marietta, a couple of miles from the compound, which went to him.

“It was a sad time,” said the Rev. Bryant Wright, the pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, where Brown was immersed in baptismal waters in 2006.

The church tried to keep the couple together, but Brown “was determined to get a divorce,” Wright said. The former Mrs. Brown, a woman so devout that she kept a Bible on her desk at the “Good Eats” studio, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Brown, who said that over the years he gave a significant amount of money to the church, formally resigned from it, and he remains bitter about pressure from church leaders to fall in line. He still prays, but says his concept of God is evolving.

After the divorce, he started drinking too much, he said. He indulged his sweet tooth, which leans toward peanut M&Ms. The result was an extra 20 pounds. He had lost a significant amount of weight a decade earlier, and was in no mood to return to what he called his chunky monkey period.

He quit drinking. He worked out, which he says he can sometimes do to excess.

“The problem with being so skinny is now people are like, ‘How’s the chemo?’” he said. “When you get older, skinny is not really your friend. You get the turkey neck.”

He divides his time among Atlanta, where he remains devoted to helping raise the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Zoey, and New York and Los Angeles. He also travels to other cities to stage his elaborate cooking and musical variety show. The current one, his second, is called “Eat Your Science.” In it, he performs stunts that involve helium, popcorn and puppets (not in the same act).

Brown also sings and plays guitar. The effect, especially on country-tinged songs like “Airport Shrimp Cocktail,” about gastronomic distress, is that of a soccer dad who managed to keep his college band together.

The variety shows, about 140 performances a year, are a good business model, he said. Tickets to an eight-show Broadway run at the Barrymore Theater in November top out at $252.

And then there is the merchandise. As a great collector of everything from bow ties to vintage cast iron and old bourbon, Brown pays a lot of attention to the quality of his “merch.”

Perhaps more important, the live shows afford him an opportunity to stay mobile. “I think I’ve built a life that’s based on running away from my life,” he said.

Brown, who was born in Los Angeles but moved to northern Georgia when he was 7, had plenty of life thrown at him early. His father, Alton Brown Sr., owned a radio station and the local newspaper in Cleveland, Georgia. His mother, who loved to entertain, was the editor.

On Brown’s last day as a sixth-grader, his father was found dead at the family’s home with “a Hefty bag taped to his head,” Brown said. Police determined that it was a suicide, but Brown still believes that his father may have been murdered.

His mother would eventually marry four more times, and with the marriages came stepsiblings. He is not close to them, and keeps his mother at what he called “a 100-mile distance.”

“My mom didn’t have a lot of respect for me until I became famous,” he said.

He often jokes that his success is a way to show her that studying drama and film in college wasn’t a waste after all.

The rocketing popularity of food television in the 1990s caught his interest, so he secured a degree in 1997 from the New England Culinary Institute. Two years later, “Good Eats” was on Food Network. With its smart mix of history, science and cooking, shot with homemade props and a cinematographer’s sensibility, the show was more sophisticated than anything the network had ever shown. He made 249 episodes.

Brown is not driven by an inherent love of food in the way some cooks are. And he is not so much a culinary authority, like Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse, as a really smart guy who has figured it out and wants you to as well.

“The beauty of Alton Brown is that he’s not a chef, he’s just a host,” said David Sax, a Canadian journalist who writes about food. “He’s the Regis Philbin of food TV.”

Brown is working on a new version of “Good Eats” for his own digital distribution next year. He is buoyed by a generation of younger fans who watch reruns on Netflix. Food Network owns “Good Eats,” so he doesn’t make a penny from the revival.

He was smarter when he signed up for “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a Food Network competition in which contestants force one another to cook on a giant spiderweb or with potato mashers taped to their hands. It’s what might have resulted if “The Gong Show” and “The Amazing Race” had a child who really liked to cook.

Brown makes more from one episode than he did from the entire first season of “Good Eats,” he said.

Although he was an early critic of Twitter, he has become a beast on social media. Much of the credit goes to the food media veteran Sarah De Heer, 30, whom he met at Food Network and who now manages his brand as his “director of digital ops.” She took his Twitter account from about 600,000 followers to more than 3 million. She also shot all the photos in his cookbook, and travels with him.

Although Brown often assumes he is the weakest link in any chain, he holds strong opinions. A question about why he makes barbecued potato chips by smoking potato slices over wood chips on the stove when they sell perfectly good barbecue chips at the store propels him into a monologue on the state of hospitality in America.

“I’m going to make you these chips,” he said. “You’re going to eat them and say, ‘Thank you.’ The time we spent together making them is a valuable piece of the hospitality equation. The taking in that equation is even more important than the giving. But here in this country, we have decided to replace ‘thank you’ a great deal with ‘I can’t eat that.’”

When he’s on a roll like this, it’s best to let him keep going.

“Unless you have a medical bracelet that says celiac, shut up and eat the food,” he said. “We want to be so special. We not only want to be special for our cooking, we want to be special for our eating. There are times when vegetarians should shut up and eat the pork chop.”

Still, for all his forcefulness and clarity on any number of topics, Brown seems to be seeking clarity on matters more internal.

“I’m not where I thought would be at this point in my life,” he said, “but I’m wiser by a long shot.”

Still, he said, taking another sip of sangria, “I don’t really know what I am anymore.”

Then he got up off the porch swing and headed back to his kitchen.

“Funny business,” he said, “this living.”

Breakfast Carbonara

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped

1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon kosher salt

8 ounces dried linguine, preferably whole wheat

2 teaspoons olive oil

8 ounces breakfast sausage, either bulk or removed from its casings

2 scallions, thinly sliced

4 large eggs, room temperature

3 ounces Pecorino Romano, finely grated

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the orange zest, parsley and breadcrumbs in a small bowl and set aside.

Add 2 quarts of water, salt and linguine to a large saute pan. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 4 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the sausage, breaking it into pieces with a spoon, and brown. Add the scallions and cook for a few minutes until fragrant.

While the pasta and sausage cook, whisk together the eggs, cheese and pepper.

Drain the pasta, reserving a 1/3 cup of the starchy water. Add the pasta to the sausage mixture, tossing well to coat.

Remove from heat, add the egg mixture and toss some more, adding some pasta water to loosen the sauce.

Serve immediately with a generous sprinkle of the parsley mixture. Serves: 4 to 6

Recipe from “EveryDayCook: This Time It’s Personal”

Char Burgers

1 pound boneless, skinless arctic char fillets

1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/4 cup finely diced scallions

1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

1 large egg white

2 teaspoons wasabi fumi furikake

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 onion buns

Kewpie mayonnaise, for serving (optional)

If the char is frozen, thaw at room temperature for about 30 minutes before chopping. If it’s raw, freeze for 30 minutes before chopping. Chop into 1/4-inch cubes and transfer to a medium mixing bowl.

Gently fold in the panko, scallions, bell pepper, horseradish, egg white, furikake, salt and pepper.

Divide the mixture into 4 portions and shape into 3/4-inch-thick patties. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Over medium-high heat, heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch seasoned cast-iron or other nonstick pan until the oil shimmers. Add the patties and cook for 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Flip and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.

Move the patties to a plate to rest for about 3 minutes, then serve on onion buns. Toasting the buns and adding a squeeze of the Japanese-style mayonnaise is optional but recommended. Serves: 4

Recipe from “EveryDayCook: This Time It’s Personal”


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