Issue Date: July 28, 2008
An Appetite For Science
Alton Brown readily admits that he was an undistinguished science student. “I took physics, chemistry, and biology in college, and they were all boring beyond words,” he says. “None of it mattered. None of it applied. It was taught mostly by people who wanted to get tenure and write grants. It was only when I decided that the answer to most of my problems was science that I became interested.”
Irony: it’s what’s for dinner. His quest for answers to kitchen-related questions led Brown to create one of the best cooking with science shows on television. “Good Eats” educates viewers about the science of food and cooking using historical references, pop culture, costumes, and props. The science enhances the step-by-step cooking tutorial, yet the information is still highly relevant to the home chef.
For example, episodes titled “Churn Baby Churn” and “I Pie” explain, respectively, how sugar crystallization affects the texture of ice cream and what happens to a pie crust in the oven as it bakes. These are the sort of processes that chemists and materials scientists address everyday. The show also features experts such as Shirley O. Corriher, food scientist and author of “CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow, 1997), and Deborah Duchon, a nutritional anthropologist. In addition, fictional experts make appearances, such as “W,” a kitchen equipment specialist whose resemblance to James Bond’s “Q” is no coincidence.
If the components that comprise a “Good Eats” episode are the spokes on a wheel, then Brown is the creative hub. His presentation style, a combination of Julia Child, British comedy troupe Monty Python, and Mr. Wizard, has earned him a dedicated following among viewers of all ages, male and female.
Although he relies on analogies and metaphors to explain concepts, he doesn’t condescend to his audience. His talent for invention assures viewers that they don’t need expensive single-purpose appliances, which he calls “uni-taskers.” As demonstrated in the episode “Good Milk Gone Bad,” one doesn’t need an expensive yogurt maker if a couple of containers and a heating pad are available at home. Yogurt contains beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, that love lactose, the sugar found in milk. Adding a starter culture of plain, store-bought yogurt to milk at 110 °F, Brown shows that the bacteria will convert the lactose into lactic acid. The heating pad helps to maintain a steady temperature to allow the bacteria to incubate. If the temperature of the milk is too low, the bacteria won’t grow to make yogurt. If the temperature is too high, the bacteria will die.
Brown honed his cooking talent early, learning from his mother and his grandmother (both of whom have appeared on “Good Eats”). He later parlayed his talent as a way to get dates in college. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in theater, Brown worked as a cinematographer and video director for about a decade. He spent his time between shoots watching cooking shows and concluded they were “dull and uninformative.” Tired of hearing him complain, Brown's wife, DeAnna, suggested that he do something about it. They moved to Vermont so Brown could attend the New England Culinary Institute (NECI), in Montpelier, where he graduated in 1997. Equipped with both the technical and culinary know-how, Brown wrote two scripts: “Steak Your Claim” and “This Spud’s For You.” The series was picked up by Food Network in 1999.
The catalog of his accomplishments is fairly extensive; most notably, Brown was named 2004 Cooking Teacher of the Year by Bon Appétit magazine and won a 2006 Peabody Award. He’s also the author of three books: “I’m Just Here for the Food,” which won a James Beard Award in 2003; “I’m Just Here for More Food”; and “Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen,” in which he pays tribute to his love of gadgets.
Brown has a sincere, enthusiastic appreciation for knowledge. He says that learning the science behind cooking made him a better cook and “a smarter person.” The science he learned at NECI was cursory. He frustrated most of his instructors because he continually asked why specific processes had the effects they did. A lot of times, he says, his instructors didn’t have the answers because they didn’t view them as relevant to the mission of becoming a cook.
In his search for answers, Brown says he read a lot of science journals and needed a dictionary just to understand what he was reading. Some journals he would simply give up on because he didn’t have the math background to understand them. “It’s certainly tough when you suddenly want to make science a very big part of your world late in life,” he says. “I didn’t have a brilliant teacher to turn to or a really great academic library. I had to chisel the information out of public libraries.”
Brown considers cooking the ultimate applied science because everything relates to chemistry, biology, or physics. “Cooking is a switchboard to everything. There is nothing about human existence that doesn’t tap into food or that doesn’t pass through food. I’ve gone into biology classes where we dissected a chicken instead of a fetal pig. Why? Because you’ll see it again. Knowing how to cut up a chicken actually matters. When will you see a fetal pig again?”
He’s confident he could teach a high school or college science course with nothing but a kitchen. For labs he could demonstrate how heat denatures protein by cooking an egg, how yeast cells execute gas-liberating reactions by baking a loaf of bread, or how fermentation occurs by making pickles. As a bonus, the class would get to eat the experiments, enabling observation of cause and effect.
Asked to name a few of his science heroes, Brown mentions Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan (“The first science teacher I latched onto from TV land”), and agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (“The kind of scientist that hadn’t existed before his time”) (C&EN, Feb. 14, 2005, page 57). Other influences, aside from Child and Monty Python, include science historian and essayist James Burke, best known for his documentary series “Connections,” which provided plenty of guidance to Brown during the days he was formulating “Good Eats.”
But “if there’s one person I owe it all to, it would be Harold McGee,” he says. “By and large he was the first guy who took food seriously. The one book that changed my life was the first edition of ‘On Food and Cooking.’ When I was at NECI asking these burning questions, my wife gave me a copy for my birthday and it was like the floodgates opening. It was the one place where I could find an answer that I could understand. You will never see any of my books on the ‘Good Eats’ set but there is always a copy of McGee’s book.”
A turning point in Brown’s life was the several months he spent in Tuscany, Italy, performing summer stock theater. At a restaurant in Cortona, the only menu item was pizza, and the kind of pizza depended on what the owner felt like making that day. Yet it was a pizza unlike anything Brown had ever seen before, and he had a revelation. “It was the cultural significance of food,” he recalls. “Its real power is connecting people to people. I was 21, watching a household with four generations living under one roof, and the way food was prepared tied it all together. Food has a valuable place in culture and the importance that people put on even the simplest things. If you want a cup of coffee in Paris, you can’t get it to go. You sit at a café and have a cup of coffee. Most Italians would starve to death in America because nothing would be worth buying.”
He continues: “We get so caught up in our food culture, especially in places like New York, when really, in the end, it’s about hospitality, people sitting down and breaking bread together. I believe in God so I temper everything through that lens. The words ‘communion’ and ‘communicate’ come from the same root, so there’s something deeply spiritual and naturally significant about it.”
The importance of culture and socializing in experiencing food makes Brown wonder about molecular gastronomy, a trend that’s generally defined as the application of scientific techniques and tools to cooking. For example, chef Wylie Dufresne makes pasta noodles entirely out of shrimp meat, using the enzyme transglutaminase. The enzyme “glues” pieces of meat or fish together to be shaped and cooked according to the chef’s purpose. Interestingly, some of the best-known chefs who use these techniques, such as Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, don’t like the term and have distanced themselves from it (C&EN, July 7, page 26).
Brown says one problem with molecular gastronomy is it moves diners away from what is on their plate and, in some cases, is used as a replacement for food. “If you’re a good chef and you want to stretch yourself to find new and interesting things to do, it can have great results,” he says. “However, it can get a little freaky sometimes. The food is inedible because it’s not food—it’s a chemistry exam.”
As inventive as molecular gastronomy can be, Brown says it doesn’t offer him anything he actually craves: “I don’t have sodium alginate at home and I can’t remember the last time I reached for agar, but oddly enough I have xanthan gum because I use it for certain things. Most of the chefs I know who are really good just don’t care. Yet it’s an important movement that needs to happen because it says that we’re still seeking.”
He believes that the interest in molecular gastronomy detracts from a larger issue that ought to be addressed and one that he cares greatly about: the exposed weaknesses in our nation’s food safety net. “One of the places where America has really damaged itself is food,” he says. “When you look at the map of the Escherichia coli spinach outbreak [in September 2006], every one of those affected states can grow commercial spinach. What business did California have feeding all those states spinach? If you can’t cook chili for yourself, you deserve cans that explode on your shelf.”
Brown doesn’t believe that food should be globalized. “You can’t have food systems on a global scale that don’t break down. [The U.S. Department of Agriculture] was established as a support organization for the agriculture industry—it’s not a police force. There is no way to keep a global food system safe. It can’t be done and it shouldn’t be done. It’s bad for economies, bad for the planet, and bad for humans,” he says.
He is a big fan of farmers’ markets and having access to locally grown, seasonal foods. As recently as two years ago, no farmers’ markets existed in Brown’s community in the Atlanta suburbs. Now, 500 consumers come through because they’re connecting fresh food with local farms, and buying food locally empowers them to ask questions about the food that is sold.
Brown says that of the many teachers he meets, science teachers are the most passionate about their subject. “I think most of the science teachers in this country are held back by the systems in which they work,” he says. “The most powerful force in any education is curiosity. You can teach chemistry without ever showing anybody a formula at first. Get students curious until there’s an interest, a need for the formula, and then give them the formula. Once you start acquiring knowledge, it becomes associative. The connections that weren’t there before start to happen.”
“Good Eats” episodes are also distributed through Cable in the Classroom, an educational outreach effort to schools nationwide. Students learn how science applies to cooking and hands-on activities connect the show’s content to science, nutrition, health, and other subjects.
Brown is invited to speak to a lot of science and medical organizations, such as the Institute of Food Technologists, where he was the keynote speaker in 2006. “My dream speaking gig is where I’m the dumbest guy in the room,” he says. “I do a lot of these because I’m not scared of the language, and I really research my audience. A few years ago, I gave a lecture at Los Alamos National Laboratory because they wanted to learn how to communicate better. I gave a lecture to 250 Ph.D.s. I was the dumbest guy in the room and we had a great time.”
Brown believes that scientists don’t communicate as well as they could because they fixate on one little corner of the big picture. “They get way too caught up in facts,” he says. “When I’m teaching a science point and a fact doesn’t work for me, I get rid of it. I’m talking about concepts and gross understandings, and then people can sort things out from there. Scientists get caught up way too often in delineations and definitions and what the spectrograph showed.”
Aside from branching out to speak to various scientific communities, Brown’s also been hired by industry as a consultant. His first foray was with General Electric, which asked him to teach their engineers how food cooks because GE thought it would help workers build better appliances. “The industry guys began to realize that if they did understand what goes on inside a cookie when it bakes, maybe it would make a difference in how appliances are designed,” he says. Brown’s advice contributed to GE’s line of Trivection ovens that combine thermal, convection, and microwave energies to cook food faster. He also appears in short videos on the GE appliance website (www.geappliances.com).
In January, Food Network announced a three-year deal with Brown. He’ll be back for more episodes of “Good Eats,” “Iron Chef,” and the latest installment of his popular “Feasting on Asphalt” series called “Feasting on Waves.” Even though he’s nearing the 200th episode of “Good Eats,” Brown’s not ready to stop. The subject hasn’t dried up, he says, because “good teachers repeat themselves often in new ways.”
Although he is modest about assessing his place in the world, Brown concedes that he has the credibility and visibility to devote more attention to serious food-related topics. The choice, he says, is either to cash in or try to be responsible for the credibility the audience has given him. When “Good Eats” first started, he and his wife, who is also his business partner, set up a simple decision tree through which they evaluate new ideas. If the answer at any point is “no,” the idea is rejected, regardless of the money involved or how it may benefit his career.
“In the end we have—I think more than anyone else on television—amassed a credibility that we would never betray,” he says. “That’s more valuable than anything else.”
That’s not to say that Brown doesn’t have other projects in the works. He’s planning a feature-length documentary about people’s relationship with the ocean, he’s getting involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California, and he has just signed a deal to work with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to provide advice on purchasing seafood and cooking ideas. An avid scuba diver, Brown says he’s still looking for a way to put his childhood obsession with Jacques Cousteau together with food.
For all the contributions Brown has made to communicating science and cooking, he insists that he does not have a great scientific mind. “I tell stories and science is a tool that I use to tell stories,” he says. “I’m not a chef and I’m not a scientist. I’m a storyteller who makes 30-minute movies about food.”
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