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Chef Alton Brown of “Good Eats”: Writer, Director, Food Hacker & Gear Head

“Here, taste this,” says Tamie Cook, Research Coordinator and Culinary Producer for Chef Alton Brown of “Good Eats”, as she presents him with a small cup of a ice cream. It’s just after 9:30 AM and the test kitchen at Brown’s Be Squared Productions office in Atlanta is abuzz – there’s a loaf of bread in the oven and spring rolls in various stages of completion, while an ice cream maker is churning away an eggnog-flavored treat.

Alton studies the creamy mixture, prodding at it with his spoon. He takes a taste and works the ice cream across his palette as a wine-taster would with a new vintage of wine. As he digs at the mixture with his spoon he asks, “What do you think?” Tamie replies, “I think it tastes pretty good,” with emphasis on the good. Alton detects a crystalline texture and asks about the alcohol, water and fat content of the recipe. In a quick back-and-forth exchange with one word questions and answers, Alton and Tamie have poured over every molecular detail of the fat-to-water ratio. After another taste, he proclaims, “It’s good. Let’s call it good.”

And with that, he exchanges the ice cream cup for his Shoei motorcycle helmet, turns to us, and with a smile on his face says, “Let’s ride, shall we?”

Alton Brown isn’t your typical celebrity chef. In fact, he makes jokes about his celebrity status, never taking it to heart. Now in its fifth year of production, Good Eats is one of the highest rated, most recognizable shows on the Food Network. His first book, I’m Just Here For The Food, has won a prestigious James Beard award. Most recently, he was named Bon Appetit magazine’s Cooking Teacher of the Year – a highly-coveted distinction, and one that Brown takes pride in.

When you speak with the 42-year-old, “food hacker” (a term first coined by Wired magazine), it’s his sincere, enthusiastic passion for knowledge that leaves a lasting impression. He lights up while explaining how his new line of Kershaw knives take advantage of a slight angle in the handle to improve the action of the knife. He becomes effusive when talking about his work with General Electric and their new TrivectionTM oven.

But Alton really takes off when it comes to motorcycles. “I love to ride. I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re either a car guy, or a bike guy,” he says while sitting atop his BMW R1100RT. “I’m a bike guy.”

Alton Brown has been interested in motorcycles for as long as he can remember. “My mother, like most moms, was deathly afraid of me getting on any motorcycle, so I never bought one,” he says. Instead, he studied magazines, books and videos, attended races and motorcycle shows, but always watching from the sidelines. Then about two years ago, his wife DeAnna told him that he needed to get a motorcycle but she placed one stipulation on the purchase – it had to be a new bike… That’s right – she insisted that he buy a new motorcycle, and in doing so, nearly upset the space/time continuum. When was the last time anyone’s significant other made such a request?

Alton went out and bought a new, Suzuki SV650, a naked sports bike with stunning looks, razor-sharp handling and impressive performance. True to his Zen-like nature, Brown took to trying to master the art of riding a motorcycle.

“One of the great things about riding a motorcycle is that it’s a constant exercise in skill management,” he says. “When I go for a ride up north, I want to ride. I really like to work on the motorcycle – when I find a challenging section of road, I’ll ride it – and then ride it again, and again, and again. I’m always trying to learn something new and I’m always looking to improve my skill level.”

He’s also a proponent of rider safety, and regularly attends Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes. He says he never hoists a leg over the saddle unless he’s in full protective gear, which includes: Shoei full-faced helmet, BMW Motorsports ballistic jacket, pants and boots, and heavy-duty riding gloves. “I can’t imagine riding a bike without the gear. I don’t feel right if I’m on the bike and not wearing my gear – it just feels — well, wrong.'”

After about a year with the Suzuki, Alton’s love for German engineering got the best of him, and he traded the SV650 for a lightly used BMW R1100RT. “I’m a year-round rider,” Brown says. “I don’t believe in storing my bike for the winter, and while it doesn’t get real cold in Atlanta, riding 70 miles in 20-degree weather on a naked bike can make you question why you’re riding.”

As he reaches down to wipe at a smudge on the ocean blue fairing, he continues, “The BMW has such great engineering, and it’s reliable, and so enjoyable to ride. The center of gravity is low, so it handles great. The throttle is extremely responsive and the ABS-controlled brakes are among the best I’ve experienced. It stops when you want it to and without any surprises.”

When asked about his preference for riding destinations, Brown says, “Because I’m so busy with work, I can’t really ride as much as I’d like to. I can get up at six o’clock on a Sunday morning and ride in the mountains, but in reality a lot of my riding time is spent commuting. I’ve got a 16-mile commute that I can turn into a 50-mile ride, and have been known to do that from time to time.” He says that he uses the bike as much as possible, taking it on shoot scouting runs and to speaking engagements.

Another benefit of the R1100RT is that it offers decent storage, thanks in part to the large, hard-shell luggage that Brown has fitted to the RT. He can stuff his 15″ Apple G4 PowerBook, one of his four iPods (did we mention he’s a technology junkie), and just about everything else he needs for work into the Beemer and ride.

“They [the side cases] also make great crash bars,” he says with a smile. “When you drop your bike, which I did last week while taking an advanced rider course, the highway pegs and the cases kept this [massaging the front fairing] from hitting this [tapping at the ground with his toes].”

Noting our surprise at this confession, he explained, “Oh yeah – dropping my bike was traumatic, but not for me. I was doing something I shouldn’t have been – going extremely slow while trying to navigate some very tight areas. After I dropped it, everyone came up to console me, and I was like, ‘Why are you consoling me? Have you dropped your bike?’ I was happy it happened, in a controlled environment like that. I’ve gotten that problem out of my system.”

“The only embarrassing part was asking for help picking it back up,” he says with a chuckle. “The thing weighs 600-pounds dry, so it took a few of us to get it upright again.”

Alton says that despite the weight, the BMW is nimble and controllable, but it isn’t exactly “flickable,” and that’s a trait he misses. “I’ve decided to add another bike – something that’s more sporty, like the SV was. The naked bikes really are attractive and they’re so ‘real.’ You’re just out there – no fairings, no windshields. It’s just you and the bike.”

Brown said that he’s also a fan of Triumphs, and that a second bike is definitely in the works. We pressed him to identify his next bike, but he couldn’t put his finger on what he wanted. “It’ll definitely happen before the end of the year – I’ll have a second bike – there’s already room in the garage for it. I just have to decide what it will be.”

Despite the fun that we were having talking bikes, we had to ask Alton some questions about his role at the Food Network, and about his new book, I’m Just Here For More Food, which covers the art and science of baking. We joined Alton for lunch at a fabulous little restaurant near his production offices.

“My first book, I’m Just Here For The Food, was a bear to write. I literally locked myself in a 28-foot Airstream trailer for 3 months, and day after day, I forced myself to write for four hours and then sleep for two. I remember not knowing if it was day or night – I had no idea,” he says. “When I was done, I thought the book was horrible. I was so ashamed of it.”

I’m Just Here For The Food went on to receive a James Beard award, which is the culinary equivalent of a Pulitzer prize. Now in its eleventh printing (and still selling nearly 1000 copies per week), Brown is finally OK with the book. “It’s funny – when I showed up for my first book signing at Barnes & Noble, I got there and the place was empty. I turned to the manager and said, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry that no one showed up,’ and he points to the mezzanine level above us where there were 770 people and goes, ‘They’re all here to see you.’ I was floored. I turned to my wife and said, ‘You know, maybe the book doesn’t suck so bad after all.'”

His latest book, I’m Just Here For More Food was released in October and addresses baking, but does so in the typical Brown method. While traditional cookbooks include recipes that demonstrate to the reader the “what” of baking, Brown’s book goes much farther. It begins with “the molecular pantry” and continues on to explore and explain the science behind all sorts of treats and goodies. Brown says the book is full of illustrations and ideas, and incorporates a neat new feature.

“When I started writing I’m Just Here For More Food, I realized that with baking, you’re really only using the same seven or eight ingredients – not a lot changes with each recipe. Rather, it’s the mixing technique that leads to variations in the final product, so the book focuses on mixing methods, and with each section, there’s a cool ‘master flap’ that describes the processes. So instead of repeating information over and over within a section, the flap serves as a quick point of reference, and should make it easier to read and follow. I’m hopeful that it will have a positive influence on folks.”

As we continued our conversation over lunch, we asked Brown about his role in the popular Iron Chef America show and whether the Food Network had future episodes planned. Alton indicated that he was leaving for New York in just a few days to tape ten new episodes of the Iron Chef America series.

We grilled him for more info, but he couldn’t share much, saying, “To be honest, I don’t know who the competitors will be. When taping the episodes, I know what the secret ingredient is going to be ahead of time, but that’s about it. But even that information is highly privileged. It’s like they send me this encrypted message that says, ‘Go to the phone booth near the corner and await further instructions. This message will self destruct in five seconds…’ It’s very secretive, but it’s a really fun show to do.”

Though time was running scarce, Brown let us in on his work with GE and Kershaw Knives. “I was approached by GE to help them with a new oven,” he says. “They wanted me to teach the engineers about the cooking process – about what makes food taste good. With this new oven, GE realized that most people appreciate cooking speed, but speed often sacrifices food quality. It was my job to educate the engineers about the cooking process, and I worked with them to develop the cooking algorithms.”

Brown said the typical hour-and-a-half lasagna recipe can be cooked in as little as 15 minutes with the GE TrivectionTM oven. He explained how the TrivectionTM asks you what it is you’re cooking, the time and temperature you’d normally cook it at, and then computes the new settings. The oven utilizes three cooking methods to super cook your food to perfection: Thermal, convection and microwaves.

Knives are another passion of Browns, and he explained how he enjoys his relationship with Kershaw Knives. “It’s so cool because they have all of this awesome technology available to them. I can go, ‘You know, it would be really cool if a knife could do this,’ and they do it! It’s like no big deal to them.”

Brown has his own line of Kershaw Knives called “Alton’s Angles” that take advantage of a slight angular change and allow for better knuckle-to-counter clearance. The angle also improves the ergonomics of the knife.

So what’s next for a guy like Alton Brown? How about space travel? That’s right – don’t be surprised if someday you see an episode of Good Eats coming to you from zero gravity. Alton indicated that he’s a bit of an aerospace junkie, adding, “We have a lot of fans that are in the aerospace industry.” And while we wouldn’t put it past him to become the first chef to brine a turkey in outer space, you’re more likely to see his BMW R1100RT featured in upcoming episodes. Regardless of what or where he’s cooking, one thing’s for sure – Alton Brown is always one step ahead of the curve, devising new ways to demonstrate that food can be fun, easy and educational.

About Steve Litscher

Steve Lutscher Avatar
Food connoisseur, car guy, tech geek and dog lover.
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