Good Eats: Behind the Scenes
It's a typical day on the set of Good Eats with Alton Brown: Crew members are scurrying around, preparing to shoot an episode about crackers, and host Alton Brown has a staff announcement. "We need elves today — who wants to be in the show?"
On Food Network's quirky, wildly successful food-science program, most of the characters in the show aren't played by actors — they're staffers dressed up as scientists, giant onions, gingerbread men or whatever Alton has in mind for his comedic skits. This is one low-maintenance operation. The crew members all do their own hair and makeup, scenes are shot out of order to conserve budget and Alton often ad-libs.
The result: Good Eats, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is one of the network's three top-rated shows, drawing more than 20 million viewers a month. And it's the only food program other than Julia Child's to win a prestigious Peabody Award.
Alton has an edge over other directors because he knows how to manage both sides of the camera — in fact, he originally planned to stay behind it. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he started his career as a cameraman. You can see his early work in R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" video; he was director of photography. "I shot commercials, many of which weren't very good," he says of his early career. "I was unhappy and cooking made me feel better. I started watching cooking shows and decided that I wanted to make a food show of my own." He told his wife, DeAnna, who pointed out that hosting a food show wasn't a likely career for a guy whose main credential was watching cooking programs. So the Browns struck a deal: Alton would apply to three top culinary schools, and if he got into one, they would sell their house in Atlanta and she would support him through school. In 1995, he was accepted to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, VT.
There, Alton became the food expert we know today, and soon after, he wrote the first episodes of Good Eats while making ends meet working the grill at a restaurant in North Carolina. (DeAnna, who now runs Alton's production company, suggested the name Good Eats.) The couple shot demo episodes with friends at an Atlanta film company. "It took over a year to sell the show because we didn't know what we were doing," Alton says. "We couldn't get anyone at Food Network to look at it, and we didn't know the right people, so we were doubly doomed." Eventually, a clip of the show landed on the Kodak website, and by chance, programming executive Matthew Stillman saw it-and saw huge potential. Production started in 1999, and the show premiered on Food Network that July.
Most of the ideas for Good Eats topics pop into Alton's head while he's cooking dinner or grocery shopping. He scribbles down the concept, and one to four years later, he fills in the rest of the show. To help develop an idea, his three-person culinary department starts a research binder. The binder for today's episode, on crackers, sat on a shelf for three years, filed between "Brussels Sprouts" and "Edamame" (fodder for the episodes "A Cabbage Sprouts in Brussels" and "Et Tu Mame").
Alton's goal in each episode is to educate us about common but little-understood foods and food science. "I'm interested in foods that people eat a lot but never make for themselves," he says. "One day, I was thinking to myself, 'Why don't we bake our own crackers? Oh, because Keebler elves do.' " In a matter of days, Alton typed out a script, including skits about elf characters in trees who would explain how they cook crackers, to be portrayed by fearless staffers. Of course, the volunteers would need costumes. And props. And elf trees.
The show calls for lots of last-minute miracles from the costume and props departments. "On average, we make at least 20 props per day, and most are used within 10 minutes of being made," says production designer Todd Bailey. He's holding a chain saw and standing below a six-foot human nose and an enormous Styrofoam pomegranate from the "Fruit 10 from Outer Space" episode. "The props can be anything Alton dreams up — a medieval cracker cutter, a giant X-ray machine. He likes things supersized. When he wanted a hand, it couldn't be normal size. He had to be able to sit in it."
The entire Good Eats staff, with the exception of DeAnna, has appeared on camera (though Alton and DeAnna's 9-year-old daughter, Zoey, has appeared in about a dozen episodes). One popular recurring star is Brett Soll, a burly video editor who could easily be cast as a linebacker. He has appeared as a Dutch Girl, Swiss Girl, Miner's Wife and Peasant Wife. "Brett was fated to be a girl," Alton says. "We've put him in drag so many times that he came to us one day and said, 'Guys, I don't want to be a girl anymore.' "
For the cracker episode, Soll was once again a good sport, allowing wardrobe designer Amanda Kibler to put him in a floppy hat and elf ears. "I found some cheesy vests online, and the worst color yellow shirts," Kibler says. "And putting black bob wigs on men is always funny."
Back in the kitchen, Alton runs through scenes of cracker-dough preparation. After an e-mail break, he comes back to film the head shots — and because he's also the director of the show, he decides it's a wrap. He grins for the camera, and relaxes. "Cut! Nailed it! Thank you very much."
Alton's Top 5
We asked the host to reveal his favorite episodes of all time. Read more about them in his new book, Good Eats: The Early Years ($37.50; Stewart, Tabori and Chang).
1. "The Dough Also Rises"
"On this episode, I got to make biscuits with my grandmother. I dearly loved that woman and her biscuits. I'm so grateful that we got to do this together before she passed away. Now my daughter can watch the show and really know what that feisty old broad was about."
2. "Salad Daze I"
"There's a simple scene where we use Bubble Wrap to explain the difference between tearing and cutting salad greens. It worked really well. From then on, all our science 'rigs' had to live up to the Bubble Wrap."
3. "Oat Cuisine"
"Although it's culinarily useless, I deeply dig the haggis scene, wherein our second propsman Paul Merchant and I make haggis outdoors in full Braveheart regalia. And yes, we were real Scots that day."
4. "Tuna: The Other Red Meat"
"I'm pretty sure I'm the first food show host to fake a heart attack on air...and then go to purgatory to talk to God in the form of a fish. That was a real fish being operated via wire and wooden dowels. I especially like the Isaac Hayes God-voice."
5. "Steak Your Claim II"
"In our second steak show, I did a scene hanging upside down in front of the oven to make a point about broilers. I had to do the scene completely straight as if nothing odd were going on. That was tough."
Photos by Mark Peterson