Alton Brown, host of the Food Network's Good Eats and author of I'm Just Here for the Food, wants to teach people how to cook. Really.
One part epicure, one part Einstein, Brown describes himself as a "really twisted home ec teacher." He blinds his viewers with food science, dispensing informative nuggets such as the vector approach to seasoning or the thermodynamic principle of the Maillard reaction, wrapping each mind-boggling concept in a candy shell of pop culture to help the information go down.
"I'm like a big piece of Velcro," he says, over a lobster club (two slices of seven-grain bread stuffed full of lobster chunks, crisp lettuce, and fresh tomatoes) and a side of taro chips at Atlanta's Blue Ridge Grill. "I roll through culture and pick up bits and pieces of stuff. All of those little pieces of cultural flotsam are, to me, ways of getting straight into different parts of the brain."
For instance, Brown might explain the chemistry of smoking fish and the practicality of using a cardboard box as a smoker while simultaneously weaving in an homage to the cult TV show Twin Peaks. One way or another, he figures, the message―that smoked fish can be cooked at home with just a little ingenuity―will get through.
A theater major turned foodie after doing summer stock in Tuscany, Brown got his start in the television biz as a camera operator for an R.E.M. video. After a stint directing television commercials, he attended the New England Culinary Institute and worked in the trade before going in front of the cameras in 1999 for his self-produced show.
"I make a food show because I'm interested in everything," Brown says. "And the results of my knowledge are on the plate. And, hopefully, on the plates of other people, as well. If I can get someone who hasn't walked into a kitchen in 15 years to get up and go in there and make a terrific hamburger," he adds in a superhero-like voice, "my work here is done."
Over cappuccino, which adds more fuel to his high energy, Brown explains his thoughts about healthy cooking. He believes there are no bad foods, only bad attitudes about food.
"The more we try to cover up our true desires, the worse trouble we get into," he says. "The single healthiest thing you can do with food is make it yourself. I don't care what it is. The actual act of food preparation is in and of itself a very healthy thing to do. You become more aware of it, of what's going into you, because you know what went into it."
"It isn't about recipes," he says, of his show, his book, and cooking in general. "A recipe can only serve as an illustration of a bigger picture. It's all about the power of knowledge."