From Good Eats to Bad Sportsmanship

The Dismaying Trajectory of Alton Brown

The first time I saw an episode of Alton Brown’s groundbreaking Food Network series Good Eats, it descended upon me like a revelation. By this point I liked food TV well enough, but there was really only one very particular type of food TV, and it could be a little trying to watch. It was rarely exciting. Editors relied on close-ups of suspiciously photogenic food to provide the entertainment as some pleasant TV personality’s voice purred about juliennes and risottos. The red peppers were always a little too red; any greens had to be positively verdant. It was pretty, but gently unreal, like an episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Alton Brown’s show was different. For one thing, he showed legitimate enthusiasm for food, beyond the sensuous “mmm”s and “doesn’t that look delicious”es provided by his Food Network counterparts at crucial tasting moments. He was excited not just by smelling and eating food, but by engaging with it. As someone who was primarily excited by smelling and eating food, but who had no idea how to make it properly, I felt that he could bridge an important gap for me: the gap between loving to eat and being afraid to cook.

Then, he was also appealingly professorial in his engagement with food—knowledgeable and precise, like Walter White with a cheerier mien and a cooking show. He could have been the best home ec teacher in your high school, but equally he could have been the best chemistry professor at your college. He moved seamlessly between food and science—or rather he didn’t move between them, because to him the two were one and the same: you couldn’t fry the simplest egg, bake the simplest loaf of bread, without centuries of precise chemistry backing you up, and yes, you would be intimidated at first, but there was no need to be afraid, because Alton Brown was going to show you how. How to what? How to everything. How to beat an egg, proof yeast, build a proper sandwich.

The first episode of Good Eats that I saw was devoted to banana pudding. Why was I watching an episode of a cooking show devoted to a food I’d never eaten and didn’t care to try? Because this wasn’t food; this might as well have been Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining the fundamentals of chemistry. The first thing you notice when you start watching Good Eats is that Alton Brown talks fast. He has a lot to show you and only half an hour to show you in. Sometimes he slurs a little he talks so fast. In the first third of this episode alone, he has to get through oven rack positioning, and the correct temperature for butter to be creamed at (room temperature, always), and who even likes banana pudding anyway?, and sifting the dry ingredients, and why sift the dry ingredients?, and did he mention that this is for the wafers alone? Don’t forget to scrape down the bowl you’re creaming your butter and sugar in. He guarantees it: you’ll have to. You aren’t even at the pudding yet. The pudding of banana pudding isn’t happening for some time. Yet you’re interested. Like a child watching a baking soda volcano, you’re transfixed by the bubblings and whirrings taking place.

And he’s so…so…unblinkingly enthusiastic. This is the most enthusiasm anyone’s shown for banana pudding in generations. It isn’t a food to be excited about. Yet this is how excited he is for every food, for every ingredient, every reaction taking place between yeast and water, or meat and heat. It doesn’t matter whether he’s searing a steak or baking a casserole. It doesn’t matter if it’s a food he even likes, though you do get the sense that he likes every food, because he’s so unfailingly skilled at making them all. He registers as a kind presence, but an intimidatingly knowledgeable one.

The first episode of Good Eats aired in 1999 and, though it was slow to set its particular trend, it was, I think, ultimately responsible for food entertainment’s most vexing phase: the geeky science chef. The geeky science chef is always, always, always a man. He’s Alton Brown or David Chang. He knows more than you and more than most of the other people on the Food Network’s payroll. You get the sense that he’s a real drag at any Food Network parties, gnawing on his frozen hors d’oeuvres and complaining about the lack of umami. He thinks you should value food over everything else—your time, your energy, your will to live. He is intriguing at first, busting into your life the way he does to hector you about your favorite sandwich toppings, but he is ultimately tiresome.

Compare the Alton Brown of the banana pudding episode of Good Eats to Alton Brown today, with his fifteen years of name recognition and fame and branding and exposure. What’s Alton Brown doing now? He’s hosting Iron Chef and, God help us all, Cutthroat Kitchen. He’s providing fast-paced but bored-sounding commentary about the flashy, pedestrian dishes that other chefs are competing against each other with. He’s not cooking his own food on TV anymore. He’s taken the red pill—and, one must assume, a hefty paycheck increase.

Honestly, what is Cutthroat Kitchen? It’s a game show with low stakes, little talent, and a food-ish theme. The cooks who flock to Cutthroat Kitchen are mostly not very accomplished, which is fine. Some of them have been on previous Food Network game shows, thus demonstrating the rather nauseating little self-sufficient biosphere that Food Network has become. Some of them own catering businesses or are pastry chefs. They’re awkward on camera as they try to trash-talk each other. Alton Brown is possibly the least nerdy presence on this show, which is remarkable. What is Cutthroat Kitchen if not a hyper-kitschy attempt to make Alton Brown seem cool, as he prods at these poor nerds with ever-worsening pranks and deliberately ruins their food and giggles as they try to make deconstructed buffalo wings?

Like many prominent nerds, Alton Brown has such a meanness to him, one that’s nigh on invisible to the naked eye. He’s openly hateful towards other chefs on the Food Network (Sandra Lee, Guy Fieri) whom he views as less accomplished than he is. He’d be hateful to you if he saw the shortcuts you took with his banana pudding recipe. He’s snobby to the core, uncompromising and brutal as a chef, two traits which make him eminently talented but also irritating to deal with. His recipes are prissy and precise; there is a lot of “exactly six minutes and seventeen seconds” and “one and one eighth teaspoon” and homemade spice mixes that are costly and time-consuming to assemble and obscure tools that he swears on his life have multiple uses. Like many food snobs, Alton Brown favors the overlooked cuts of meat, the long-unused cooking methods, the chefs’ street cred. Like many food snobs who really know food, Alton Brown knows basically nothing about how the average person eats. And for that, he and his ilk ought to be shunned.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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