I’m probably the only food dork who hasn’t been watching Alton Brown for the last 9 years or so. He became a fixture on the Food Network just about the time that I felt that I had learned everything I needed to learn, for the moment, about the whole food and cooking hobby. So it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when we were filling the Tivo at random while the flu rampaged through the house that I happened to watch Good Eats for the first time.
And I like it. It’s not so much the content or the recipes themselves I like. After all, he has at least one show where he tells me that brown rice tastes good (bah!). No. What I like is the visual and narrative style. Narrative style in a cooking show? Well, yeah.
It took a few shows for me to figure out what it was that I found refreshing and enjoyable in this series. The first thing I realized was that the man never uses that ANSI standard boring straight on or three quarter shot of the cook standing behind his stove. He also never uses the standard above the pan mirror shot. In fact, he hardly ever uses a regular shot at all. There are goofy wide angle shots, off kilter tilted shots that dance back and forth as he talks, point of view shots looking out from the oven or up from the bottom of a pot of boiling water and on and on.
I also like how this show has characters, rather than just the personality of the host alone. The food police show up from time to time. There is the “nutritional anthropologist” and the “culinary scientist”, both of whom are light-hearted caricatures rather than dry academics types with a tendency to drone. Finally, there is the “hand” that is always taking stuff off the set or bringing stuff on the set.
The hand is also one of many ways the show manipulates time during the presentation. Most cooking shows just present the execution of a recipe as if the cameras were rolling on the cook working live. Good Eats is produced so that some important techniques in real time for illustrative purposes, but the progress of the cooking is accelerated via judicious editing. This allows Brown to concentrate on teaching you techniques or general principles rather than the particulars of a specific recipe. Being an engineering dork, I like the way he abstracts away the details to tell you about what is more generally applicable.
Since he skips the boring parts, he can fill the rest of the show with his unending patter about the trivia surrounding various ingredients and techniques. This often takes the form of Alton Brown talking into the camera, usually with some sort of outlandish prop that looks like something he stole from a preschool. But just as often it is fed to you in what can only be called a series of scenes, with “actors” playing characters. Each show comes off more like a short film with a little narrative centered around food. This is a refreshing change from the literal style in the rest of food television.
There was the show where he repeatedly takes different kinds of cookies to his sister, only to be rejected over and over again. There was the show where he works on getting okra a TV deal. There was the show where a giant monster made up of green leafy vegetables invades his kitchen. There was the show where he gets busted by the church ladies for stealing casserole. And so on and so forth.
After collecting about half a dozen episodes of the show, I found myself curious as to where this production style came from. It surprised me that a food guy would do something so different from all of the other drek on the Food Network. It turns out that the style of the show makes perfect sense when you find out that Alton Brown got his start in the film industry and not the food industry. For me, this approach serves to keep my interest in the show even if I am pretty familiar with the food ideas that he is discussing.
So, I say, do not fear the fact that he populates the Food Network. Put this stuff in your Tivo. It’s good TV and as a bonus, will lead you to good eats too.
But, he is lying about the brown rice thing. You can’t trust anyone who gets long grain white rice from his chinese takeout joint.