Alton Brown: The Cineaste Culinarian

Movies, Meals, Memories, and More

Nov 09, 2016 Web Exclusive
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Long before he was the host of Food Network staples like Cutthroat Kitchen and Iron Chef America, and long before he’d taken his culinary variety show on tour or authored a shelf’s worth of books, Alton Brown was an aspiring filmmaker. Fresh out of college, the young Brown cut his teeth as a camera man and cinematographer, shooting the music video for “The One I Love” for fellow Georgians R.E.M., and landing steady work on commercials. By the mid-1990s he was overcome by the desire to do something more. Going on a hunch that food-related TV programming was on the brink of exploding, Brown took a chance, walked away from his comfortable career and enrolled in culinary school.   

Good Eats was born of Brown’s dual loves for cooking and for visual storytelling. His seminal, award-winning food program—which ran for fourteen seasons, starting in 1999—helped countless viewers get over their fear of the kitchen by serving up the science and history of food preparation with a generous side of humor (and more than a few puppets.)

Although his rise to prominence as a food guru and television personality has sidetracked him somewhat, Brown’s love for film and filmmaking has never left him. This weekend, November 12th and 13th, Alton Brown will host a program called Food-on-Film at the Metrograph cinema in New York City. He’s personally curated six food-related films (and one short) including such diverse fare as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Babette’s Feast; Big Night; Eat Drink Man Woman; God of Cookery; Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Brown will be on hand to present and discuss each movie.

Ahead of this weekend’s food film festival, Alton Brown spoke with us about some of his favorite movies (both food- and not food-related), his upcoming residency on Broadway, his passion for filmmaking and much, much more.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: I’m curious if you can think back and remember one of your earliest movie-going memories. Were there any trips to the theater when you were young that really left a lasting impression?

Alton Brown: I’ve been going to the movies my whole life, and to be honest—I’m not making this up—my first memory of life was when I was in the back seat of my parents’ car and they went to the drive-in. They saw the first James Bond film, Dr. No, with Sean Connery. My first memory of life was the scene—which was terribly shot—where this tarantula crawls up Sean Connery’s body while he’s in bed. Of course today you can see the glass and that the thing wasn’t even really on him. [Laughs] But that’s actually my first memory of life. So, I would say that [film] has been the predominant influence over me ever since.  

You studied film as part of your curriculum at the University of Georgia. What inspired you to want to pursue that path, and what sort of movies did you want to make when you were young?

That’s a great question. It’s a thing I look back on a lot. I began as a camera man, then became a cinematographer and then a director. Certainly college is when I discovered world cinema. As a kid, and even as a teenager, I was addicted to film noir of the 1940s and ‘50s. I was a big fan of cinematographers like John Alton. It was difficult at the time to get access to those films, during the pre-video rental age, but when I got to college there were a few retrospective cinemas in Atlanta, where I still live. They’re closed now, but they were places where you could go see The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, or you could go see The Bicycle Thief with Umberto D. It was that kind of training ground.

And then when I got into the University of Georgia, my third college [laughs], I really, really got into film studies. Certainly from a cinematographic standpoint, I was pretty massively influenced by Fellini and Fellini’s shooting style. Not so much from a storytelling standpoint, but from a camera standpoint. I still go back to Hitchcock a great deal as far as pacing and editing. I still think that Hitchcock’s editing was probably better than anyone else’s, at least certainly in the Hollywood system.

I need to back up to 1979—I graduated from high school in 1979. Two movies, Apocalypse Now and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, hit me very hard that year. They didn’t come out the same week or anything like that, but as I was coming out of high school those two films kind of galvanized me in a way that feels kind of difficult to explain. Both of them are very biographical, though in very different ways; they’re both very personal films and I think that they set me on a course that I’ve sort of been stuck on ever since.

I was just writing up a list for Criterion, and I was looking at 8 ½ and All That Jazz and I thought, gee, I couldn’t bookend it with two films about artists whining about their art. [Laughs] That’s certainly what both of those films kind of are, in their own special way. There’s just something about those films—and I’m starting to ramble now—but I can be just as affected by a completely populist film like Jaws. Jaws probably goes back and forth with Casablanca as my favorite film of all time; it’s also because I saw it as a kid in a way that affected me from a filmic standpoint. I don’t think you can remove your own, personal history from how a film affects you. I spent a semester in college doing theater in a small town in Tuscany where they still showed movies on a sheet on the side of a building during the summers, and so films like Cinema Paradiso really started to affect me because I’d lived that, in a way. And so Italian cinema, certainly, but then I turn around and look at something like Lawrence of Arabia and I can appreciate the amount of effort that went into making films during that era.

You hand-picked six movies and a short for a food movie marathon going down this weekend at the Metrograph. How did that come about?

I’m just a huge fan of theirs, and we got in touch. I basically pitched them: “Guys, nobody’s done this. You’re the perfect place to do it.” I’m totally in love with the Metrograph theater and everything they do. Even though I don’t live in New York, I spend a great deal of time there. And so we just got on the phone and talked about it, and they were very open-minded about it, and really interested in the curating and making sure that we could get 35mm prints of everything.

Forming the list, I could sort of see my fingerprints on it, which is something that I wanted. And I wanted to build a list of films that were picked for very, very different reasons, that when viewed together would paint a larger portrait.

I got a laugh out of seeing The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover among the films you curated. The meal I associate with that one isn’t necessarily one I would consider appetizing.

[Laughs] Not at all, not at all … I couldn’t leave cannibalism out. It was either going to be The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover or Paul Bartel’s wonderfully dark Eating Raoul. Both of which I would have been really happy with, but I really wanted to get in the incredible visuals that Peter Greenaway is so well-known for, and that music—I really wanted to get that in there. Besides, Hellen Mirren: totally hot in that Jean-Paul Gaultier outfit.

Out of the films showing this weekend, which one do you feel will audiences walk out of the theater afterwards feeling their hungriest?

I think it’s going to be Big Night, and the reason I think that it’s going to be Big Night is that there’s so much fixation on one particular dish. And, let’s face it: everybody loves Italian food. Everybody loves pasta. And so I think when people look at [the timpano], they’re going to go “Oh, crap, I want that.” It gives the audience one specific dish to focus on.

I think the food in Babette’s Feast is still a little too much of its period for a lot of people—small birds with their heads off, stuffed in sarcophaguses made of puff pastry. I don’t think a lot of people will go for that, or think “Wow, I really wish I had that.” And Eat Drink Man Woman, although the food is beautiful it’s not terribly approachable. When you look at the way Ang Lee shoots it, he’s still trying to make a film that’s about people, but when Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott were making Big Night they put the food right out there in front. When people eat the food, you see their reactions, while in Babette’s Feast people are eating this wonderful food, but because they don’t know joy in their life they don’t know how to respond to it. When we watch them eat the big meal at the end of Big Night, I think we can see ourselves sitting at that table with those people and responding in that way.

Let’s say you can pick any one movie, not necessarily about food, to show on film, on the big screen. What would it have been?

Can it be a Cinerama print?

Sure, any film print.

I have never been able to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in its original, Panavision Super 70mm form, and I would really walk a long way across the desert to have that experience. To see it presented in the way it was originally shown in full-blown Cinerama: that would be the bomb.

You’re bringing your culinary variety show to New York over the week of Thanksgiving, with a limited run on Broadway. You’ve had years where you’ve done 100-plus shows, so you’re well-accustomed to giving live performances, but does the fact that this is Broadway feel special, or different in any way?

Of course. Of course it does. You can play hundreds of houses around the country—and I have over the last few years—but Broadway is its own creature. It’s special. It is equal parts exciting and terrifying for me. [Laughs] I was a theater major; that was my college degree.

It’s funny. The last time I walked into the Barrymore Theatre I’d went to see Alan Cumming’s MacBeth, which was one of the finest pieces of theater I’ve ever seen in my life. And so the thought that I’m going to be on those same boards is incredibly intimidating. It’s not just that this is Broadway, and it’s not just that this is New York City—certainly the epicenter of theatrical culture in this country, or in this hemisphere—but it’s the thought of all the people who have been on those boards. I don’t know that I deserve to be there, but like Clint Eastwood says before he kills Gene Hackman in Unforgiven: “Deserving ain’t got nothing to do with it.” And so I’m going to do the absolute, most kick-ass, best possible job that I can do.

You mentioned that you spend a lot of time in New York. Can you describe a dining experience or food memory from here that defined, for you, a quintessential, New York experience?

I kind of consider myself to be a spiritual New Yorker. I spend a huge amount of time there. I have had so many culinary experiences there but, to be honest, the one that’s still absolutely embedded in my mind all these years later—which I can sit here and sum up perfectly—is from the very first time I came to New York. I was a junior in high school. Southern Railway used to run a train called the Southern Crescent; it was a fantastic train, and ran from New Orleans and in a crescent shape, up through Atlanta and into New York. I don’t remember why my family made this decision, though it was probably because there were a lot of us—I had a bunch of stepbrothers, and a stepsister—but we went to New York and decided to take the Southern Crescent. We all rode up together. I don’t remember which station it came up in, but I remember it was right after Thanksgiving and it was as cold as hell in New York. I remember coming up out of the station and right next to the entryway was a classic, New York pretzel cart that was roasting chestnuts. Are you a New Yorker?

Yeah, I am.

Then you know that smell, right? I had never smelled that before, and I was transfixed because it was unlike anything I’d smelled before. I mean, it was kind of like peanuts, but it also wasn’t. I remember getting roasted chestnuts, and you know, you go through a certain amount of labor to eat them, because the outside’s fairly burned. But I stood there and I ate them and that, for me, will always be what New York tastes like. You can have your hot dogs at the ballpark later; you can go downtown and have dill pickles and pastrami; whatever. For me, in the end, New York will always be the flavor of those chestnuts. I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve had them since, but that specific food experience … I’m not even sure how to frame the significance of it.  

Your latest book, EveryDayCook, is still new on the shelves, and it’s the first where you’ve pulled back the curtain on your personal cooking habits. Did you make any discoveries about yourself in the process of writing and compiling recipes for the book?

Yes, definitely. It wasn’t so much in the recipes, but it was actually in the photographs. Once we started assembling the photographs, I plated everything on what I eat it on. Once we were done I realized I’m a freak. [Laughs] There wasn’t any question that I’m a little odd. I didn’t think about it at the time, but when I plate my roasted vegetables, salsa, and dip, I do it on a 1974 Mercury hubcap. I serve breakfast carbonara in army mess pans. I didn’t realize how peculiar I am until I started looking at the photos for the book! And I wondered to myself, who is this person? It turns out I’m a lot more eccentric than I even thought I was.

Jumping back to the topic of film again, I’m curious—thinking back to where you began, as an aspiring filmmaker—if directing a movie is something you still might want to try someday?

Absolutely. I plan and scheme constantly to do that. I have two projects that I’m actually looking at the files for now, as I’m sitting in my office. One’s a documentary that I very badly want to make, and the other’s a scripted movie that I very badly want to make. I won’t be able to rest until I do one, if not two, of those projects.

It’s what I always thought I was going to do, but I got seriously sidetracked. [Laughs] In the mid-nineties I got this fixation on making a food show because I thought food media was going to be a big deal, and I wanted to try my hand at it because I loved food and cooking. I made Good Eats and that went on for 14 years. Then I’d spent so much time in front of the camera that I wanted to see what I could do on that side of it. I may never get away from that because I’ve gotten very at home in front of the camera, but my true calling has always been behind it, either as a director or camera man, or both. I still operate whenever I can.

Looking at that original run of Good Eats, are there any episodes of segments that you’re most proud of, purely from a filmmaking standpoint?

I didn’t direct the first four seasons—the first four sets of thirteen episodes. I only directed about 200 episodes. My deal with my crew was that every day we’d do a shot we’d never done before, because that kept us constantly thinking, and constantly innovating what we’d do with the camera. We didn’t do anything with computers—you know, no CG work—so we were building things and all of the sets were live. So, no one particular show is my proudest, because I can’t separate myself as the writer, myself as the recipe developer, myself as the performer or myself as the director. Every single day, I’d say, we did something that we hadn’t done.

I’ve never gone back and looked at them again. The last day I wrapped the edit on the 252nd episode of Good Eats and I never went back and watched one again, because the job was over. It was done.  I finished the edit, and that was that. I very rarely watched it when it was on TV; I watched it in editing rooms and then walked away.

I do think that towards the end we were becoming more and more innovative. I had moved away from using Steadicams and into other, static camera systems that allowed me to do more match cutting, more ramping, and more aggressive editorial things. That also allowed me to shoot mirrors and other things that I hadn’t been able to do, and so I think the last two seasons were, from a cinematographic standpoint, more advanced and more aggressive from a visual storytelling standpoint. 

As someone who’s both very savvy with social media and someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about food, I’m curious what your feelings are on the ways Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like have changed how we experience food and how we share it with others?

It’s a fascinating subject. It’s actually the subject of one of my screenplay projects. If you’re a restauranteur, you’re probably going to [point at] review-based systems like Yelp … and you’d probably also say something about how Eater is very, very powerful, because of the people it can influence and the amount of business they can drive into a restaurant. For me, I’m looking at food in more of its social context. I think that food has become its own form of media. Through that lens, I have to look specifically at Instagram. Because Instagram—and I hope I’m going to put this in a way that makes sense, because I don’t have my head 100% wrapped around it—has changed the way we consume food. It’s become part of the editorial way that we taste, that’s how much of an influencer it actually is. We now have firms that do nothing but help restaurants design lighting for better Instagram photos. I would argue—and I’ve said this to some media people who have disagreed with me—that the act of taking an Instagram photo, and being the person who takes the photo, changes your experience of the meal.

As in, how the food looks?

No, no, no, no. The act of taking the Instagram in and of itself. Almost like saying that by observing an experiment, you automatically change the experiment by the sheer fact you’re observing it. I’m arguing that the same is true. My perception of a meal is changed by the action of me taking the Instagram photo. It’s become part of the restaurant eating process. It’s no different than picking up the fork.

It’s foreplay, if you will. It is its own appetizer. It’s an aperitif. It’s a thing that stimulates the appetite. People are doing that through the action; they associate taking an Instagram photo with a great meal. By taking the Instagram, they change the meal. Are you with me?

Yeah. [laughs]

I know that sounds wack. I know it sounds weird. But think about it: it’s Pavlovian. Think of any other thing that you do that gives you pleasure and if you add a step, eventually that step will stimulate pleasure. I would argue that’s what Instagram has done. Sure, Instagram is influential in that photograph is then seen and consumed on its own, but I’m talking about what it does to the person who actually takes it.

That’s it on the same level as smelling the meal, or taking your first look at it.

Exactly! It has become its own sensory experience. And also—here’s the next piece—hospitality and our concept of hospitality have changed. Hospitality used to be, “You’re a stranger. You’ve stumbled upon my hut. I offer you some food.” You’d take the food, you’d thank me for the food, and we’d both eat the food. That was the original model of hospitality. Let’s look at all the parts of that: you’re a stranger and you’ve come by; you need something; I offer something; you accept something, and we enjoy it together. Considering that model, how many more people do that through Instagram now than with actual food?

It has to be the majority of people, at this point.

Indeed it is. I have something, I offer it to a stranger, the stranger takes it and we enjoy it together. That’s Instagram. Maybe not total strangers—I mean, we had to have at least drifted by each other at some time—but essentially I’m starting to believe that Instagram is re-coding our concept of hospitality. This is big, crazy-talk kind of stuff, but it’s just where I am in my thinking about how food is becoming its own form of media.

I have a one-year-old daughter. As a parent yourself, I’m curious if you can lend any wisdom as to what someone can do to start them young, and work to instill a love for the kitchen in their child?

I think that what you do is you involve them in the process very, very early. Your daughter, right now, when you’re cooking, you can probably set her near the counter and stick a bowl of flour in front of her and let her play in it. Next year give her some measuring spoons and make her feel like she’s part of the process. Kids that feel involved and have ownership over the food are better eaters; we know this. They eat a better-rounded diet and the family experience is greatly enhanced.

We tend, as a culture, to not let our kids be in the kitchen as much as they should because we’re so afraid they’re going to hurt themselves. That’s simply management. I’m not going to give a one-year-old a chef’s knife, but I will give a one-year-old a spoon. It’s about constantly involving them in the kitchen.

I know you’re also a big Doctor Who fan. If we were to play a little word association game – I’ll say “Doctor Who” and “food” – what comes into your mind?

I mean, I’m the guy whose book has fish sticks and custard in it, so I don’t want to be too obvious. That’s too easy and too obvious. [Laughs] Hm…

[Pause]

Jammie Dodgers

Imagine Hollywood’s about to produce the great Alton Brown biopic. Who’s going to direct it, and who’s going to play you? Living, deceased – you have your pick of anyone.

[Laughs] Oh my god. I’ve never thought about this.

[Long pause.]

Wes Anderson’s going to direct it, and Philip Seymour Hoffman will play me.

Perfect.

Nobody’s ever asked me that before, and I don’t know why I grabbed those ones. I’m not sure why I did that, but I’m sticking with it.

It would have a really good soundtrack, and a great lead performance.

And a lot of very symmetrical shots. [laughs]

Plus a nice wardrobe.

A snappy wardrobe!

***

Tickets are still available for the Metrograph’s Food-on-Film: A Weekend With Alton Brown, where he will be on hand to present and discuss each film. 

Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science on Broadway plays at the Barrymore Theatre from November 22nd -27th.

Alton Brown’s latest book, Everyday Cook, is now in book stores. 



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