If you’re interested in the technical aspects and scientific side of cooking, you’re probably an Alton Brown fan. Let’s take a look at five things you may not know about the former commercial director who became a Food Network star:
1. He Took His Sweet Time Earning his Degree
Brown attended the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, but he ended up leaving without a degree in 1985. He got about as close as one can get to graduating without actually doing it, though; he only needed one credit to complete his education, fourth-quarter French.
Brown eventually graduated in 2004, 19 years after thinking he’d dropped out of school. The school eventually changed the core curriculum so that fourth-quarter language classes were no longer required, which cleared the way for the now-famous Brown to finally graduate. Brown later told the Athens-Banner Herald, “I outlasted the high standards of the university.”
2. R.E.M. Helped Give Him a Break
After leaving college, Brown stayed in Athens and began working in the film and television industry in a behind-the-camera role. One of his biggest coups was helping local band R.E.M. with the video for their 1987 single “The One I Love.” The band brought in noted New York artist Robert Longo to direct the video, but Longo needed a director of photography for the project. At the time Brown was working for a production company that had done some previous work with the band, so Michael Stipe and company put him in touch with Longo.
Brown ended up being the video’s director of photography and doing some Steadicam work on the shoot. Check out the finished product:
3. He Went Back to School, Though
Brown continued to enjoy success as a cinematographer and director of commercials, but he eventually decided to head back to school. In the mid-90s Brown was a fan of food TV shows, but he couldn’t understand why so many of them were so crummy. To his eyes, a lot of them just felt like recitations of recipes or extended advertisements for cookbooks.
Worse still, some of the shows used ingredients that no normal person could ever find. Brown later reminisced to the LA Times about a particularly egregious example in which a chef prepared monkfish liver, which made him think, “Where am I supposed to find monkfish liver? What does this have to do with me?”
Eventually his wife challenged him to stop complaining and do something about the dearth of good cooking shows. Rather than just find a new project to direct, Brown flung himself into becoming a food expert. He quit his job to attend the New England Culinary Institute when he was 34 and went through the standard restaurant-training process, including internships for little or no cash. Brown later described the early part of his career switch as, “The internships that I did — going from being a commercial director where, you know, you were The Guy, to being nobody – ‘Here’s the broom; sweep the walk-in’ — was extremely humbling. It was a very humbling experience.”
4. It Paid Off
Obviously, Brown’s career change ended up working out pretty well. After working in the restaurant industry until he felt comfortable with his cooking chops, he recorded the pilot for Good Eats in 1998. Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW ran the show that July, and Food Network picked it up the following summer. Since then, Brown has taped 234 episodes, won a Peabody Award, and found millions of fans. Brown describes his show as a combination of Julia Child, Mr. Wizard, and Monty Python.
One more fact: “Brown’s kitchen” on the show has never actually been his kitchen. For the first four seasons the show used Brown’s partners’ kitchen before eventually moving to the larger kitchen in his line producer and director of photography’s house. Eventually, though, neighbors complained about all the filming-related commotion, so the show moved to an exact replica of this kitchen on a sound stage.
5. He’s Got an Interesting Dieting Tip
Brown cut 50 pounds from his frame in just nine months in 2009, but he didn’t do it with any fad diet or packaged low-cal snacks. Instead, he credited his prodigious consumption of sardines for a lot of his weight loss. In an interview with the Monterey Bay Aquarium last summer, he explained his love for the little fish, saying, “They’re delicious and amazingly healthy… I’m also a fan of eating lower on the marine food chain and sardines fit the fill. So do herring, which I’m also fond of.”