In the beginning, he was just a quirky, abnormally intelligent chef no one had ever heard of hosting an off-center cooking show unlike anything anyone had ever seen. By the end, he appeared as a kind of bridge between the base and crest of the pyramid, for both the food diagram from elementary school cafeterias and the more socially abstract one most learned about later in life.
Maybe Alton Brown got lucky in that way, or perhaps he had it planned all along, but he’s proven one thing for certain: To reach the top, it helps to understand the bottom just as well.
At times, Brown is the intellectual type, appearing as the well-read spawn of high society complete with a razor-sharp tongue and a glossy catalog of quickly recalled facts covering history, science and math to art, literature and, of course, food. Other times he’s less so, sliding up to his casual contemporaries with a disarming wink of informality and self-deprecating humor.
That’s the appeal of Brown’s public persona. He’s a globetrotting connoisseur delighted by cultural refinement, and yet he’s not too good for instant pancake mix, mac-n-cheese or the occasional basket of fried chicken wings and a cheap beer, either. That, too, is the conflicting duality of Brown, the boy from rural Georgia who became celebrity foodie.
Brown brings his unique brand of being to Charleston next week at the Gaillard Center, where he is launching his second nationwide live tour, “Alton Brown Live: Eat Your Science.” His first live show in 2013 drew rave reviews.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s about the science of hot and cold food a little bit,” Brown says of the tour. “I don’t hold any science degrees obviously, but there will be things that have never been seen by the human eyes before. The audience is a huge player in the show, I’ll just say that.”
Brown also notes that a “poncho section” will be available for audience members in the front rows, adding that while he doesn’t do it intentionally, “science can be messy.”
To prepare for the tour’s debut, Brown has spent the last week in Charleston to work out any kinks on stage, a decision that he admits stemmed from his fondness for the city. “I love Charleston,” Brown says. “It’s a city I haven’t been to in probably three years and I’ve been itching to get back. If I’m going to be in a city rehearsing for a about a week, I wanted to do it in a city like Charleston where I could explore all the new changes.”
For many, Brown came to notice around the late ’90s and early 2000s, streaming into cable boxes with his pivotal culinary-education series “Good Eats.” An overnight ratings darling for the Food Network, the show spent 14 seasons teaching home cooks how to pair common ingredients and tools with a little innovation to master their kitchen.
Perhaps more helpful to his current public image, the show also introduced the country to Brown’s frenetic creativity and obsessive work ethic. Each of the show’s 249 episodes saw Brown focus on one theme, whether it was a specific ingredient, holiday, cooking style, culture, event or otherwise, while utilizing comedy skits, recurring fictional characters, skewed camera angles, zany sound effects and history and science lessons as he prepared the episode’s dish.
That multifaceted style captured in “Good Eats” is largely responsible for fashioning the personality for which Brown has since become known: not just a man of many hats but a man who’s capable of wearing them all at once.
It all seems like a far-fetched outcome for a guy from a small town in northern Georgia. Then again, if there’s a word that’s never been used to describe Brown, my money’s on predictable.
Brown was born in Los Angeles to rural Georgia parents, both of whom yearned to return to their home state. They did so before Brown’s 8th birthday and settled in White County, just two counties shy of the North Carolina-Tennessee borders.
His father went on to become somewhat of a local media mogul in the area, owning a radio station and a daily newspaper in the small town of Cleveland. His mother, on the other hand, was a homemaker who spent countless hours alongside her own mother in the kitchen, both demonstrating cooking techniques for the young Brown and passing along family recipes.
Brown, a rapid learner by nature, was hooked immediately, and he began scouring television programs, books, magazines, local elders and any other source he could find in his rural surroundings to educate himself on all things culinary.
Despite his passion for food culture, however, Brown’s familial understanding of the media business and his love for film and television ultimately led him to pursue a career in cinematography. By the early 1980s, he was pursuing a degree in film production from the University of Georgia, a time in which the Athens arts and music scene fortuitously began to explode onto the national stage.
Upon graduating, Brown spent the better part of the next decade shooting and directing commercials, short films, local television programs and music videos in and around Athens, including R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “The One I Love.”
Still, though, he couldn’t shake his interest for the culinary arts. Convinced that a void in exciting cooking shows existed among local, regional and national television programming, Brown enrolled in Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute in the mid-1990s with the intention of merging food and entertainment in a way audiences would never expect.
During his culinary studies, Brown also began crafting the format for “Good Eats,” drawing largely from the influence Julia Childs, Monty Python and Don Herbert of “Watch Mr. Wizard” had on his youth, but also finding inspiration from the quirky, educational style he observed in Bill Nye’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
Having successfully trained his passions, he returned to Georgia in 1997 and began shooting pilot episodes of “Good Eats” in the homes of friends and family. The following year, two episodes aired on a PBS affiliate in Chicago, and the road to Food Network stardom opened a year later.
In the years that have followed, Brown has furthered his household name status by hosting TV programs including “Iron Chef America,” “The Next Iron Chef,” the travel food series “Feasting on Asphalt,” the more recent culinary game show “Cutthroat Kitchen” and appearing in dozens of commercials and TV and film guest spots.
Away from television, Brown has written 10 books, hosts his own podcast titled, “The Alton Browncast,” on the Nerdist Podcast Network, received a James Beard award for “Best TV Food Personality” and spends whatever free time he has left flying his personal airplanes.
As for the duality of his identity, Brown admits that it has its pros and cons. On behalf of that boy from rural Georgia he’s contended with throughout his career, Brown seems to have found a deeply personal satisfaction with the growing acclaim of Southern cuisine among the culinary elite.
“I think it’s a long time coming. The South has come out of this fried chicken stereotype. We’re redefining our region, which I think is great. I’m Southern at heart, but I do like to venture out (of the South) and try other things, and maybe that has made me more accessible, too.”