Alton Brown has always been something of an anomaly in the food media landscape. When he first launched “Good Eats” in 1999, it was unlike any other cooking show on the Food Network, from the way it was filmed — with twisty Dutch angles, and cameras placed inside refrigerators and ovens — to the content.
Stand-and-stir was replaced with food science and punchy history lessons. Over the course of 12 years, the show taught viewers, including me, how to properly roast a chicken, make a fool-proof chocolate chip cookie (known as “The Chewy”) and decide which kitchen gadgets were a waste of money. When Brown came back in 2019 with “Good Eats: Reloaded,” a series dedicated to revisiting and updating recipes from the original run, his perspective felt just as fresh in a media landscape saturated by food content.
But several weeks ago, Brown broke form again and in response to staying at home due to the pandemic launched “Quarantine Quitchen,” an unscripted livestream with his wife, Elizabeth Ingram.
“And our deal was there would be no script, no prep, no nothing — just completely made up on the fly,” Brown explains in a “Salon Talks” interview filmed before Memorial Day Weekend. “And I thought, ‘Well, people are going to hate that.’ And people didn’t hate it. So it’s kind of weird for me because I come from a world where everything is scripted and planned and meticulously framed.”
Watch the first half of Alton Brown’s “Salon Talks” episode here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about his pantry staples, his tips for grilling season and how “Quarantine Quitchen” has changed how he and Ingram they cook together.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It’s an understatement to say that we’re living in a kind of weird, difficult time for a lot of people — and because of that, people are trying to find tiny bits of joy wherever they can. A large group of people, myself included, have found it by tuning into “Quarantine Quitchen,” which is the web series that you and your wife, Elizabeth, have been filming in your home kitchen. Talk a little bit about what inspired you to launch this project together?
Well, it was a complete and total accident. The first “Quarantine Quitchen” happened back in the very beginning of this, when everybody was first locked down. And one night I think Elizabeth and I had maybe had a couple of cocktails and we were going to make something for dinner. We had no idea what. And for some reason I just decided, “Hey, let’s turn on YouTube and do a livestream.”
I had never done one before. “Nobody will watch, but it might just be fun.” And so we did. We turned it on and we made our dinner. It was dark and dingy and it was on my old laptop so it looked really horrible. And by the time we were done, we had like, I don’t know, maybe 20,000 people watching or something. And it was like, “What just happened here? This is really strange. Hey, do you want to maybe do this?”
And Elizabeth thought about it awhile because she’s never been on camera before. And she’s like, “Yeah, well, why don’t we give it a try?” And I said, “Well, let’s say we’ll make it a date. We’re going to do this as a ‘couple thing.’ And we’ll do Tuesday nights at 7:00 as a standing date.”
So it was really, for us, it was a couple thing, and we decided maybe we’ll play a song every couple of weeks. And so during the week we get to have time to practice the song. So that’ll be good couple time because we were trying to not drive each other crazy. So it just happened.
And our deal was there would be no script, no prep, no nothing — just completely made up on the fly. And I thought, “Well, people are going to hate that.” And people didn’t hate it. So it’s kind of weird for me because I come from a world where everything is scripted and planned and meticulously framed.
I was going to ask if that was freeing for you in a way.
Well, it’s become that. It certainly has. I do live culinary touring shows, so I do live stuff and I enjoy not having to plan those things so meticulously. But I didn’t know how that would translate to Elizabeth and I standing in our kitchen with a phone. It was all kind of mysterious. And it still is on a weekly basis.
We still just don’t know. We look at each other, it’s kind of that, “Westley, I’ll probably kill you in the morning,” thing. You know? “Well, this is probably the last one of these we’re going to do.” And then we just kind of keep on doing it. But I think that maybe people are identifying with or relating to [the fact that] we don’t know what we’re going to cook, we’re just throwing stuff together and talking about our week and being a real couple. That’s really how we are with each other. So I think people are into it.
I know a lot of food professionals who are around food all day and then when they come home they just order takeout. They don’t want to touch food or anything because it feels like “work.” But in the series, you guys are cooking side by side. You’re both very involved. I was curious if that mirrored what your experiences cooking as a couple looked like pre-pandemic?
This is really interesting. And it’s been an eye-opener for me because I realized about four weeks in Elizabeth was making all this stuff and it was like, “This stuff’s really good.” She doesn’t write down anything, so we can’t give anybody the recipes, but I’m like, “Holy crap, you can cook.” And I’m like, “Well, why didn’t I know that?”
Well, the reason that I didn’t know that is because I never let her. I’m like, “I’m Alton Brown. I’m in the kitchen. Of course I’m going to do the cooking.” But the truth is, I was being a real jerk and kind of keeping her pushed out. And so no, that didn’t reflect our reality, but it’s going to be the new reality because we’ve actually learned how — I have learned how — to share the space and to appreciate someone else’s taste buds. She’s a fantastic cook and she’s a very different cook from the way that I cook. She’s completely intuition and I’m all, I don’t know, not that. But it’s been a real eye-opener for me.
We actually now have a couple life in the kitchen, where before I really ran the show.
She’s a natural on camera, so it surprises me that she hadn’t been on camera before this. And I saw somebody describe “Quarantine Quitchen” as a chaotic “Good Eats” or an unhinged “Good Eats,” which I think is apt at certain points . . .
But keep in mind that in “Good Eats,” I’m in control of everything. And even the scripted pieces with other people on camera and actors and whatnot, I’m puppet-mastering, all that stuff. I can’t control her. And the truth is, she turns out to be a natural. I mean, she’s got the timing, and she knows how to mug to the camera. She knows when to look, when to look away. And I guess that’s just hardwired into her because she hasn’t done it.
So for the first time, I’m in a combo. I’m in a group setting, which I’m not used to, but it’s a lot of fun. Although sometimes I do things that piss her off later. It’s like I’ll do something during the show and then that night, I’ll get in bed and she’ll be like, “So. . . ” and I’m like, “Oh, maybe I did something.”
Fans have really enjoyed your banter to the extent that I’ve seen a ton of comments with people asking for you to continue in some capacity, even once things normalize a little bit. Is that something you would consider? Is it too early to think about that?
We’ve already decided this has become part of life for us. And I think even if only 100 people were watching every night, we would still do it because it’s become a hobby — it’s become a couple’s hobby for us. It’s something that we do and it kind of sets the pace for the week and we enjoy it. We have a lot of fun with it and we do have a lot of engagement from folks on the platform. So yeah, we’re going to keep going.
I was speaking with some Salon readers before this interview and one consistent question they had for you is what your pantry staples are. A lot of people went out and bought beans and rice and eggs in bulk, and now they are very bored. What would you recommend people stock up on if they want things that are shelf-stable, but also interesting?
Well, we all bought a lot of rice and a lot of beans. I was fortunate and I think we’re lucky because we have another refrigerator downstairs where we can hide things. And I bought most of a ham, because ham can be used to season things. I tell people that one of the things that we always keep around are things that can add a lot of flavor in small amounts, and that are obviously preserved.
We use a lot of canned fish to flavor things. We use anchovies and anchovy paste. We use garlic paste in a tube and harissa paste that comes in a tube. These are things that anybody can buy online and have delivered just about any place in the world. We use a lot of spices and we use a lot of fresh spice derivatives like turmeric. We actually don’t just use the ground turmeric; we grate the turmeric which you can get mailed to you. And ginger and a lot of peppers and cumin.
I think it’s time for people to really think about their spice rack and keep those fully stocked. And time to experiment with flavor that you haven’t experimented with before, because we can get that stuff high-quality online, so you don’t even have to go out if you don’t want to.
And we’re even ordering meat online now. We’re buying all of our meat and seafood frozen online, which is not something — I was one of those people that I went to the grocery store. Now we don’t go to the grocery store very often, and I’m not sure I mind. I’m not sure I miss it any more. We try to go to very small markets that we know are run by families and things like that. So we support them and buy fresh vegetables and things like that.
One of the things that we do is when we do buy fresh vegetables, we buy a lot of them and pre-cook them so they last. So Elizabeth, who’s got a serious kale addiction, will buy a bunch of kale, cut it up, saute it, bag it up and freeze it — because once it’s cooked and frozen it lasts longer. And [cooked] vegetables actually tend to freeze better than fresh ones do. So we’re doing things like that.
But as far as the pantry goes, spices, canned fish, tube things like harissa. And I would say that we’re also using a lot of hot things— like Korean gochujang, chili paste — we’re using in places that we didn’t before. So that’s what I would say, and that’s probably the same advice everybody else gives.
Another question that came up is that we are heading into a three-day weekend that, I think for a lot of people, signals the start of summer, which in turn signals the start of grilling season. What tips do you have for people getting into their backyards and grilling for the first time or becoming better grillers?
The thing about grilling is that people get very intimidated by it.The number one thing is, if you’re already a griller and you already have a yard, then you’ve probably already been grilling this season because you want to get out of the house and into another space. But for people that are really thinking about, “Wow, I don’t want to go out as much,” keep it really simple.
Buy a very, very simple grill that’s just a charcoal grill. Buy some decent chunk charcoal and get yourself a chimney starter because it’s easier to start charcoal. And become friendly with heat — get yourself a decent thermometer.
I’m not plugging brands here, [but] at home, we use a company called ThermoWorks. They make a thing called a Thermapen. And I use this every time I grill to take the temperature of meats and things, to make sure that they’re safe.
And then the main thing is to just get yourself a decent spatula, a big spatula, and a pair of tongs. Don’t poke holes in things. Don’t use a fork when you’re grilling, because juice runs out all over the place. And then just do it. Keep your grill clean. Remember to marinate meats to help them not to dry out in case you do overcook them. And do it often. Try to grill everything. Grill your desert, grill your corn, grill everything you can get your hands on. And always keep a fire extinguisher around just in case something goes wrong.
I remember listening to an NPR interview that you did a few years back, where I believe you said that you had six or seven grills at one time. Is that correct?
So for people that don’t want to maybe stock up on seven grills —
Well, I don’t do that anymore. I don’t do that anymore.
Have you consolidated?
I’m down to one.
For people that want to purchase one grill what should they be looking for?
Well, I think you want simplicity, good engineering and something that you can control the airflow on. I’m a fan of two. Do you want me to name them?
So I would recommend two grills. The basic Weber kettle grill made by Weber is unbeatable. It can sit in the rain, it can be used for forever and it’s even okay for smoking and doing off-the-heat grilling for longer times. The other one that I’ve become a really, really big fan of is a company out of Arkansas called PK Grills. And PK Grills, they bought the rights to the old grills that your grandfather used.
It’s this oblong aluminum box, and I’m just crazy about them. They have more cooking space, usually, than some of the round grills, and they’re not very expensive at all. And they’re made in Arkansas. They actually cast the aluminum tops and bottoms to them. So they have a wonderful retro look to them. So I’m a super big fan.
I have one of those here. The only grill that I actually have at home is the PK Grill. I’m a big fan.
Some grocery stores have enacted purchasing limits on certain popular cuts of meat. So the Kroger that I go to, for instance, I was there during the weekend and there were limits on chicken breasts and ground beef and sirloin. Which cuts of meat do you think get a little less love that maybe people should look out for this summer for grill?
One of the things I’ll also throw out is there’s other places besides grocery stores. It’s worth a membership to Restaurant Depot, to be able to go in and buy meat en masse. And also there’s some great online sources for buying meat, and it comes frozen, which I am fine with. I don’t mind that at all, because usually the quality is pretty high.
So, here are a few things that people don’t often think about grilling that I think are worth looking into. Number one, I don’t like chicken breasts. I go straight for the thighs. I think that the thigh and the leg quarter is the best thing to put on a grill. And you can usually buy them in big packs because most people want to buy breasts. Breasts dry out fast on a grill. I don’t like them. So I’m all about the leg quarters and the thighs.
Some of the cuts of beef that I think people overlook, skirt steak. I cook skirt steak directly on the coals. I don’t even use a grill grate. I marinate it, I get a good bed of coals going, I blow off the ash and I plop that stuff right down on the coals.You can also do that with a flank steak. If you want a traditional “steak” steak, I go for sirloin. I go for top sirloin. I’m not going to bother with New York strips. I’m not going to bother with any of that stuff.
When it comes to the ground meats, think about mixing up more common ones. For instance, I make my grill burgers out of a third ground pork, a third ground turkey and a third ground lamb, because I can usually get them. So there’s actually no ground [beef] in my grilled burgers.
That’s great. That’s great. Yeah.
Oh, and another thing, bone marrow.
Marrow bones grill wonderfully. There’s nothing better than smoked bone marrow. You throw those bones right down on the coals, move them around a few times and then suck that stuff out of there, or you use some chopsticks to get it out, that’s better than a lot of sex.
Part 2 of this “Salon Talks” episode with Alton Brown will air next week.