Since the poularity and almost cultish status of his television show “Good Eats“, Alton Brown’s succeeding projects have been met with even more acclaim, with his cookbooks “I’m Just Here for the Food” and “I’m Just Here for More Food“, and cookware book “Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen” getting to the New York Times Bestseller list and winning the coveted James Beard Foundation Book awards. And of course, his job as emcee for Iron Chef America.
His latest project is the Food Network‘s first ever film, Feasting on Asphalt, which is based on Alton’s food adventures on a motorcycle travelling through America and exploring its roadside food culture.
How on earth does he turn the science of food into entertainment? Read on in this recent interview where Alton gives some answers on his new film, cooking, and the food culture of America:
How did you come up with the concept for Feasting On Asphalt?
Yeah, I think I’ve been working on the concept since about 1969 and uh…I was born in California, my parents were from Georgia and, um, they moved back the summer of 1969 and we drove mostly on back roads across America, and it really put the wham on my head because I was this West Coast, North Hollywood kid who, all of the sudden, was seeing what appeared to be a different country a day, and, um, each day was new food, new people, new everything, and for me there were two connection points: There was actually the road itself and the food we were eating every time we stopped.
When did you realise you could cook?
College. I had a pathetic social life, and I couldn’t get dates very easily — at all — and I found that if I offered to cook for a girl, my odds improved radically over simply asking a girl out. Through my efforts to attract the opposite sex, I found that not only did cooking work, but that it was actually fun.
I worked in restaurants all through high school and college. I had always been in a kitchen with my mom and grandma and relatives and then, yeah, I watched cooking shows, although I found them to be uniformly unsatisfying, which is why I ended up where I ended up.
To become a successful chef, which is more important: receiving professional schooling or learning the ropes “on the street”?
I would say that it is like anything else: Professional schooling can get in the way as much as it can help. So I would have to say: the street. Life is always the best teacher, no matter what you’re doing.
When you were on the road filming Feasting on Asphalt, what did you learn about American food culture?
We’re losing it like the rainforest. We’re losing it every day. Oh yeah. Because the problem now is that even the really great little mom-and-pop places are trying to make themselves more like the thing that’s trying to kill them. You know, “I own a little hamburger stand but because the standard for hamburgers is McDonald’s, I’m going to make my hamburgers more like McDonald’s does so you’ll like me.” So smaller places are losing their identity by attempting to conform in order to survive.
In his “Tricks For Treats” episode of Good Eats, Alton Brown talks about how Americans spend billions of dollars each year on factory-manufactured candy, and in true Alton Brown style, tells us how simple it is to make these goodies, as well as giving a LOT of other useful facts and advice on the topic.
So with Halloween looming even closer, I dare you to resist dashing to the nearest supermarket to load up on your candy stash this year, and try this recipe below:
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup Dutch process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for greasing pan and hands
In heavy medium saucepan, combine sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Stir until thoroughly combined. Add corn syrup, water, and vinegar to pan and place over medium heat. Stir until sugar and cocoa dissolve, raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low, clip candy thermometer to side of pan and cook until mixture reaches 260 degrees F. Remove pan from heat, add the butter and stir. Butter edges of sheet pan, line with silicone baking sheet and pour on taffy. Allow to cool until you are able to handle it.
Once you are able to handle the taffy, don vinyl gloves, butter them, and begin to fold taffy in thirds using the silicone mat. Pick up taffy and begin to pull folding the taffy back on itself repeatedly twisting as you go. Taffy is done when it lightens in color, takes on a sheen, and becomes too hard to pull. Roll into log, cut into fourths, roll each fourth into a 1-inch wide log, and cut into 1-inch pieces. Making sure to keep pieces separated or they will stick to each other. Wrap individual pieces of candy in waxed paper. Store in airtight container 3 to 5 days.
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I never did get to visit Ina Garten‘s hotbed of gastronomic delights, the Barefoot Contessa in the Hamptons, but judging from her show, her cookbooks and now online shop of foodie goodies, Ina is a celeb chef a head above the rest whose been sung praises by giants like Martha and Oprah.
But more than that, what I like best about Ina is her genteel, graceful manner, her flair for effortlessly stylish eating and simple, country-chic food.
Unlike a lot of celeb chefs, Ina was not formally schooled in the culinary sense, did not start her career as a lowly dishwasher, nor did she apprentice under some sullen uber-chef of the 80’s. In fact, she first got truly inspired during a 3-month long camping trip in France in the 70’s, when she was exposed to the country’s love for the elegantly fresh food. The rest she learned from cookbooks like you and me.
While working in the White House on nuclear energy policy, Ina decided to make a drastic change. She bought a small store in the Hamptons (a place that was completely alien to her) called the Barefoot Contessa.
Twenty years later, the humble food specialty store grew into a 3,000 sq.feet veritable food emporium where people came from far and wide to buy Ina’s fabulous home-cooked meals, baked goods, condiments, salads and breads.
She sold the business to her employees in 2001 (which numbered to nearly 50), who sold it themselves in 2003. Good news though – you can now buy Ina’s goodies online at the Barefoot Contessa Pantry, put together in conjunction with the Stonewall Kitchen.
There probably isn’t a more famous celebrity chef than the homemaker extraordinaire and ex-jailbird Martha Stewart. You can say what you like about Martha, but throughout the years this tough-as-nails lady has proved that she does have the talent and ability to be one of America’s top business magnates.
Born in New Jersey in 1941 as Martha Kostrya, she learned the fundamentals of her finely-honed homemaking skills, in cooking, sewing, preserving and gardening through her parents, hard-working Polish immigrants.
Martha did very well at school, and was a straight-A student, earning a scholarship to Barnard University where she read Art and European History and later switched to Architectural History.
She began her career as a model, and progressed to stockbroker in New York City. In 1973 she decided to give up the job to concentrate on raising her daughter as well as renovating her farmhouse in Connecticut, which she shared with her husband Andy Stewart (now divorced).
She found success as a homemaker with a catering business run with a college friend, and this quickly led to other even more successful ventures such as a gourmet food shop, and later the television shows, best-selling cookbooks and magazines we all know.
But aside from her brilliant enterpreneurism and relentless pursuit of perfection in homemaking, perhaps the rather intimidating Martha (ok, she’s admittedly scary!) is most famous for her highly publicised conviction for insider trading and her equally public return to television through her show “Martha” and short-lived stint as The Apprentice‘s big boss.
One thing is for certain – Martha decidedly is here to stay.
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