I Worked with Alton Brown for 10 Years. Here Are 5 Things I Learned.

Meghan Splawn

I Worked with Alton Brown for 10 Years. Here Are 5 Things I Learned. – Meghan Splawn

When I started as an intern for Alton Brown’s production company in Georgia, I thought I’d be in Atlanta doing grunt work on Good Eats for six months, tops. A series of fortunate circumstances kept me on the team. First, I was asked to stay an additional six months to cover someone on maternity leave. Then, an opportunity to help with a cookbook kept me for another year. I ended up staying on for a decade.

Nearly four years later, I can see some of the major effects my time on Alton’s team have had on my life. It’s where I met my best friend, my husband (we met on Good Eats), and where I learned some of my most valuable cooking strategies.

Over that decade, I cooked almost every single recipe from Good Eats at least once. I worked on four different cookbooks alongside Alton, and I gained insight at every turn on the values of intelligence, creativity, and confidence in solving a variety of cooking problems. And I’ve been fortunate enough to bring those values to my own cooking, and to my subsequent work. It would be impossible to boil everything I learned down to a simple list, but here are five major lessons I learned from both working with Alton Brown and cooking his recipes. Hopefully you can apply them to your own cooking!

1. Question everything.

This will probably come as no surprise to Alton fans, but working with him (especially on Good Eats) meant that every ingredient or step needed a reason or story. While it made for great television, it also forced all of us to look at classic recipes with fresh eyes. Why just stick to cinnamon in apple pie when citrusy, peppery grains of paradise would be wildly more interesting? Or why buy a dehydrator to make jerky when a box fan and some air filters would do?

This approach has made me a better, more rigorous recipe writer — something I continue to use when writing recipes here at Kitchn. But it also helps me when cooking for my family. Just because a recipe calls for a certain step or ingredient doesn’t mean that you have to keep it there. By questioning — and experimenting — I’ve been able to make innumerable recipes simpler, better, or more innovative.

2. Consider the entire experience when it comes to recipes.

I’ll never forget watching Alton taste a kale salad I was testing for Alton’s EveryDayCook. He took a bite and exclaimed, “This is really delicious and terrible to eat!” It turned out the beautiful ribbons of kale we’d made looked great in the bowl, but were hard to get all the way into your mouth.

This is often overlooked in recipes: Presentation is fine, but isn’t nearly as important as how comfortable or fun a recipe is to eat. That kale salad didn’t make the book. Instead we made a similarly delicious quinoa salad with roasted vegetables. The ingredients were way easier to spoon into your mouth, and the dish was more fun to eat.

I use this technique when introducing my 4-year-old son to new foods now. If I’m making a dish, I’ll often play with the shapes of, say, the carrots or squash until I find one that is fun. And voilà! He’s much more likely to eat it. Whether you’re a new cook or a seasoned pro, it’s worth remembering there’s more to a dish than the flavors that go in, or the way it looks.

3. Cook smarter, not harder.

I will never forget watching Alton spatchcock a chicken on my tiny culinary school TV from a borrowed DVD the night before my interview. (Y’all, I had never watched an episode of Good Eats in my life before I worked there!) I remember thinking: Why had I not learned this technique in school? It cuts the cook time in half!

Alton was never afraid to take a classic dish and try to improve it. And that approach is what produced some of his greatest techniques, like tempering chocolate in a microwave or cooking meringue with a hair dryer bonnet. I might not be revolutionizing the food world in my own kitchen, but asking myself Can I do this smarter? has led me to do things my culinary training might have had me dismiss, like use shears to chop herbs, lean heavily on canned tomatoes, and, yes, even spatchcock a chicken to save time.

4. If you can’t find it, make it.

We deconstructed (broke) more pieces of equipment in the Good Eats test kitchen than I can legally tell you about, but we also made smart modifications to things like whisks (for making cotton candy, obviously), and we folded aluminum foil into every shape and size imaginable (looking at you, ring of fire chicken).

Cooking with Alton taught me that I didn’t actually need to own dozens of single-use tools, because I could often build (or hack) anything I didn’t have with a little ingenuity.

5. Use one salt, but use it well.

Certain ingredients in the Good Eats test kitchen had to be the same brand, always. We used Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, Land O Lakes Butter (mostly), and King Arthur Flour. Why? Because we could depend on their consistency and quality.

This doesn’t mean that you need to use these products. But being a confident and consistent cook actually starts with your pantry. If you find yourself constantly switching brands of, say, salt or flour, hoping it will improve your cooking, try to stick with one brand for a while and get to know it. If you’re seasoning a dish with salt, don’t just follow the recipe instructions, but get a feel for how your salt works in the dish. Taste, season, and taste again. A good rule of thumb is to season most things before cooking, during cooking, and just before serving.

There are many more lessons I learned from working on Good Eats (and cooking with Alton himself) that are less about being in the kitchen, and more about work, about television, and life outside of all those things. Still, I enjoyed working on Alton’s team and am grateful that so many people have learned to cook from him and from Good Eats.

Inevitably when Alton comes up in conversation, I hear “Oh I learned to make better pancakes from that one episode,” or “We always make his turkey!” I get to think about how I was a part of making that dish happen — of helping make that person’s life a little easier, or their food a little better. That’s a powerful feeling.

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