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Bristling with nerdy energy, Alton Brown’s Good Eats is back — and not a moment too soon

One of the best food TV shows ever is beyond compare, even after a 7-year hiatus.

Alton Brown, as seen from inside a well-stocked refrigerator on “Good Eats: The Return,” holds an egg in front of one eye.
Alton Brown hosts Good Eats, where he just might eat this egg.
Food Network
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episodes of the week for August 25 through 31 are “American Classics X: Chicken Parm” and “Every Grain Old Is New Again,” the first two episodes of Good Eats’ 15th season.

When watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats, I frequently feel an emotion that is perhaps best expressed as [buries head in hands, looks around to make sure nobody else is watching] “Daaaaaad!!” It’s the TV show equivalent of your parents doing a skit for your 15th birthday when all of your friends are watching.

Does this sound like a complaint? I mean it as a compliment. I love Good Eats. I loved it in its first 14 seasons (which ran from 1999 to 2012). I loved its handful of specials. I even loved its Reloaded version, which updated the original with scenes and bits featuring newer information and cooking techniques.

With that said, if you’re going to enjoy this show, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that Brown himself is one of TV’s nerdiest nerds. Again, I mean this as a compliment, but your mileage may vary. You might feel a deep secondhand embarrassment over his refusal to “just” do a cooking show; instead, he uses an episode about the origins of chicken parmesan as an opportunity to indulge in fancy camera tricks and stage parodies of movie scenes where a nervous, normally straitlaced person goes to some back alley to pick up contraband merchandise. You might even find him actively annoying.

But you know what? I might be embarrassed by my TV dad doing all of this stuff to entertain me, but I’m also secretly delighted by his antics. Welcome home, TV dad!

Good Eats has always distinguished itself via its filmmaking. The new series is no exception.

The first moment in Good Eats: The Return — what Food Network is calling the show’s 15th season — that reminded me of how much I enjoy this show at its best came when Brown wandered around a New York City alleyway while talking about the Italian immigrant experience in late 19th century and early 20th century America.

Sure, it was a fun way to teach the audience a bit about how Italian cooking mutated and changed after it hopped across the Atlantic and landed in New York, where chicken was plentiful and the eggplant that used to provide the foundation of [x] parmesan was not. But it was also a stealthily excellent “oner” — a.k.a., a scene filmed in only one shot. Brown walks around the alley, telling the story of the Italian immigrant experience, and because the whole thing is captured in a single take, the story becomes more mesmerizing.

That’s how Good Eats approaches all of its knowledge drops. It has always been as much of a science show as a food show, and Brown is fond of explaining why, say, chia seeds bond together if you pour a little water on them, which makes them a great basis for pudding. (He delivers this information in The Return’s second episode, all about the ancient grains quinoa and chia.) If the series can take a moment to illustrate something scientific or historical in a cheeky and fun way, it’ll always do its best.

Sometimes, these moments are almost too silly for me. The aforementioned riff on Brown going to a dark garage somewhere to buy some San Marzano tomatoes (the only tomatoes worth using in a red sauce, Brown suggests) eventually devolves into various people in the scene ripping mustaches off of each other’s faces, like a lesser Monty Python bit. But at the same time, I can’t deny that I learned a lot about San Marzano tomatoes, how to spot them in the store, and what makes them so special for Italian cooking.

And even in the moments that don’t work as well, Good Eats’ visual verve is enough to carry the day. It’s rare for a series in the rough genre of “instructional cooking show” to put as much thought into its filmmaking as this one does. Even if several of its innovations (like filming Brown from inside a refrigerator or cupboard as he rummages around for ingredients) no longer feel as fresh as they did when Good Eats debuted 20 years ago, it’s still striking how few other cooking shows have followed Good Eats’ lead and tried to come up with a visual grammar to accompany all that delicious food.

Think about it: How many cooking shows are staged so the host stands behind their counter as they look to camera while preparing a dish in a medium shot? The camera might occasionally cut in for an insert shot to showcase a particularly complicated bit of knifework. But then it will go right back to the medium shot. The formula works if the host is particularly fun to watch (as with Molly Yeh of my beloved Girl Meets Farm), but woe to you if the host isn’t a fascinating figure in their own right.

Good Eats has never had this problem. Brown exudes nerdy charm, but even in routine insert shots, he has thought about how to make the show fun to watch. In The Return, for example, a mirror slides down into the frame every so often, to reflect Brown’s face while his hands are performing one intricate task or another.

That would almost be enough of a reason to celebrate the return of Good Eats while also bemoaning how many sorry, boring food shows are out there. But then I realized that Brown’s legacy does live on — just not on television proper. And with The Return, he’s learned just a little bit from his assorted copycats.

The true heirs to the Good Eats throne are all on YouTube

In Good Eats: The Return, those insert shots I mentioned where Brown’s face will sometimes appear via mirror are filmed from an overhead position, just slightly at an angle — almost meant to mimic what it’s like to look down at your own counter as you debone and fillet a chicken breast. And it took me a second to realize that Brown’s mirror setup is almost a direct lift from perhaps the foremost innovation in food cinematography of the last 10 years: the overhead shot.

Obviously, there’s nothing particularly original about an overhead shot, even when it comes to recipe prep footage. But when BuzzFeed’s Tasty channel on YouTube popularized the technique, it spread quickly to, well, seemingly everywhere else on the internet. Thanks to that, the overhead shot has become the way to quickly and cleanly document a recipe being prepared. And the Tasty method is almost more important than the camera setup: Rather than seeing the person who’s cooking, we often see just their hands; rather than hearing their voice, we see onscreen text detailing the recipe steps while peppy music plays. These videos distill a recipe to its absolute essence — ingredients and instructions — without even the distraction of a host.

The trend seems to have changed how Good Eats: The Return is presented, despite arguably having evolved from the show’s original run (which presented somewhat similar first-person views of particular steps in a recipe). So there’s a bit of cross-platform influence going on. But realizing as much made me think about how so much of what’s innovative in food TV right now isn’t happening on TV but on YouTube.

Think of Binging with Babish, a more conventionally presented YouTube food show, in that the host is always on camera. But we don’t see the host’s face, because the focus is on how the recipe is being prepared, not on the person preparing it. (On Binging with Babish, said person’s name is Andrew Rea — who, it must be said, has some big Alton Brown dorky energy.)

Or consider just how many YouTube cooking videos essentially fast-forward through the more time-consuming steps of a recipe by speeding up the footage of a cake baking in an oven or somebody stirring a batter. That’s not so very far from Good Eats’ use of a clock hand traveling around the screen, wiping from one shot to another to indicate the passage of time without actually having to show it (an especially useful trick in a medium where every little moment has to be accounted for to hit an exact episode length).

Yes, it’s wonderful to have Good Eats back. But it’s just as wonderful to notice the ways in which it ushered in a new era of food filmmaking, and then learned from its own offspring. I’m heartened by the thought that if Alton Brown is a great, occasionally embarrassing TV dad, he has a whole brood of culinary children running around on the internet, making their own names. It was sad when the original Good Eats went away, but its return has now revealed that it never really left.

Good Eats airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on Food Network, and there is, at present, no good way to stream it, though the first episode of season 15 is currently available on YouTube.

Updated: To make more clear that Tasty did not literally invent the overhead shot.

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