When Alton Brown's awesome cooking show Good Eats premiered on Food Network in July 1999, a lot of viewers in Durham probably had the same initial reaction: "Hey, didn't that guy used to cook at Pop's?"
Why yes, dear viewers, he did. After graduating from New England Culinary Institute in 1997, Brown worked the pantry and line for a few months at Pop's restaurant when it was on Peabody Street. It's not an experience he remembers fondly—or much at all, really.
"I'll be honest with you—I don't remember anything about Pop's," Brown says with a laugh. "It was a long time ago, and a very short period of time. I remember being there, and I remember what the place looks like."
The witty science guy of cooking will get a brief refresher course on Durham when he presents The Science of Cooking at Durham Performing Arts Center on April 18, as part of the 17-day North Carolina Science Festival.
By the time Brown, now 50, had arrived in Durham the first time—with a degree from the University of Georgia—he was already, in his mind, an aspiring TV star. He had worked as a director and cinematographer for much of the '80s and '90s.
Like culinary school, his cooking stint at Pop's was just a step toward his true calling.
"I was already spending all my spare time writing Good Eats," he recalls of his time at the Durham pizzeria. "So all my energy after I left there and went back to Atlanta was focused on making that show."
It was time well spent. For 14 seasons, Good Eats was arguably the best cooking show ever, combining comedy, wacky characters, arty visual touches and just plain science in an engaging, highly informative way that made you want to jump up off the couch and whip up your own soufflé during commercials.
Brown admits he was not a particularly good science student growing up, and his fans may be surprised to hear his assessment of his own cooking skills.
"I was not, and continue to not be, a very good natural cook," he says. "If I don't understand what's going on, I can't do it very well. I can simply imitate actions—repeat actions. But if I'm going to cook well, I have to really understand what's going on."
And that's where science comes in.
"Everything that happens in a kitchen—everything—is science," he asserts. "Either chemistry or physics. More chemistry than anything else."
When he started cooking as a young man in college, Brown was more interested in another kind of chemistry.
"I started cooking in college to get girls," he confesses. "That's all it was. It was about dates. I couldn't get dates in college. I had a pathetic social life. So I learned how to cook, because I found that girls who'd usually say no might say yes if you offered to cook for them."
Did it work?
"I didn't say it worked out very well for me. But it got me cooking."
Years later, his dislike of most TV cooking shows inspired him to get down to the scientific nitty-gritty of applying heat to food, and teach that to others.
Brown says that, save for Julia Child's PBS shows of the 1960s, and sometimes The Frugal Gourmet, most TV cooking shows were "boring, and they didn't teach you anything."
So he undertook a serious study of cooking and its science at culinary school and discovered that when it comes to the chicken-and-egg thing, the egg definitely comes first.
"For me, the real scientific inquiry all started with eggs, and really understanding what eggs do, and what eggs need," he says. "Because eggs are the most powerful player in the culinary world, as far as I'm concerned. Anybody that really wants to start cooking seriously needs to start with eggs."
He goes on to list some of the things that couldn't happen without eggs: soufflés, angel food cake, quiche and custard.
"It's like liquid meat," he says. "It's the rough cosmic stuff of the cooking world."
That inspires a question about his view on "vegan cooking," which brings out his trademark sarcastic wit.
"Well, I typically find that it's not really much use to cook a vegan," he says. "They don't have that much meat on them, so, you know, it takes a lot of braising. And you know, even just finding one is difficult."
On a serious note, Brown says he looks forward to interacting with a "smart crowd" in Durham, and he has good news for fans of his best-loved TV show: He'll be putting up a new web series later this year. Brown calls it "the evolution of Good Eats."
Science marches on.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Kitchen chemistry."