Who: Alton Brown, the host of Food Network’s shows Good Eats, Iron Chef America, Feasting on Asphalt, and The Next Iron Chef. Here is Brown from Season 4 of Good Eats, in an episode delightfully titled “Mayo Clinic.”
Why: For starters, I hate mayonnaise with the passion of a thousand convection ovens. So what could get me to watch a show about my culinary nemesis? The chemistry lesson, of course. Good Eats combines regular depictions of chemistry, physics, and history into a smorgasbord of knowledge. But it certainly isn’t boring. The Bill Nye the Science Guy of food, Brown makes education both mouthwatering and funny: Mayonnaise’s emulsification process is painstakingly illustrated with thumbtacked styrofoam balls hanging in a macroscopic mobile while Alton whisks away. In a world of pompous personality cultists like Emeril and Bobby Flay, Brown is too confident for such bombast. He’s as comfortable with doing a show on corn dogs as on edamame. Heck, he doesn’t even need food to make a show, having done brilliant episodes on kitchen knives and even water. What is there to say about water? Alton knows, and you want to.
Impact: With his shows and books, Brown has become Food Network’s most bankable star. His acting skill and eye for production values changed the requirements of a cooking show. No longer would a single camera in front of a three-walled kitchen satisfy viewers. Brown put Dutch-angled cameras everywhere: in the cupboard, under glass countertops, inside the oven. He also introduced the concept of a clever script to the cooking world, creating a horde of fictional characters, including his evil twin Anti-Alton and Lactose Man. (Brown is lactose-intolerant, which I imagine is like a house painter being color-blind.) In short, he made food television more like television. Now any chef worth his kosher salt has to try to hold a viewer’s attention better than Brown. That’s not a challenge I’d be interested in.
Personal Connection: Our kitchen has gradually become a testament to the wisdom of Alton Brown. A well-worn copy of his I’m Just Here for the Food lives above the stove. A cast iron skillet stays in our oven because he taught us how to cure iron. We now use kosher salt almost exclusively. Gone are the single-use items like garlic presses; now there are multitools everywhere. This is no idle change; I live in a household where I am the second best cook by a million miles, and I am a very good cook. So if Evon swears by someone, you really should be paying attention to him. This weekend, Food Network broadcasts Good Eats‘ 10th anniversary special. That’s an excellent way to get acquainted.
Update: We met Brown this week at a book signing. He was kind enough to explain Evon’s bubbling habanero jelly, using terms like “nucleation sites” and “thermal activation.” It was our own 90-second episode of Good Eats.
Other Contenders: BBC1’s exuberant Ainsley Harriott, shown here parodying his Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook on Red Dwarf; juvenile mad-scientist Duff Goldman and his Charm City Cakes crew from Food Network’s reality show Ace of Cakes; the Jeremy Clarkson of the food world, hard-living journalist Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations; food and wine connoisseur Ted Allen, the rock in the center of the Fab Five on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; taskmaster Robert Irvine, who has to prepare an insane meal in mere hours on the Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible; Shinichirō Ōta (dubbed by Bill Bickard), the hypercaffeinated floor reporter on FujiTV’s Iron Chef (“Fukui-san!”).