Once upon a time, chefs stayed in the kitchen unless invited out to accept diners' accolades. Now you can't get away from them. They have open kitchens where you can watch them flambéing, cooking demos where you can get harangued by them, and cooking shows where you can watch them shmooze and dazzle an adoring audience who probably never cooked or ever will cook anything more complex than scrambled eggs. Chefing has become a branch of show business; the food is just raw materialthe supporting cast, like a magician's rabbit.
One kitchen show stands out from the ruck. Headed for a fourth season on the Food Network, Good Eats shows that a cooking show can actually be about something beyond the presenter's personality. And that's surprising, because the host of Good Eats has personality to burn, enough to annoy some people into reaching for the remote. Alton Brown was in showbiz before he was in professional cooking, and it shows: in his confident, in-the-camera's-face video manner, in the quirky staginess of his scripts, in the ever- changing theatrical devices with which he frames his shows. In a single show, Brown may dress up as an Amish farmer, a Secret Service agent, a butcher, and a derelict. It's production overkill to the max.
But his show works, or rather it works in spite of all the razzle-dazzle. After watching a few installments, you get the idea that the stunts are Brown's way of keeping himself interested in the process of cranking out 23-minute video essays about food. What keeps us interested, though, is something else: Brown's insatiable curiosity about the physics, chemistry, history, and folklore of food, and the fun he has showing us how such things have a place in the serious kitchen.
Brown's one-man kitchen band is so entertaining, in fact, that at the end of a show you realize you should have been taking notes; the hard information has blown right by you. Which is why Alton Brown's Good Eats video collections are the only food-oriented DVDs I would ever recommend purchasing or giving to a friend. Packaged three more-or-less related episodes to a discroasting braising/grilling, burgers/corn on the cob/pickles, etc.the shows work the first time through as entertainment, the second time as education. And the DVD format allows Brown to package each episode with a letters-from-viewers segment that acts like a FAQ for each show. Listed at $49.95 for a three-pack and $119.95 for a nine-disc complete set covering three Good Eats seasons, these discs make great munchies for the eyes.
For those who don't enjoy video food, however tastily prepared, or who find Brown an irritating host, there's a new book that should overcome their compunctions. Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $27.50 hardcover) puts Brown's obsession with the nuts and bolts of cooking at the service of less passionate gear-heads. There are recipes in the book, but they're few and scattered among the diagrams of knife-blade styles, pages of toaster-oven specs, and meticulous reviews of the thousand doodads that tend to accumulate in the backs of drawers (along with ruthless advice on how to get rid of nine-tenths of them).
Brown's antic manner is easier to take on the printed page; the book actually makes good drop-in reading, but it's also well enough organized to work as a reference. Don't so much as buy another oven mitt without it.