As it turns out, one of the biggest names on Food Network had his beginnings right here in Athens. Chef Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, The Next Food Network Star, and currently Cutthroat Kitchen, majored in drama here at the University of Georgia. During a visit to deliver a keynote to kick off the Return to the Arch alumni seminar, Brown sat down with UGA’s Spoon University as part of our latest series on celebrity chefs.
Find out what he thinks of goji berries, Athens’ eats, and chemistry with this Q&A.
Spoon UGA: What is your favorite midnight snack?
AB: I don’t eat at midnight, but if I were to, it would probably be hummus. I always keep it around in case I get the munchies.
SU: What is your favorite fast food joint or chain restaurant?
AB: Shake Shack in New York is hard to argue with.
SU: We heard there’s one open in Buckhead–
AB: No, no, no. I refuse go to the one in Buckhead. I can’t have it exist in the same time space continuum as Chick-Fil-A.
SU: What is your favorite hometown restaurant? Favorite item on their menu?
AB: Everything is gone from when I was a kid, but near me now is the Red Eyed Mule [in Marietta]. It is a nasty little burger joint with a disastrously sloppy burger. I can only eat one of them a year. It is Texas toast with a hamburger, chili and slaw.
SU: What is your favorite restaurant in Athens?
AB: I don’t come back often. So much of what I remember is gone, so I limit my journeys. The place I would say-although it is gone now-is a nasty pitcher beer burger joint called Sons of Italy that I worked at. Today, I would also gladly drive from Atlanta to eat and drink at The National.
SU: If you had to describe Athens’s culinary scene in one word, what would it be?
AB: Developing. It is still developing, and it is not there yet.
SU: Is there a certain direction you would like to see it go?
AB: I would never attempt to steer it one way or another. I think it is coming along quite nicely.
SU: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
AB: Eggs. I could make a car out of eggs. I could build a house out of eggs. When I am tired of cooking anything else, I always go back to eggs. They are amazing: basically liquid meat.
SU: What is your least favorite ingredient to consume or to work with?
AB: Beef liver. I have done everything to it, but it still sucks in my opinion.
SU: What are your favorite kitchen appliances?
AB: I couldn’t live without my spring loaded tongs. I always have them in one hand. I also get nervous if I can’t find my dough blade [also known as a bench scraper]. When the batteries die in my scale I get panicky too because I weigh everything.
SU: So, what appliance would you suggest for students in dorms to get?
AB: A panini press. I can make an entire meal on a panini press. I have also heard you can make a panini in one but I have not done that because there are so many other good things to try.
SU: What is the best piece of culinary advice anyone has ever given you?
AB: “Learn to use salt or find another job.” A lot of young people struggle with this today.
SU: Who is your culinary idol?
AB: I don’t have one in mind. That is not my style. I guess I would like to meet Julia Child, but I can’t bring her back to life.
SU: What is one food item that you would consider your weakness or guilty pleasure?
AB: Bourbon and alcohol in general.
SU: Do you have a favorite type of bourbon?
AB: The kind in a glass. Sorry it’s just that I can’t play favorites because then people will start to think that I am picking one over the other, and I can’t have that.
SU: What is one Southern staple we can find year-round in your pantry at home?
AB: Grits. I never run out of stone ground hominy grits from North Georgia. You can do all kinds of things with them. I make a grits dumpling that is pretty interesting and also grits fries which are like polenta fries. I dust them in cheese powder. A lot of people don’t know about the power of cheese powder. You can get almost anything as a powder. If it exists in this world it probably exists as a powder.
SU: Is there a powder that you wish existed but doesn’t currently?
AB: Bourbon powder would be great.
SU: What is one food trend that you think needs to make a comeback?
AB: Cocktail party food, like Swedish meatballs. I miss dips and things like that. Cocktail party food is very social, which is something our food culture lacks right now. We lack home hospitality because we are too busy being critical of each other. We are all yelpers.
SU: What is one culinary specialty of yours that is a definite crowd-pleaser?
AB: I make amazing Swedish meatballs-with a powder, but I won’t tell you which it is.
SU: Is there one superfood you find underrated or that you think everyone should get on board with?
AB: Bourbon (laughs). No, most of the ones I am into have already come into fashion. My big three are kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, but those have all had their days. I am also the last person getting on the quinoa bus.
SU: Is there one superfood you find overrated?
AB: Goji berries. I frickin’ hate those little things. They taste like dried out, leathery… raspberries, ah I don’t know.
SU: Is there one Good Eats, Iron Chef America, or The Next Food Network Star behind-the-scenes secret you can share with us?
AB: I can’t think of anything I haven’t been sworn to secrecy or signed a nondisclosure form on. Chef Jet Tila is a pistol marksman. And everyone know’s about Bobby Flay’s horse thing.
SU: Horse thing?
AB: Oh, he is big into race horses.
SU: Is there something the cast and crew of your shows snack on while on set?
AB: I try not to snack during filming or during the day. If I do, I try to munch on natural stuff. One person on the Cutthroat Kitchen staff makes a cold oatmeal goop that is good.
I really try not to snack though because I gain weight really easily. If I were to eat a jelly bean, I’d gain six pounds. Which is not even possible, but I would somehow.
SU: Do you have a favorite food memory from your time at UGA?
AB: I learned how to cook to get dates and developed a series of meals based on escalating price. One, I called the “closer” because it was my most expensive meal. I was making it once with recipes from Bon Appétit and it was a sole au gratin florentine, meaning fish with a spinach-and-cheese wine sauce.
As I was making it, the girl I was cooking it for called up and dumped me. That was when I realized cooking in and of itself is fun, even by yourself.
SU: What was your major at UGA?
AB: I was a drama major. I would not pick that again, but it has served me really well. If I could come back, a chemistry degree would have been pretty useful. When I learned chemistry on my own, I had to get some college books to start with.
SU: Do you have any advice for students in the midst of finals for chemistry?
AB: Remember, it is all about electrons in the end.
SU: Do you have anything else you would like to tell UGA students?
AB: Cook as often as you can and don’t rely on other people to cook for you. Self reliance is an important skill and when you get out of school, your mom won’t be cooking for you, the lunch lady won’t be cooking for you. Cooking is like travel, except you don’t need a passport. Although a passport would be very helpful…
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