We knew this was going to take a while -- it turned out to be just about one month since the question post -- due to some show-taping problems Alton had. He was kind enough to warn us about the delay, a warning regular Slashdot Interview readers picked up. Anyway, here we go. (Warning: Reading this interview may cause hunger.)
1) My question
Something I've found as a newbie chef is that a good 75.32% of good cooking is good shopping. What tips do you have for finding good, fresh ingredients? Where the heck do you get fresh herbs etc. in a smallish town?
Alton: First off, you need to decentralize your shopping. Don't try to get everything in one place. Even if you don't have a farmers market in the area, I'm willing to bet there's a co-op or health food store that will open up your options. Ditto a butcher. As for fresh herbs, if they're really a problem to find in your area, try growing your own when and where climate allows. The rest of the time, buy dry herbs and spices over the internet from someone like Penzeys or The Spice House. Above all, do not drive yourself crazy. Learn to work with what you have. Oh, and don't forget ethnic markets; they often have the best produce as well as meat.
2) Why are some people better Cooks?
I've noticed that some people seem to be naturally better cooks than others. I've know several people that follow a recipe very exactly. The food they create just doesn't turn out very good. Personally, I'll use a recipe as a guideline and use rough estimates. Most of the time, my meals turn out pretty well. It's as if an intuitive sense is needed.
How does someone learn/teach this skill?
Alton: First, you need to become a good recipe follower. Most people who think they can't cook aren't really taking time to properly read the recipes they're working from or they don't really understand what they're being asked to do. For instance, there are plenty of recipes out there that call for "searing" a piece of meat. If you don't know what "searing" really is, you're doomed. Unfortunately most recipes are written for people that already know how to cook. So start by really paying attention to a recipe and make sure you understand it. Then cook it a few times keeping detailed notes about the process and your feelings about the final dish. Keep notebooks?write down as much as you can and slowly you'll begin to learn what you're doing. As long as you're willing to think and taste as you go, you can become a cook?I promise.
As a vegetarian, I'm compelled to ask this: Have you seen a trend in recent years of more vegetarians, or more dishes made without meat? Time magazine had a recent cover story about this, and my feeling is it's becoming a more important part of everyone's lives, yet whenever I catch a cooking show on TV it lacks making many vegetarian dishes.
Alton: Americans don't eat near enough vegetables. I'm not a vegetarian, though I do respect anyone who makes a hard and fast decision about what he or she is going to live on. All you have to do is look at the health statistics from countries whose cuisines are lighter on meat and heavy on veggies and fish?They live, longer. It's as simple as that. What I would hate to see is a radical swing away from meat. I think we evolved as omnivores for a reason. And that's all I have to say about that.
4) Lower Fat and Cholesterol?
Mr. Brown, I love your recipes. In the last few weeks, I've prepared Chocolate Mousse, Party Mayonnaise, Chimney Tuna, and Baba Ganoush from "Good Eats" and Chicken Piccata from "I'm Just Here for the Food." Not all at one meal, of course.
I applaud episodes like "Good Milk Gone Bad" and "The Other Red Meat" that focus on lower fat and cholesterol foods. But many of your recipes call for butter, oil, cream, and other less than healthful foods (even bacon grease!). What do you think about some of the substitutes out there, or using ingredients like applesauce to replace butter?
Alton: There are no bad foods, only bad food habits. I eat cream, butter, and bacon; I just don't eat pounds of it at a time. I use these things when they are needed in recipes and leave them out when they're not needed. As for substitutes, I only agree with them if they really don't change a person's response to a dish. Take mashed potatoes for instance. I recently saw a recipe that suggested that the fat we all know that mashers need could be replaced with vegetable broth. Hogwash. All that does is lead to dissatisfaction and I think that dissatisfaction results in overeating. We like fats because fats satisfy. They break down in the digestive track very slowly so they keep us fuller longer. Now if I find a way to replace a fatty ingredient without missing it (I do this a lot with yogurt) then you bet I'm going to do it. But I repeat: there are no bad foods
5) Art vs. Science
A lot of your show is dedicated to the Science of cooking, and to the underlying physics of food. Your Grandmother (in a really cool episode about biscuits) demonstrated a wicked amount of Artistic Skill, the "look and feel" of food preparation. Do you have any thoughts about the balance of Art and Science in cooking?
Alton: No matter how much creativity goes into it, cooking is an art?or perhaps I should say a craft. It abides by absolute rules, physics, chemistry, etc. and that means that unless you understand the science you cannot reach the art. We're not talking about painting here?cooking's more like engineering. I happen to think that there is great beauty in great engineering (the wing of a Boeing 777, a suspension bridge) but they are not works of art, they are works of science. To my mind art is a matter of personal expression and the exchange of ideas; food is in the end, fuel?a means to an end. Sorry for rambling.
6) Iron Chef
Seeing that all geeks love Iron Chef, I have to ask, would you be willing to go against an Iron Chef? If so, which would you pick??
Alton: I don't care about the chefs I want a shot at the goofball in the Palomino Jacket. He needs to be taken down. And the judges, oh please let me at them!
7) Elements of cooking
I think that the most interesting part of your show to this audience is your emphasis on the science of cooking, from discussion of protein (such as in your angel food cake episode and your recent soufflé episode).
But the other difference in Good Eats is the great emphasis you place on the parts of cooking, that is the elements at a more abstract level, such as use of heat, individual ingredients (which is the topic of many of the shows) and methods of cooking (such as the right way to mix and fold). This all makes Good Eats interesting for us geeks out there who want to understand the science, but also helps us non-cooking geeks become literate in the supermarket and kitchen.
What gave you the idea to present cooking in this way and do you have any suggestions for other resources that present food and food preparation in the same way?
Alton: I approach cooking from a science angle because I need to understand how things work. If I understand the egg, I can scramble it better?it's a simple as that. There are some great food science texts out there?well, a few. Check out the bibliography in my book. (If you don't want to buy it you can just copy stuff out at the bookstore.)
8) Technical questions
Hello! I actually watched your very first show about steak here on PBS; it was the first thing in my life that made me interested in cooking. Every time I watch an episode of Good Eats, I always end it wanting to go cook something.
I had a technical question; we always see these shots coming out of refrigerators and ovens. Do you actually have little windows in the back of your appliances or are those props built up for the shows? I always assumed they were props but you never know. Also, is that really your house you shoot in? I love the Magritte hat with chicken painting.
Alton: No windows... We actually have cameras now that are small enough to rig inside appliances. It's not easy mind you, but it's doable. That is not my house, but it is a real house. The Magritte rip was commissioned especially for Good Eats.
9) Cooking In Lava
Mr. Brown. First, thank you for a wonderful television show and an excellent book. I enjoy both continually and look forward to all your new work.
Now... on to, perhaps, one of the more unusual questions you might receive. This question deals directly with how heat affects food.
Specifically... I live on the slopes of an active volcano. One of the things we like to do for fun is cook game hen and pork loins in the hot lava itself. First, let me describe our process, and then our question.
To cook a game hen we first season and then wrap the hen in about 10 Ti (or banana) leaves. These protect the hen from actually burning.
Next we find an active surface breakout of lava. We use a shovel (we also are wearing kevlar gloves that can withstand 2000 degrees of heat) and get a good shovel full of red lava. We place this on the ground a distance from the flow. We then position the Ti-wrapped hen in the middle of the blob of lava and cover it with another shovel full of lava. We try to leave a small opening to the Ti leaves, for steam to escape (or we can potentially have a steam explosion).
Now, the question. The lava is initially at 2000 degrees when we start cooking. After about 15 minutes it has cooled to around 850 degrees (outside of the rock - we read this using an infrared pyrometer). After about 45 minutes the outside is about 450 degrees. At that point we hit the rock with the shovel to open it. Only a few of the Ti leaves will remain uncharred. We remove those and the hen is then very moist and delicious.
How is it possible, using a heat source at 2000 degrees (that granted, gets cooler over time) that it still takes 45 minutes to cook the game hen? We would have thought that the cooking would have been near instantaneous - but repeated experiments at various lengths of time reveal that it takes exactly as long in the lava, as in an oven.
Alton: It's not possible. I can cook a game hen under a broiler in 15 minutes. Tell me, are there any small brown mushrooms growing around your property, and if so have you been using them in salads or pasta dishes?
10) Safe Cooking Temps
The wife and I are huge fans of your show but there is one thing we notice from time to time that we've always wondered about. For instance, your country ham recipe specifies that the ham is done when the interior temp hits 140 degrees.
However, fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/ham.htm states that "cook-before-eating hams must reach 160 F to be safely cooked before serving." I know those bad boys have been salt cured but I would still be worried about trichinosis. Your "done" temperatures for meat are often lower than what the food safety people would have them be. This is a long winded way of asking "What is your approach to food safety?" You look pretty healthy to me so I'll assume you know something those government fussbudgets don't but I'd feel better about trying out some of your recipes if I knew what that was.
Alton: I do not always agree with the government and in this case I think they're way off base. For one thing, Trichinella spiralis die at 137 degrees. Of course in this case they would have had to survive the curing process which is highly doubtful. The water activity level of a country ham is simply too low to support that kind of life. Also, T spriralis have been nearly eradicated from the American hog population through the use of better feeds. As far as I know, the only instances of trichinosis in recent years involved wild game such as bear and puma.