Alton Brown

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

The Alton Brown podcast with Brian Koppelman was right up my alley. Brown said he gets thanked most for making a show that the entire family could watch without anyone getting bored. I agree.  But mine and Koppelman’s affection aside, Brown has some good lessons for us. Ready?

In college, Brown spent a semester in Tuscany. There he had a see it to believe it moment with pizza.

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Cortona Italy

“Off on the edge of this town was a gypsy guy that lived in a hut and he had a little wood fire oven and three little busted up tables outside his place. You went and he made pizza. You didn’t order it. It was whatever the heck it was he was making. He would put it down and you would put down money, and he would take some money. There would be some wine and that was it. This pizza was misshapen and there was nothing on it but olive oil, shaved Parmesan cheese, and baby artichokes. It was transformative. In that one slice of pizza I became culinarily awake.”

Joe Rogan said this happened to him when he saw Richard Pryor. We just need a glimpse, a smell, a taste. Oh, I didn’t know about this!

Brown finished school and got a job. He told Koppelman, “it wasn’t like I was working in an oil field waiting to find a chunk of gold.” So when he heard that R.E.M would be returning to Athens Georgia to make a new video at a studio they used Brown got a job at the studio. He piddled around for a few months, and the band showed up.

They made this:

The song (and video) were a success and Brown’s career was off. No, no, no, it’s never like that. Rather, Brown’s experiences led him to ten years of filming commercials and working for others. Eventually, he got the chance to make Good Eats.

His idea congealed when another episode finished and he hadn’t learned a thing. Brown wanted to make something that was different. Thanks to Brown’s ideas, his experiences with a single camera, and occasional fanaticism, the show started to form in his head. “The mission statement was a mix of Mr. Wizard, Julia Child, and Monty Python,” said Brown.

Scott Norton was different with a ketchup brand. Brian Chesky was different with Airbnb, “it felt like the world was laughing at us,” said Chesky. Casey Neistat‘s one piece of advice to aspiring YouTubers is to be different.

Brown’s idea was different, but ideas without execution don’t mean a thing and execution required money. Brown traded his career capital for cash. In those ten years of work between The One I Love and Good Eats, he built skills and relationships. Like casino chips, he exchanged one asset for another. This is a key part of Cal Newport’s work and he wrote that rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills.

With money in hand, Brown was on his way out the door when his backers say, oh, yeah, and we want you to be the host. Huh, said Brown. “I was so used to identifying myself as a behind the camera director that I did not see myself in front of the camera.”

Brown stars. The show gets made. Success ensuses. No, still not yet.

Brown stars. The show gets made. Crickets chirp. Yes, that’s betters.

Brown waits. He does other work.  He told Koppelman that he should have kept working on the show. He could have written more. He didn’t. Why not? Fear.

“I don’t want to have that level of hope. Should I be the guy that’s sitting down writing these scripts? No. Not until I know. This ended up being a very stupid decision…It’s almost like it’s going to hurt too much. If I let it out. If I do all this work and it doesn’t happen, then I suck even worse than I suck already…It’s building the Frankenstein monster and he won’t come to life.”

Thanks to a lucky break because of Kodak film and a Food Network executive surfing the internet, Brown’s show is purchased. Now he really needs to get to work. He wrote and cooked. The show grew. He bought a studio. They did more. Brown said that people still come up to him and ask how they filmed certain parts.

As the show grew from infancy (let’s just keep it alive) to adolescents (let’s push some boundaries) Brown would get lost. His crew created a safe word where they would call his wife and explain that Brown was making Faberge eggs when he was supposed to be making deviled ones.

This was an interesting transformation. Before the show was ordered Brown did almost any work but as the show took root he pruned it with a Bonsai intensity.

What’s kept him going was curiosity “the most powerful force on the earth,” said Brown.

Jill Lepore said she had a moment like this when she was researching children’s literature.

“And I was shocked. I really was shocked. And I was staggered that these histories of childrens literature couldnt even identify the story. I got really interested in that question, and I did what I do when I get a little too curious about something, I become obsessive about finding out everything that could possibly be found out.”

As Lepore notes, this isn’t superficial curiosity. This is I feel this in my bones curiosity. Elizabeth Gilbert explained why:

“The tricky bit is starting from a place you are very curious because in six months it’s going to feel very boring and tedious because making things is very boring and tedious. Another idea is going to come along very seductively and do the dance of the seven veils in the corner of your studio and say ‘I am a much more interesting, much more exciting idea.’”

It helps to be curious when you don’t know it all. “I no longer want to be the smartest person in the room,” said Brown, “The best thing is the be the dumber person – which doesn’t mean you’re dumb – but the real thrill is to be around and learn things from the smarter people in the room. I want to be the weak link in the chain. I want to fight to keep up with the brilliance of everyone else.”

Curiosity and catching up require a checked ego. This is a dichotomy. You don’t know it all, but you think you can.


Thanks for reading, I’m  @mikedariano.


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