Food Network serves up Good Eats

When the Food Network's VP of programming Eileen Opatut first reviewed the pitch for the series Good Eats, she knew immediately the style was a far cry from the traditional 'standing behind a counter, chopping and dicing.'...
June 1, 1999

When the Food Network’s VP of programming Eileen Opatut first reviewed the pitch for the series Good Eats, she knew immediately the style was a far cry from the traditional ‘standing behind a counter, chopping and dicing.’

In fact, Good Eats turned out to be unconventional in almost every possible way – and Opatut loved it. The program features Alton Brown, a cinematographer/director-turned-cook, ‘and his extremely idiosyncratic view of the world of food.’ It’s produced by Atlanta-based Means St. Productions, a four-year-old company with more experience in commercials than American cable television. Most of the show is shot on location – outside of the studio kitchen – using a steady-cam.

Each episode of Good Eats (which debuts July 7 and airs weekly on Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) focuses on a specific type of food, with such tongue-in-cheek titles as ‘This Spud’s For You,’ ‘The Egg Files’ and ‘Churn Baby Churn’ (about ice cream). ‘This is teaching people the basics of food preparation, such that without recipes we feel people ought to be able to cook,’ says producer Chris Gyoury.

Opatut has commissioned 13 half-hours of Good Eats as part of Food’s revamped approach to programming. Until recently, most of the network’s shows were produced in-house, but Opatut says the door is now wide open to indies. ‘We’re looking for things that look great, that have a pace to them, that have strong personalities – whether that be an expert or a reporter who gets us into the story and has a fresh approach,’ she says. (Food has built a franchise around the rambunctious and irreverent personality of Emeril Lagasse, New Orleans restauranteur and star of two series – Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril.) Though Opatut refuses to give specific figures, she confirms the average commissioning rate as US$20,000-$30,000, and says Good Eats fits into this category.

The inspiration for Good Eats came straight from host Alton Brown. In the early ’90s, while he was still directing commercials, Brown noted a gap in the genre of food shows. ‘I didn’t see innovative TV programming being done that I thought was hip and smart and entertaining above all, and I got this crazy idea that, wow, if you were to entertain people, it would be easier to teach things to them.’

In 1995, he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute to nurture his flair for foodstuffs. When he was done, he looked up his old friends, producers Chris Gyoury and Sarah Burmeister at Means St., and pitched them his idea. ‘I was only intending to write it at the time, and maybe direct again since that was my background,’ Brown says, but the concept hooked Gyoury and Burmeister immediately. They agreed to finance two pilot episodes (at a budget of over US$100,000 for both) under one condition – Brown would be the host. Eighteen months later, the Food Network picked up the show.

As an example of Brown’s eclectic approach to Good Eats, Gyoury cites the ‘salad episode.’ Brown devised a flashback scenario, set in Louis XIV’s time, to explain the creation of vinaigrette dressing. ‘Louis XIV was a lover of salad apparently,’ Gyoury says. ‘We have a scene in a horse-drawn carriage with the king’s vinegar maker and the king’s olive oil supplier sharing a ride on their way to take these ingredients for his salad. The carriage hits a huge bump, and you can imagine what happens.’

Food hopes Good Eats will lead the way into a whole new era of food programming. ‘I would say it’s a very good example of the kind of thing Food Network would be looking for, which is a fresh look at what could be a traditional subject,’ Opatut notes.

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