Food Network’s Alton Brown Talks to Giz: Caribbean Adventuring With a Garmin, an iPhone and a Shload of Cameras

Food Network’s Alton Brown Talks to Giz: Caribbean Adventuring With a Garmin, an iPhone and a Shload of Cameras

Tomorrow night at 10PM, Food Network kicks off Alton Brown’s latest TV show, Feasting on Waves, where the Mensa-smart kitchen geek and his crew hop into two 50-foot catamarans and sail around 15 different Caribbean islands in search of quality cuisine, shooting and editing the hi-def episodes right there on the boats. It turns out, despite his disdain for specialised kitchen gadgets, Brown depended on regular high-end tech to make a cooking show on a boat happen.

How do you produce a TV show from a sailboat?

One of the things about the Feasting shows in general is that they have a very small crew, and we are moving with very little space. We are extremely packed and technology dense. We had two 50-foot catamarans–it sounds fun but it wasn’t that fun.

So you shoot and edit as you go?

This year we decided to go completely tapeless: Panasonic P2 cards on 200s. We’re downloading them into our portable Avid edit system. We take as much audio equipment as we take video equipment. The funny thing is, professional audio hasn’t gotten a whole lot smaller. Although hi-def cameras have gotten smaller, lenses have gotten better and battery time has gotten better, audio is still the tricky part of the process for field reporting.

I see you were also using a little Panasonic?

I was lucky enough to be one of the first people in the US to get Panasonic's HDC-HS100 AVCHD camcorder. It's got a nice little Leica lens on it. We take everything through a DaVinci colour correction system. Once we do that, you really can't tell the difference between my little camera and the big cameras--it's all 1080i. We have some scenes that were 100% shot with just my camera.

How did you connect to the internet?

It's kinda funny, the entire time that I was in the islands, I had perfect e-mail with my iPhone. The entire time. I think there was once, during a midnight crossing, the Anegada Passage, where I lost internet for about half an hour. The rest of the time, I was getting e-mail through either EDGE or something else [probably GPRS] .

I did not even take a computer with me on that trip. I decided I just didn't want to see a computer for a while. And at the time, I figured you know, computers, boats, water, scuba diving. I thought about taking the ToughBook along, and then I thought about taking the Asus because that's a great little box. Then I thought, the hell with it. I took a few pads of paper, some pens and my iPhone.

You also carry GPS everywhere, right?

As a motorcyclist, as a hiker and as a pilot, I'm pretty sold on Garmin. In the first Feasting on Asphalt, I had a touchscreen weatherproof version of the StreetPilot for my motorcycle that even worked with gloves on. I just really love how their interfaces work. You don't even need manuals for most of their stuff, the stuff is so intuitive.

In New York, I use Google Maps with my iPhone, because I know where I am--I don't need GPS. If I was going some place where I needed GPS, I'd use my Garmin Colorado [shown in top pic] , which I really really like. It's a really great marine box. It's splashproof, but it comes loaded with all the marine functions, so it's really easy to do marine chart info if you get the right cards for it. You can sail the world with one.

So it was your navi on land and sea?

Everywhere. We basically documented the entire Feasting on Waves journey in the Colorado. Every place we went, we popped a waypoint. It's got so many easy functions for calculating distance it made navigating around the island easier. Even islands that didn't have roads at all, we could get good topographic information.

Do you adhere to the old sailor's adage that you should never have just one form of navigation?

Abso-stinking-lutely. When I fly, I may have full GPS on the plane, but I got a full set of charts too, and I keep the charts out while I'm flying to make sure I know where I am. In this day and age, if I have a major power outage, I just whip out my handheld, the 496, a spectacular handheld aviation GPS. But there could be a catastrophic satellite failure, different things could happen that could make GPS unusable--I guess.

I think your unit would fail before the satellite did.

Something could happen to satellites, you never know. So I always want to know where I am on paper, too.

And on the island, what was your backup?

There were a lot of times where I didn't have a backup. On islands, I sometimes didn't have anything else, because there aren't reliable paper maps for those places. The only time I wasn't using Garmin to navigate was when we were underwater--I don't think they have an underwater unit yet. We did a fair amount of scuba diving, and you're still on your own under water. You still gotta use a compass.

I think you just invented something.

Underwater GPS would be spectacular. I don't know how deep you can go with that technology without having serious problems. Even 50 to 70 feet would be useful. I wonder why they haven't done that yet. I'll ask Garmin when I can get that. For rec diving, having that kind of application would be fantastic.

Note: I asked Garmin why there wasn't a scuba GPS, and I got a quick reply: "The reason for no scuba GPS is simple... the signal is deflected by water."

So how do you keep everything charged up?

That's a problem. Especially on the boats, it was really difficult. We got down there and realised that the power systems on the boats which were all 220V--the power wasn't clean enough for our editing computers. On St. Martin, we had to go buy a Honda generator to run on the back of the boat to give us good steady clean 120V.

The Colorado runs on AAs, so I took a batch of rechargeable AAs. I ran the recharger for that in the cabin where I also charged my iPhone and my little camera batteries. I had to have three chargers. My other camera only runs on regular batteries, not rechargeables.

What kind of camera is it?

It's an old metal Canon EF--about 30 years old. I also carry a 35mm Leica point-and-shoot with a fixed 40mm lens. I was shooting slide film in the Canon and print film in the Leica.

So you're not shooting digital?

Not on this. I wanted Ektochrome--nothing looks like Ektochrome. I'm old school that way. I have a pretty decent Canon digital, and a Leica digital as well, but I didn't want to have to deal with the chargers, and I wanted super robust technology, so I went film. I like film. You can't beat it. I spent most of my career as a cinematographer before I went to culinary school, so I just got a thing about film emulsions. It's still the way I think. I just don't appreciate digital photography as much as I should.

I know, I know--we managed to get through an entire discussion about a food show without talking about the freakin' food. Good thing there are already clips of the show (alas, non-embeddable) up at Food Network's website, so take a look. The awesome photographs of Alton were shot--digitally--by Marion Laney,