Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay seems to love his theatrics. When he’s not busy bringing the bite into reality shows such as ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and ‘MasterChef’, Ramsay’s thirst for culinary excellence sets him down ‘uncharted’ territories where hunting eels and gunning down goats is all in a day’s work.
His new show, ‘Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted’, takes him down a path that critics say was once trodden by Anthony Bourdain. The published author and celebrity chef, who committed suicide last year, documented his culinary adventures on CNN’s travel show, ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’.
The Ramsay-led expedition on National Geographic follows a similar trajectory, with the 52-year-old’s travels taking him from the peaks of Peru to the jungles of Laos and far south to the lush valleys of New Zealand. However, Ramsay, who referred to Bourdain as ‘a great friend’, was quick to shut down critics.
“I would never, ever attempt to copy anybody in their profession,” Ramsay responded. “Back in 2004 I started my journey from visiting Cambodia, the most amazing Southeastern Asian islands, Vietnam, and then spending three months in India from north to south, and a week in an ashram in Kerala, and understanding how to perfect vegetarian cuisine, and so I was more upset with people criticising ‘Uncharted’ without having seen it.”
The 16-Michelin-star recipient and celebrity chef is no stranger to controversy having come under fire over cultural appropriation at his restaurants, feeding meat to vegetarians and fat shaming a Masterchef contestant by calling them a ‘chunky monkey’ on the reality show.
At the start of this year, a 2010 interview featuring him with TV star Sofia Vergara surfaced on social media and went viral over his inappropriate behaviour on the ‘Tonight Show with Jay Leno’. In the clip, Ramsay is seen making repeated jokes tinged with sexual innuendo and at one point, touches Vergara’s thigh, prompting the actress to exclaim: “No touching!”
Yet, despite his bad-boy image in the culinary and hospitality industry, Ramsay continues to be one of the most sought after chefs in the world with a business empire that includes several restaurants in Dubai as well, including the recently opened Hell’s Kitchen at Caesars Palace, Bluewaters.
As his new show continues to draw polarised views — with Ramsay shooting a goat in New Zealand giving indigestion to many on social media — the celebrity chef explained in a global press conference why ‘Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted’ is worth a view.
Recently, you said you have learnt much more about food and yourself while filming this show. In what way?
For me, ‘Uncharted’ was diving into those unknown secrets, away from the touristy parts and embedding myself in that community. I’ve spent the last two decades with the most amazing ingredients arriving on my doorstep, so to turn that in reverse and to go to the source is incredible.
I’ve tasted ingredients across this show that I’ve never tasted before. The high altitude fruit farm, a tiny farm in the mountains of Peru, the intense flavour was extraordinary. We’ll never get to buy that ingredient in London. It was so nice to see new ingredients tasting incredibly different to what we’re used to from a chef’s point of view.
The format of this show was mainly popularised by Anthony Bourdain, among other chef travellers in the past few years. How differently have you done with ‘Gordon Ramsey: Uncharted’?
I think we came under a little bit of flak when we announced ‘Uncharted’ a year ago. First of all, Tony was a great friend of mine and we shared many a time across the table with a glass of wine and such a tragic loss.
Now that the programme’s out and clearly been successful and rated very well, I’m at peace now, because it’s good for them [critics] to see there’s no comparison. It’s completely different and it’s me doing what I do best, an adventure with food, understanding cultures, and from becoming an amazing prolific chef, to becoming a teacher, to becoming a pupil, stripped of everything I know, and putting myself into that area of their expertise.
This series aims to go back to basics during a time when the Instagram culture largely influences what people put in their mouths. What’s your take on all this?
Yes, it’s a double-edged sword because of the intrusion of social media. There [are] certain chefs that go up in arms when people take pictures. I’m the opposite. I quite enjoy them taking a picture because it’s a memory that they have on their phone for the rest of their life, providing it doesn’t become too much of an intrusion with flashlights going off every two seconds.
The other issue we have is that they are paying for it, so they can do what they want with that food. The other issue is I use Instagram a lot, especially with my chefs. If I’m in the middle of Barcelona, and I’ve just come across the most amazing tapas bar and I want to send them a picture. We don’t copy, but for inspiration purpose I use that level of technology.
Is this something you address in ‘Uncharted’ as well?
With ‘Uncharted’, I was keen to make sure I take my young chefs from all the kitchens in London with me on this journey; and every country I visited, I took the blinkers off of these young chefs and dropped them into the obscurity in order to broaden their horizons and become less dependent on social media, and a little bit more closer to the DNA.
The Maori, for instance, cooking in a hangi, getting beautiful kelp bags diving in New Zealand and steaming cod inside these bags. Then, these incredible pastes that we were using in Lau, the fish paste, and the spices, and the blend was incredible. Then, foraging in the Atlas Mountains in the middle of Morocco.
It’s a double-edged sword, but something I actually quite stand for in a way, to take that intrusion and turn the negative into something positive.
Did you expect this journey to be physically challenging?
I’m a motivated, disciplined person, so I like to get [from] A to B using the most energy as possible. I also like to discover things as opposed to having things mapped out for me. Did I think it was going to be this physical? Not really.
The strength of the Mekong and canoeing down those rivers was insane. Scaling mountains and then climbing mountain faces, especially in Alaska … I’d never climbed in my life. Then rappelling down a waterfall, when they say it’s a sort of descent, 30, 40 meters, I didn’t quite understand how powerful that water was coming on you as you’re rappelling …
When you travelled to these countries, did they know who you were considering the impact of television these days?
Some of these places were so far off the beaten track they had no idea who I was and that was refreshing, not just in a personal way, but professionally, because there were no distractions. I think maybe when they saw me work and the effort I put into it in order to show them that I’m keen to understand what’s going on was pretty insane because it was just refreshing to be a normal person ….
There were several places that we were recognised … it’s always a hard thing, because you don’t court that adulation. I like to keep a cap on and I stay pretty remote.
From your experiences, can you say that food somehow breaks social and cultural boundaries?
Languages are difficult to understand, especially when you’re travelling the way I do. But, there’s one language that we can all speak without understanding each other verbally and it’s through food.
Breaking bread in those communities and understanding them through their food was so much quicker to get to the DNA of what they stood for. It was about that cultural exchange and that insight between two parties respecting their boundaries, but understanding their heritage.
On your trips you have come across something you refused to taste?
From a chef’s point of view, I think it’s rude or it’s not in my wheelhouse to ignore tasting any food on the planet. That’s the discovery from a palate point of view in terms of what you can identify and how you blend those visions on putting ingredients together.
You have no idea how to finish that canvas or a particular dish unless you’ve tasted absolutely everything. So, from golden caviar taken from an albino sturgeon to an intestine of a seal smoked in a house in Hoonah, in Alaska, trust me, I’m as excited to taste it for the first time.
What was a typical meal at your home when you were a child?
I spent very little time in Scotland, but I grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midlands. First of all, I was always told to leave food was rude and we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have a starter, a main course, and dessert. Dessert was a special thing once every two or three weeks.
Mum was a cook and she tried to introduce us to poached tripe in milk with onions; that didn’t go down too well. Then simple stuff, modern Italian fare with a rich Bolognese spaghetti. But the classic thing on the weekends was a roast, and it wasn’t an expensive cut.
Is there a season 2 of ‘Uncharted’ in the works?
Season 2 just got the green light. The Head of National Geographic called me when they saw the first rough cut of Peru, and so that was exciting. We’re now planning countries as far as Tasmania, Indonesia, Jamaica, South Africa, and again, places that are incredibly culturally laced with some of the most exciting cuisines ever.
What is ‘Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted’ about?
In this National Geographic series, Gordon Ramsay travels from Peru, Laos and Morocco to Hawaii, Alaska and New Zealand, diving into oceans, hiking through forests and scaling mountains to some remote corners of the world to uncover and taste local cuisine.
Don’t miss it!
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted Series airs on National Geographic every Monday at 10pm UAE time. The Arabic language version starts airing on August 5 on National Geographic Abu Dhabi.