Once Anthony Bourdain left The Food Network in a trail of acrimonious dust, he started a second television career on The Travel Channel. The show (”No Reservations”) was better (because, among other things, they allowed Anthony to be his acerbic, outrageous self) but he was gone from my life because the Travel Channel was not available from our cable company. We ordered episodes from Netflix, took them out of the library, and once, in a media coup that rivalled the day when my brother and I tuned in what we believed to be “porn”on the TV in the living room by fiddling rabbit ears and vertical hold, we found one episode of “No Reservations” on “On Demand,” and watched it with the fervor and intensity appropriate for a bootleg copy of Tommy and Pamela.
Then, one day, the Travel Channel appeared as I was flipping up towards the Premiums, bearing the portentous channel assignment “123.” (It’s portentous because I can remember it). We fell, that evening, under the spell of a young man named Adam Richman, and a show called “Man v. Food.” We fell hard. It is fabulous beyond all reckoning that we can now see “No Reservations” before the episodes are two years old, and there are a couple of other shows on the channel that we’ve enjoyed, but Richman is a revelation of how a network can combine really smart and really commercially appealing and create something that appeals to a large and diverse audience.
The premise of the show is that Richman travels to different cities (all of them in the United States. so far) on a mission to eat competitively at one of the city’s restaurants. The 7 1/2 pound hamburger eating competition, the hottest curry competition, the 15-dozen raw oyster challenge…you get the picture. Before these competitions (some of which he wins and some of which he loses) Richman travels the city visiting eating spots that reflect the cuisine and character of each place. He does not go to the five places you have read about every time you have read about the city in question, and there is an “insider” quality to many of his picks that makes the show a perfect fit for a network doing travel programming.
With his teddy bear build, his huge brown eyes (and impossibly long lashes) Richman is adorable, and the best part of the show is that he is clearly really, really smart. He is a lot like your cool but approachable friend from college who always wore Converse high-tops and knew about the best music, but didn’t terrify you by shooting heroine. The restaurant-visiting portion of the show is (in my opinion) the most interesting. It delivers all of the local color, history and kitchen snooping of Guy Fieri on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, ” except that Fieri is incredibly self absorbed and annoying with his shades hanging off the backs of his ears, and his use of the phrases “off the hook” and “money” to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if their use had becoming a hanging offense in circles of people who are actually “hip.” Richman describes food beautifully, he makes himself a neutral observer and commentator rather than part of the performance in the kitchen, and he is sometimes funny in a way that is very difficult to manage if you’re dumb. Just saying.
On the other hand, I am less enthused about the challenges, although for some reason I find those involving the heat of the food (hot curry in New York City and spicy ramen in L.A., for instance) more interesting than those involving huge quantities of something. I like even less the kind of silly vignettes prior to these challenges involving Richman’s imagined preparations (running the steps at Denver’s Mile-High Stadium and meeting imaginary Broncos before eating a 7 pound breakfast burrito, or dancing with a troupe of fire dancers on the beach before eating hot ramen).
I don’t care because that is only a few minutes of a show that I finish watching with the feeling that, if I know the city, it was portrayed lovingly and accurately, and that, if I’ve never been there, I’d like to go. See, the show really has it all: Richman is so damned cute that even with meat juice running down his chin (a situation that might, honestly make us turn away in disgust from our respective immortal beloveds) he is still irresistible. Instead of wanting to say “for God’s sake use your napkin!” you want to dab off the offending substance and root for him to win. If you are me, you tell yourself that he has to do those silly competitions because they generate ratings, but that if you were alone together you would look into his gigantic, molten brown eyes and talk about which kind of barbecue is “real,” and about how many kinds of chile you can add to a dish before it becomes too hot to have any actual flavor. I suspect that, if you are other viewers, you love the competitions and imagine yourself eating the hottest of the hot or the biggest of the big while a crowd cheers you on.
If you get the Travel Channel check it out. Maybe I’m just so blinded by the big, brown eyes that I am not entirely objective. (Although Rob and Sam like the show as much as I do). I think you’ll thank me.
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.