Gordon Ramsay has a new TV series, the appropriately self-referential Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, and it's clearly aiming to fill the food-travelogue void left behind by the late Anthony Bourdain, the chef-raconteur whose signature moves no one can copy " not even Ramsay, a man with more energy than 100 suns.
Announced a year ago, less than two months after Bourdain died, Uncharted was met with fierce, white-fanged criticism when the show's news release touted that Ramsay would be "discovering the undiscovered" and cooking against local chefs in some "friendly competition".
A month after the announcement, Ramsay suggested that all of us wait to judge him after viewing Uncharted.
Three episodes into the debut season of the National Geographic series and I'm ready to issue some opinions: Uncharted presents a cuddlier, self-deprecating version of Ramsay, a Michelin-starred chef who willingly turns the tables on himself so that he's the neophyte suffering for the sake of something to eat.
Serving up fewer f-bombs (all bleeped) and not a single moment in which Ramsay looks like he might spontaneously self-combust into rage dust, Uncharted won't easily lend itself to YouTube collections of the chef's greatest outbursts.
Yet Ramsay's DNA suffuses every frame. Produced by Studio Ramsay, the chef's international production company, the series isn't content with vignettes or mere glimpses into a country's culture.
He uses his bare hands to fish for big, freshwater eel, a speciality of Maori cuisine in New Zealand. He rappels down a sheer rock face, with a waterfall showering him from above, to hunt for Berber mountain mushrooms.
He hikes across the Andean highlands and fords streams to track down Peruvian herbs. He shows off his athleticism " and his age, 52 " as he huffs and puffs and curses his way through jungles, mountains and lakes to source ingredients.
While instructive (and amusing to watch Ramsay make a pinched face and spit out huhu grubs), these Iron Man explorations only underscore the artificiality of this brand of reality television. Ramsay's pursuits focus almost exclusively on the rural, the indigenous and the pre-industrial, at the expense of a country's more sophisticated takes on cuisine.
Conscious or not, Ramsay's decision to deal with old cooking cultures, each essentially untouched by the modern world, carries a whiff of Western superiority. It's not the best look for a middle-aged white dude in the 21st century.
At the same time, there's also something strangely vulnerable about Uncharted. Vulnerability is about the last word I'd ever associate with Ramsay " a guy who has made a living off his invincibility " but you can see it in his eyes as he cooks for Berbers in Morocco or those with Maori blood in their veins.
Yes, he sometimes behaves as if he's competing with Virgilio MartInez, the Peruvian mastermind behind Central, No. 6 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants, or Maori chef Monique Fiso, hoping to better their dishes, but it feels like an old adrenaline rush that's lost its power. Mostly, Ramsay acts as if he's seeking everyone's approval.
In those moments, you feel this wave of sympathy and affection for Ramsay, as if he were allowing us a glimpse into the inner life of a poor, working-class kid who perpetually sought the approval of his alcoholic father. Why do I suspect that Ramsay despises the idea of being an object of sympathy?
If you read his memoir, you learn that Ramsay survived his childhood by keeping his head down and working hard. Working hard and putting up with the kinds of kitchen abuse that only a certain kid can.
With Uncharted, he's still working hard, perhaps unnecessarily so. I mean, no one needs to scale a mountain to appreciate the beauty and importance of the Sacred Valley in Peru, even if it makes for good television.
By keeping his head down, Ramsay has developed a singular focus, which has made him a brilliant chef and a keen observer of those who would betray the cause of gastronomy. Yet this trait doesn't make him a great tour guide (a role that he previously attempted with the UK series Gordon Ramsay's Great Escape).
Each of his Uncharted episodes is devoted almost wholly to food " and to Ramsay's obsessive pursuit of it. What made Bourdain an exceptional host was his boundless curiosity, which led him to places far from the kitchen, and his humility, which graciously turned the spotlight on others.
Uncharted, it seems to me, is the beginning of Ramsay's professional shift. The show exhibits signs of a chef moving away from the thrill of competition and the dinner-rush high of the kitchen, the stuff that has fuelled his drive for so long. Ramsay may even be trying to shed a little of the body armour that he has worn like a soldier.
If my instincts are right, Uncharted could make for compelling TV in the not-too-distant future, all without a single scream from the chef known for them.
The Washington Post
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