Written by: Tom Hardej, Special to CC2K
Don’t believe what you’ve read about Adam Richman’s preparations for the eating challenges on his show, Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. “There’s a lot of ‘they said he does ’ out there,” he says. “It’s like my medical information. I just don’t share it.” Whatever he does, it seems to be working. Man vs. Food, a show about well, eating a lot, has just started its second season and Richman keeps traveling the country to find the best food and to take on the biggest and best food challenges out there. During a break from traveling he took the time to talk to me about the show and what’s to come (but not how exactly he manages to gulp all that food down!).
TH: So how did the show come about? Did you go to the Travel Channel? Did they come to you?
AR: The Travel Channel had had success with a couple of specials–Food Paradise, which was extremely well-received, and 10 Best Places to Pig Out. They figured there was a certain appeal to these kinds of restaurants and tried to come up with a way they could synthesize it into a cohesive show. They conceived Man vs. Food, I auditioned, and about 6 rounds later, I had the coolest job on the planet.
TH: Take me through a typical episode. How long do you spend in each city? How do you prepare? I was reading that you don’t eat the day before a challenge.
AR: No, no, no. I certainly don’t fast. There’s so much misinformation out there. A guy came up to me at one of the challenges and said, “I heard you don’t eat for 2 days before.” There’s so much “they say he does ” out there. It’s like my medical information. I just don’t share it. It’s personal. I don’t share it. But we spend 3 to 5 days in each city with travel days. We spend 1 day in each non-challenge restaurant, and the third day is for the challenge. Sometimes there’s a prep day or a recoup day or both, which is nice, but not always. Sometimes we have an extra day to shoot b-roll.
TH: I love the press conference at the end of each show. Was that your idea?
AR: Yes, that was my idea, as were the training sequences we do in the episodes.
TH: How much input do you have in putting the show together?
AR: It’s tough. I would love to have more input in that stuff, but so much of the show is prepped while I’m on the road. I give feedback and I give input when I can, but quite honestly, since I’m the only cast member, I’m pulled in so many directions. I work with such a great team. I always say I stand on the shoulders of giants. When I was at Yale [getting his master’s degree at the drama school], they said to always work with people who are better than you are, and that’s what I do. We have trust and mutual respect. I tweak the montages when I can, and sometimes it goes my way, sometimes not. We all just want to put out a great product and there are no egos.
TH: How do you pick the cities you go to in each episode?
AR: It’s a combination of my research and the team on the show. My gosh, for season 2 we had to pick 20 locations, which we narrowed down from nearly 60. It’s definitely helpful to have the support of the team. Clearly the city is the main point of departure for each episode, and we have to have a challenge. And we have to find a challenge that works in the context of the city, and ties in with the city. I really rely on my team. Generally it’s really helpful to have so many chefs for one pot.
TH: I went to college in Boston, so I was glad to see that in that episode you went to the Eagle Deli where I used to eat all the time.
AR: The Eagle! You know what’s funny? Kevin Youkilis [from the Boston Red Sox] was just there because his wife said it was a good place to get a cheeseburger.
TH: Oh, funny. So you didn’t know he was going to be there?
AR: It was a total coincidence. I guarantee you 100 percent.
TH: When you come out to these places, do you find that it’s mostly like a college crowd that comes to watch, or is it all kinds of people?
AR: It’s all kinds of people. We’ve got septuagenarians to little kids. We just shot an episode in Little Rock and we had a woman who was well into her 80s and we had a 6-year-old drawing pictures. It’s amazing to me. It’s quite possibly the biggest compliment that we’re given when we see all these different people come out. What I’m doing is inherently extreme in nature. People either hate us or loves us, but so many people are feeling it. The show has such a broad appeal. Hardcore foodies love it, rah-rah college guys love it, people who like comedy, people who are into travel shows. It’s really warming and comforting and pleasing to see all these people come out for us.
TH: I was reading that you had kept a travel journal of all the different places you had eaten.
AR: I started a food journal when I was in college in Atlanta at Emory. I didn’t know if I would ever be back to Georgia and I wanted to keep track of all the great places I had eaten. I’ve just kept it up ever since. I’ve found that keeping a diary entry of the food I ate and the restaurants has been a great point of departure to recommend places to people, to augment regional memories of a city, if I found a cool recipe I wanted to try or a cool idea, or just a place I wanted to remember. And when I heard about the show, I knew they wanted someone who knew food, and I already had this compendium of resources to draw from. It’s really my culinary anthropology.
TH: Have you gone to places on the show that you had written about in the journal?
AR: Some of them yeah. In Atlanta and in St. Louis. Doing regional theatre, I’ve lived in a lot of cities and eaten at a lot of great places. And you discover through research that people sometimes feel this disingenuous reaction to eating, you know? But for me, I eat so healthily when I’m not taping. And so when I bite into the food at these places around the country, it really is a legitimate food-gasm.
TH: Do you have any favorite places that you’ve been to?
AR: You mean on the show or in my life?
TH: Both, I guess.
AR: First, I just want to make it clear that all of that places we go to on the show are great. I don’t want it to slight any of the places that we’ve gone to on the show. I want to make sure that it’s noted that these places are just some of the many where I’ve had delicious food. But with that said, Brasa in Minneapolis was totally exceptional. I’ve eaten there twice cine we filmed. Al’s Italian Beef in Chicago is unique and delicious and special. DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal Market is exceptionally great. A lot of times at places, the food is okay, but the experience is exceptional. Bowen’s Island in Charleston, South Carolina was a magnificent experience–one of a kind. The Oysters were delicious. It’s a really great place. Juan in a Million [in Austin, Texas] was terrific. Those are a couple that stand out. And in my life, Hot Sauce Williams in Cleveland is particularly delicious. Katsu-ya in Los Angeles, in the valley, is one of my favorites.
TH: What’s been the hardest challenge?
AR: The hardest challenge was in the first season in Los Angeles. I had prepared for a spicy challenge, and I knew it would be ramen, but I didn’t know that it would be a bird bath sized bowl of ramen and spices and oil. The soup burned so badly. That was the hardest unquestionably.
TH: The second season is airing right now. Can you give us any highlights from what’s to come?
AR: What’s so cool for me, as a fan of food TV shows is that I can start doing stuff I wanted to see. I’m in a weird advantageous position. We have close contact with the fans through Facebook and Twitter and so we can give fans more of what they want. We know what people respond to. This season were going to Alaska. We’re going to Hawaii. The locations are really, really cool. The challenges are all really extreme in nature. We have team challenges, we have pair challenges, head-to-head. We have liquid challenges, spice, cold, meat, dairy. I’m tested in every way and there’s further exploration of the theme. All of the non-challenges places are delicious. And what’s really cool, is we do these live chats. I’m doing one tomorrow night. As someone who’s a fanboy himself who can’t believe his good fortune, it’s cool to talk with people. Any chance to reconnect with fans is awesome.
TH: Do you think the show is uniquely American, or would you consider taking it international?
AR: I would love that. The thing is that it would necessitate creating a special. The inherent costs would mean doing more than one episode per country. Food challenges are ubiquitous. There are food challenges in Australia, in Japan, in Germany, in Spain, just off the top of my head. It’s a possibility, but we have no plans right now. The show airs abroad and is popular. It would be cool to taste what other local people are off. They are staunchly proud of their local foods in Australia. It would be great to travel around to the different parts and eat what they grew up with.
TH: The show obviously takes up your time these days, but you have an acting background. Do you have any plans to try to do both?
AR: I miss acting tremendously. I love it. I’ve been doing it for a decade. That’s the nice part about the montages that I get to do a little. But nothing’s going on right now. My commitment to the show is all consuming. In the highly rare event that I get 6 weeks off, I’m not sure I would want to do a stage production. I say that now, of course, in then in 6 months I could be playing Hamlet! [Laughs] I love doing the show right now. I’m a just hungry dude with a serious appetite, a sense of wanderlust, and the best job in America!
Man vs. Food airs on the Travel Channel on Wednesdays at 10pm.