FIGHTING MAD

"I don’t know karate—but I know ka-razy” –James Brown

For the past eight years, I’ve been making a television show called NO RESERVATIONS. I wrote it. I executive produced it. And I appeared in it. My partners and I always tried hard to make it good. 

During that time, I understood the way the world works. Television programs are paid for by television networks—who make their money selling advertising. And it would be ridiculous to hope or expect that I could ever have control over who buys commercial time in the breaks between segments. But my name and image are my own. My name, arguably, might not mean that much—and my face may not be pretty, but they’re mine.

In the brave new world we live in these days, fewer and fewer people watch their favorite television programs in their scheduled time periods. They DVR them, they record them, they download them on-line. People tend, under such circumstances, to skip—or speed through—commercials. For this reason, there’s pressure from networks to “integrate” products into the body of the actual shows whenever possible: to slip images of brands right into the action, or to transitions into commercials in such a way as to make the viewer think that it’s still the show they’re watching. 

I’m aware of these pressures and have been, as a result, very very careful about resisting them. A while back, I agreed to use a credit card on a limited number of episodes of my show. The network made money off the deal. It helped assure me and my production company  the budget we wanted. And I got paid. My fans were not pleased, however. Not at all. The backlash was considerable and angry. People felt betrayed. As a result, I became even more careful and even more reluctant to do them.

Fortunately, I had made sure, in my agreement with Travel Channel, to include very specific language about this kind of thing. We had both agreed to terms where my name or image was never to be used to either endorse, or imply use of a product without my specific agreement. It was clearly expressed in writing, clearly understood and agreed to that I would not use or mention any products  in my show and my name and image would not be used in connection with any products in return for anything of value or any other consideration without my specific agreement.

My inclination, I should point out has always been to do NO product integration of ANY kind. I do not have a merchandise line. I don’t sell knives or apparel. Though I have been approached to endorse various products from liquor to airlines to automobiles to pharmaceuticals dozens of times, I have managed to resist the temptation. Though not quite a virgin, I have tried to remain fairly pure. To the extent I am known, I think I am known as a person who expresses his opinion freely about things—and I was sensitive to the possibility that if I was seen taking money for saying nice things about a product, my comments and choices and opinions would become, understandably, suspect. Did I really like this particular beer I was seen drinking on the show? Or had I simply been paid to say so?

As described above, I took money from a credit card company once. Never to be repeated. And I drove a BMW once—for which I got the car that I drive today. That’s it. Any other brand—of beer, cars, whatever—that you saw me use on the show—I used because that was what I liked and thought appropriate or fun for the circumstances or setting at hand—or simply because they were what was available.

I like to think I’m a man of my word. If I tell you I’m going to meet you tomorrow at a movie theater to see a film at twelve o’ clock, I will be there. And I’ll be there early. I will expect the same of you. If I make an agreement—especially about something as personal as the use of my name and image, I expect that agreement will be honored. So it came as a shock and a disappointment to turn on the TV for the last two episodes of my show, and see that someone had taken footage that me and my creative team  had shot for my show, cut it up and edited it together with scenes of a new Cadillac driving through the forest. Scenes of me, my face, and with my voice, were edited in such a way as to suggest that I might be driving that Cadillac. That, at least, I was very likely IN that Cadillac—and that if nothing else, I sure as shit was endorsing Cadillac as the vehicle of choice for my show. All this following seamlessly from the actual show so you were halfway through the damn thing before you even realized it was a commercial.  

The network made a commercial, with me endorsing a product, and hadn’t even bothered to ask me. After the first airing of the commercial, I let the network know of my extreme displeasure. Fair warning one would think. They ran it again anyway.

I have no problem with Cadillac, by the way. A couple of people have come up to me after reading my enraged twitter rants on this subject and asked me what my problem is with them. No problem. With them.

I have had a long and mostly very happy relationship with Travel Channel over the last eight years. For almost all of that time, they were incredibly supportive of what me and my partners were doing—and of me personally. A number of different owners, a number of different administrations came and went. But in the last year or so things started to take a definite turn for the worse. There was the news that, unbeknownst to me, the network had decided  to add THREE “special episodes “ comprised entirely of clips from previous shows to the final bunch of only seven. Had we not agreed to edit them ourselves, they were well on their way to doing the shows without our participation. Best I can tell, they are, unfortunately, well within their contractual rights to butcher our painstakingly shot and edited footage as they choose. It’s something of a creative signature of the new guard at Travel, best I can tell—to cynically and cheaply “repurpose” existing material to create additional “content”. In such circumstances, as some of my on air colleagues agree, no one wins. Presenters look exploitative and lazy.  Fans feel used and misled. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about that.

But I CAN do something when my name and image (such as they are) are used to sell a product without my consent and in violation of prior specific and well crafted legal agreements. And I intend to.

It’s an inglorious way to go out—after 8 seasons of television programs of which I—and all the people who worked on them—are very proud. I miss the happy times at Travel, the first Big Cheese there, a Mr. Pat Younge, in particular, who really took a lot of chances on us. Who believed in us, understood us, appreciated the work we did and how much it meant to us. Who understood that keeping faith with our fans in the long run meant something more than short term profit.

I apologize to the guys on the production line at Cadillac, for finding the thing YOU make, and I have no doubt, are very proud of, in the middle of a rancorous disagreement.  

I was—and remain—angry.

While this would seem to be a problem most people wouldn’t mind having; I can only ask how you’d feel if somebody was out there using your name for purposes of their own—without your knowledge. If they presented you as someone you are not, as holding opinions you don’t hold, and making money off those misrepresentations—however embarrassing to you.

All of us on the show would have preferred to go out on a high note—and we tried to do that as best we could, turning in a strong, final season that we are very proud of. We wanted to go leaving a lot of great shows—and nothing but good memories and good will behind.

But things just didn’t turn out that way.

BLUTARSKI: ZERO POINT ZERO

As our final episode of NO RESERVATIONS approaches, I’ve been asked to write a top ten list of personal favorites. That’s hard to do. It’s been a mixed bag—and deliberately so. Travel and food shows necessarily tell more or less the same story:  somebody goes someplace, eats and drinks a lot of stuff, comes to some kind of conclusion (rightly or wrongly) then goes home. My partners and I—a rotating band of cinematographers, producers, editors and post production people—have worked very hard over the years to mess with, expand, undermine and subvert that basic narrative and the conventions that go with it. Sometimes we succeeded.

In a 140 episodes of NO RESERVATIONS, there have certainly been shows that I regard as failures. Some, like PUERTO RICO, were entirely our fault—where through bad choices, inadequate preparation, sheer lack of understanding of our subject, we ended up giving short shrift to a place that deserved better. GREECE was a disappointment. CHARLESTON overlooked the amazing Sean Brock, probably the most important (then still emerging) phenomenon in the South—who was, unforgivably, literally right under our noises during the whole shoot. The weak SOUTH PACIFIC and MARQUESAS show was the result of pure bad luck. One scene after another went by without anything useful or compelling recorded. One day after another passed with each intended scene turning out to be something other than what we’d hoped. Two full days where nothing worked. That we were able to cobble together shows at all in cases like these was always a triumph of great camera work and great editing (technique) over content. Sometimes it was a close run thing.

Responsibility for some failures rested entirely on me. They sucked because I sucked. BERLIN should have been a good show: great producer, great shooters, great fixers, great city. But for no good reason at all, I just wasn’t “into it”. And the show reflected my unhappiness and my unwillingness at the time  to even try. The disastrous AT THE TABLE—a lunatic attempt at a one-off talk show format—was an absolute shitshow. I’m obviously no good at a talk show format—and clearly shouldn’t have tried. Bad idea. Wrong host. Bad show. When you let down a lot of talented people who work their asses off to make you look good—there’s a price. In my case it was appropriately universal revulsion.

Some disastrous shoots, through the sheer weight of misadventure turned out, like SICILY, to be good shows. Though not in the way we intended. The scenes that were supposed to be “great” ended badly—but the ones for which we had low expectations (the caper farmers in Pantelleria) became magically real, spontaneous and fun. ICELAND was certainly improved rather than hurt by running into a blinding blizzard—and a general overlay of depression and darkness. A near life-ending rollover on an ATV in NEW ZEALAND, however uncomfortable for me, became instant comedy gold.

Maybe the best single example of this was the ROMANIA show, where absolutely everything was fucked up beyond all hope or recognition: wrong fixer (the inexplicably addled Zamir), unfriendly populace, officials looking for backhanders, and guides with other agendas who did their best (in the hope of portraying their country in a desirable light) to ensure that absolutely every genuine moment was quickly smothered under a thick scrim of artificiality, falsehood and staginess. It was a nightmare to shoot. An utter failure on all our parts—and yet it became a timeless classic of Travel Gone Wrong—unintentionally hilarious. It may have made all of us Public Enemies in Romania (and the subject of scandal and speculation in their national press)—and it may have been terribly unfair to the country and to the many Romanian expats who tuned in, looking to see something beautiful of their beloved homeland…

But it was an accurately gonzo—if unflattering— account of what it’s like to make an utter failure of a show, a masterpiece of incompetence on our part—and misguided good (and bad) intentions on the part of some of our hosts.  It was at the same time our greatest failure as professional travel and food television producers—and our greatest success as technicians—and absurdists. We might never be able to repay the good people of Romania for our offenses against their national pride; but no small number of them recognized at least the worst of their country. I can assure you, by the way, that what we DIDN’T and could NEVER have included in the show would have been even more painfully hilarious. To this day, in the hours after a shooting day, veteran crew members sit in hotel lobbies around the world, and tell the young ones about what really happened there. 

But, of course, there were bright spots too. Shows of which I will always be proud. Favorites, both personal and professional where everything (or most things) came  together.  

HONG KONG, particularly the scene where a third generation noodle maker practices his craft, rocking painfully and disfiguringly on his bamboo pole under the faded photos of his parents encompassed everything I believe to be good and true about people who choose to make food the very best they can. It was a beautifully shot and edited sequence— one of our very best. If our show is principally in the business of celebrating cooks—wherever they may cook—and in whatever circumstances—then this was as good an example of our work as we could ask for.

VENICE was where we were really hitting a golden period for cinematography I think. Using film lenses and adhering to a stylebook shamelessly lifted from works like DON’T LOOK NOW and COMFORT OF STRANGERS, we’d do things like wake up very early in the morning to shoot in Piazza San Marco—intending to make the usually crowded Venice look empty and haunted. It’s an example of a show that came out just as we’d planned, looked and sounded like we wanted it to, and it also had the advantage of being filled with great characters and food. A lot of attention was paid to color balances (in scenes like the painter’s studio) and to the music and it paid off big time. 

I’m happy with all our VIETNAM shows—probably because I’m always so ludicrously happy to be there. I could just watch the B-roll from those shows all day. Everybody who works on the show seems to feel the same way. It’s a good place to work, a good place to eat. A good place to be. 

MONTANA. Which opens with the great American author and poet, Jim Harrison reading from his work would have been a proud achievement for that alone: Jim Harrison is in it. That’s enough. But it’s also where I started to look at those parts of America so different than my own—cowboy country, gun country, red-state, Palin bumper sticker America , with a genuine  affection I’d previously only felt for Vietnamese and South Americans and Europeans. Like the Asian rice farmers and ex-guerillas I tend to over-romanticize, the cattle ranchers and hunters I met there, though as far from me on the political spectrum as could be, were caring, generous and proud too. I started to feel—and hope I captured—the beauty of their lives and what a lot of us who live in the bubble of big city, East Coast America are missing—not just about these places, but the people who live there.

SARDINIA was a risky show, because it was so personal, and I had a whole new Italian/Sardinian family looking over my shoulder—and more perilously—I had chosen to include my wife. I anticipated some angry blowback from fans. But my wife’s father’s family in the mountain towns of that incredibly beautiful island were the best “fixers” any one could have hoped for. The cinematography was incredible. And the editors, in spite of the fact that I was sitting in their laps for much of the cut and making their lives miserable, responded with a beautiful and heartfelt love letter to what is for most people an unfamiliar culture. Warm and fuzzy and family friendly was NOT what fans of the show had been led to expect of me. But I was grateful for the opportunity to be a Dad on camera. It paid off in a good story and good show—and as an honest reflection of the facts.

ROME Is probably my favorite show of all of them. My proudest achievement. Why? Because it was so suicidally stupid. Because no one wanted it. Because everybody thought it was a bad idea to do a show in Rome—that most beautiful and colorful of cities—in black and white.

As a purely creative enterprise, we did it anyway, shamelessly and very painstakingly doing the exact opposite of what we had established we were good at: Instead of run and gun hand held cameras and fast editing, we shot stationary, with film lenses. Instead of no lighting and barely acceptable sound, we lit as if in a studio, made frequent use of subtitles. Instead of wearing whatever clothes were clean that day, I, for the first and only time,  actually bought wardrobe. Shamelessly aping films like LA DOLCE VITA and L’AVENTURRA—which we were pretty sure few of our audience had ever seen, we tried to paint a nostalgic, romantic, heavily stylized ode to another side of Rome. It was the most self indulgent, deliberately reckless venture to date and it looks gorgeous. We fully expected to be pilloried for it. But we didn’t care. In the end, it was shocking to us that so many people ended up appreciating it. As a hand crafted labor of love, I think it stands alone, a testament to all the incredibly talented people who worked on it. It all started in a hotel lobby, with cameraman Zach Zamboni suggesting that he and his colleagues were “so damn good we can make food porn in black and white”.  The question that always hung over the planning of every episode being, “What’s the most fucked up thing we can do?” 

EL BULLI. It was the most important restaurant in the world—in its last days. And the greatest culinary artist of this or last century, Ferran Adria, had agreed to open his life and his kitchen to us. So it was important to get it right. We threw everything we had at it. Every camera, every technical innovation—every creative idea we could come up with. We got the right guy—the best guy— Jose Andres—to come along and show us, through personal reminisces, what it all meant—and why it was important. We tried to show where the brothers Adria came from, give a sense of the relentless wind on the coast of Catalonia—and what effect that might have on a person, day after day, night after night in a (then) mostly empty restaurant in the middle of nowhere. And we captured a precise moment in history that will never happen again.  Everybody who worked on the show felt enormous responsibility to our subjects—and brought their very best game. EL BULLI is gone. But the show we made depicts a Ferran, a menu, a never-to-happen-again establishment—as they were.

The pig slaughter and boucherie in the CAJUN COUNTRY show is a personal favorite. It starts with a prayer. And it’s a scene I’m most grateful to the network for—for leaving it alone. Pretty disturbing stuff to see a pig shot close-up to the brain. It’s ugly, and painful. But that’s what happens when you take a life for your dinner.  And somebody, somewhere does—every time you order a pork chop. The beauty AND the ugliness of a meat we all love and take for granted was nicely delineated, I think—a savage slaughter, a lot of blood—and a community coming together, cooperating in an enterprise that was both joyful and a sacrament of sorts. It showed where dinner comes from—and what it requires—and also, what it can be. We always work extra hard whenever we shoot in New Orleans or Louisiana—to do right by them—as they have been egregiously failed by so many others. That’s always foremost in our minds when we visit. Also, we love the place ferociously. 

CLEVELAND: Harvey Pekar. Harvey Pekar. We wanted to celebrate and step inside the life of Cleveland’s greatest chronicler in the style of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. It took a lot of work and pre-production to do that. But I’m very proud of the result. Not least because I believe so fervently that the late, great Pekar was a uniquely American, wonderful and important man whose life deserves celebrating and remembering. Ruhlman, Michael Symon, Marky Ramone and the entire extended Pekar family made it a very special hour,  and in many ways, shows what we did best—cover ground nobody else does with genuine affection and respect for subject. We worked very closely with Pekar’s longtime artist Gary Dumm to be able to “step inside” frames of a graphic novel—and were lucky enough to arrive in Cleveland in the middle of a snowstorm, a factor that (in spite of what some local boosters may have thought) only highlighted the bittersweet gorgeousness and faded grandiosity of that most beautiful of cities. My love for Cleveland is absolute. I may not love it for the reasons some might like—but I love it just the same. I am honored that Harvey, may he rest in peace, liked the show. 

Our last in a series of HOLIDAY SPECIALS was a high watermark of sorts. It has always been my belief that the pursuit of excellence in television is impossible if one does not regularly seek to cause terror and confusion at one’s network. In this respect, the show was a smashing success—setting a new standard for unasked-for weirdness.

You can imagine how happy some at the network were to hear Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman parodying themselves on a flickering television screen, while the network’s sweetheart, Samantha Brown, playing herself as a crazed, vengeful, alcoholic and homicidal shut-in, pumped a bullet into my leg (spraying blood on a stuffed kitten) between pouring schnapps into a bowl of Frooty Pebbles.  Norah Jones sang about poop, the band Fucked Up sang Jingle Bells—the whole show was ugly, squalid and magnificent. Christopher Walken cooked octopus! We didn’t just bend the rules, we killed them dead—then went to the funeral and shot the mourners. The notorious “Krampus segment”, censored by the network, went on to become a stand alone YouTube sensation. Do check it out. 

The 2006 BEIRUT show obviously holds a special place in the memories of all who were involved. Like the war that broke out around us, it happened unexpectedly. Those of us trapped in that heartbreakingly troubled city never expected there to even be a show—but we kept shooting anyway, and the footage that was artfully put together afterwards told a story we are all very proud of. I learned—in a way I’d never had to learn before—how terrible, terrible things can happen to good people, sweeping up the good and the bad together. That experience changed those of us who were there. And it changed subsequent shows. We never, from that point on, forgot how arbitrary life and death can be, and how harsh life can be for the people we leave behind when we head safely home with our cameras.   My daughter was conceived the day after I was evacuated from Beirut—a fact that has given me a lifelong love for the US Marine Corps—and connected me to that city (and this episode) in a special and very personal way.

It could be argued that for the last 8 or 9 years, Travel Channel has allowed me to make 140 wildly self indulgent home movies that only a few very close friends and directors of photography could be reasonably expected to enjoy. That it’s worked out for all of us remains a mystery for which I’m very grateful and proud. 

I’m also grateful to the staggering line-up of chefs and cooks, the famous and the not at all, who’ve been kind enough to appear on the show over the years: I doubt any show has ever had such a line-up of talent. They all took time they did not have to let us see what it is they do—how—and to the extent that we were capable of explaining it: why. 

See you all at the next rodeo. 

helencho:

Congrats to Tony and our entire ZPZ No Reservations team on FOUR primetime Emmy nominations!!! 
Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming - US Desert Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming- MozambiqueOutstanding Nonfiction SeriesOutstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming - Cuba 

No Reservations gets 4 Emmy noms! Congrats, shooters, editors, prods and ZPZ team! 

helencho:

Congrats to Tony and our entire ZPZ No Reservations team on FOUR primetime Emmy nominations!!! 

Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming - US Desert 
Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming- Mozambique
Outstanding Nonfiction Series
Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming - Cuba 

No Reservations gets 4 Emmy noms! Congrats, shooters, editors, prods and ZPZ team! 

NEXT

Monday’s episode in Penang is, in my opinion, one of the best shot, best edited episodes ever. It helped that we were in what cinematographers call a “shot rich environment”—where it seems that everywhere you point, there are bright colors, characters, beautiful things. The food is generally thought of (even by many proud food nerds in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) to be among the very best in the Straits— and I think you’ll see why. Penang is the kind of place that ruined me for an ordinary life.

I feel inexorably attached to Malaysia for many reasons, but one of them is that I got there early in my career as a traveler, wasn’t really ready for it, and was changed by the place. It seduced and overwhelmed me at the same time. The smells and colors and flavors—the look and sound of the place, the at times impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures—it ****ed me all up.

I tried to capture that in the first scene—a shot of a woman’s fingers, unwrapping nasi lemak from its traditional banana leaf package. That’s a particularly vivid image for me, and it’s yet another testament to the ZPZ crew that they were able to recreate it so perfectly. Scenes like this matter to me. And the ability to imagine a thing—and then see it executed brilliantly, that matters too.

It was never my intention on NO RESERVATIONS to be a reporter, a critic, an advocate. It was also never my intention to provide audiences with “everything” they needed to know about a place—or even a balanced or comprehensive overview. I am a storyteller. I go places, I come back. I tell you how the places made me feel. Through the use of powerful tools like great photography, skillful editing, sound mixing, color correction, music (which is often composed specifically for the purpose) and brilliant producers, I can—in the very best cases—make you feel a little bit like I did at the time. At least I hope so. It’s a manipulative process. It’s also a deeply satisfying one.

As you may or may not have heard, at a point in the not too far away future, the Zero  Point Zero team and I will be moving on to do what we do elsewhere. We recently filmed the last shot of our last episode. That means you’ve got 9 new episodes of NO RESERVATIONS still yet to be edited, or waiting in the pipeline to be aired. We have yet to shoot 10 new episodes of THE LAYOVER, which we’ll do this June and July. After that, I’m planning on taking my first extended break in eight years. A “normal” family vacation—where I plan to putter to excess, dote on my daughter—and do what people are said to do on vacation. Also, I’ll be writing a book.

Rest assured that whatever ZPZ and I do in the future, we will not be dumbing it down, we will not change our basic natures, we will not be morphing into something we are not. We will continue to do what we do. And have a hell of a good time doing it.

RAW

Generally speaking, there are two distinct audiences for this show: people who like to look at images of food and are interested in where it comes from and how it got to the plate—and people who like to travel—or like the idea of travel—and enjoy watching images of faraway places and cultures. Oh—and there’s also a smaller group who apparently enjoy watching me get falling down drunk and stupid. But that’s another matter.

This week’s episode is about food. More specifically, it’s about the creative process that leads up to the food that will eventually be served in some of the world’s finest restaurants.

COOK IT RAW is an amazingly low key gathering of some of the best and most creative chefs in the world. For the last few years, people like Rene Redzepi of Denmark’s NOMA (recently named best restaurant in the world for the second year in a row), Alex Atala of Sao Paulo’s DOM, Albert Adria (El BULLI, TICKETS), Mauro Collagreco, Massimo Bottura, Daniel Patterson, David Chang, Magnus Nilsson and others have been getting together in various remote and fairly off the main grid locations where they challenge each other to forage, improvise, figure out what’s good in each location—then, using non-traditional methods—make the most seriously ****ed up creative single plate their fevered imaginations can muster. The result does not have to be usable in a restaurant setting. It is not supposed to be a fully realized dish. It is definitely not something that any of the chefs have ever served or even tried before. It should be something so wild, so out there, so purely creative and exploratory that the other chefs will suck wind and issue a collective “wooaaahhhh.”

For a few days each year, COOK IT RAW serves as a combination workshop, field trip, summer camp for culinary hotshots. And it’s a lot of fun.

This year, COOK IT RAW was held in Ishikawa prefecture in Japan—and NO RESERVATIONS decided to look at the area—-and at the event largely through the eyes of first time invitee to the gathering—and first time visitor to Japan, Charleston South Carolina’s Sean Brock. Sean is a young chef from coal country who in a remarkably short period of time has become a big name in the culinary firmament. At his restaurant HUSK, he’s been trying to rediscover traditional American heritage foods, source ingredients entirely and exclusively from below the Mason Dixon line—and redefine what “real” Southern cooking is—or could-be.  He’s a very serious guy (except when he’s not) with impeccable taste in bourbon. Watching him discover Japan for the first time was a true joy.

COOK IT RAW is, unlike any food and wine festival I can think of, about the pure spirit of creativity. There are no public events. No free tastings. After days of exploring local culture and food sourcing methods and techniques—and doing a hell of a lot of eating and drinking, the visiting chefs (along with some local ones), gather (by any means necessary) their ingredients—many of them unfamiliar—and cook. The plates or service “platforms” they put their food on, are created by local craftsmen. The chefs have no say in choice of “plate” and have to accommodate some occasionally very freaky designs. The results of their labors are served to a small group of local and visiting journalists.

There are no winners or losers or grading or official evaluating of the meal. Each chef presents their dish, then retires to the kitchen. Presumably, at some point later—probably over many sakes, or while marinating in the onsen, the chefs discuss among themselves what they’ve learned from the experience.

Kooky. Huh?

Anyway, it should be fascinating TV .

I want to thank the organizers of COOK IT RAW, and of course, the chefs. They had not previously had to live with an invading television crew during their adventures. They were—across the board—friendly, inviting, generous with their time, and fun to be around.

I wish I could say the same for one of the “lions” of the food writing community—someone who (until this trip) I had always liked and looked up to. Over the course of a few days, he revealed himself to be the most vicious, abusive, misogynistic, back-biting piece of shit I have ever met in my life. (and after 30 years in the restaurant business, that’s saying something). I’m hardly the nicest or most polite guy in the world. But even I was shocked. When not shouting profanities at the chefs, bursting into noisy and prolonged bouts of flatulence during the traditional tea ceremony, insulting and belligerently interfering with my crew by petulantly flashing his cell phone camera directly into their eyes while they were working (“I’m a journalist! I’m allowed!”), this guy was drinking himself stupid. It was only through their infinite mercy—and perhaps no small amount of pity for this elderly and shambolic creature, that my crew did not punch his face in. They were sorely tempted. Anyone who attended the event will surely recognize which particular steaming dribble of ordure I’m talking about.  

Lesson is?  **** with my crew, you **** with me.

On that cheery note, be sure to tune in Monday

BBQ APOCALYPSE

I’ve referred only half jokingly over the years to the early days of my television career when, after two seasons of making shows around the world for A COOK’S TOUR, I was advised that audiences just didn’t respond to all those foreign locations where people talked funny and sometimes (horror of horrors) even had to be subtitled. My cruel masters sat back in their chairs and with dreamy, wistful looks suggested how wonderful it would be if I could just confine my interests to shows about tailgate parties, pony rides and….barbecue. “Exotic” locations were problematic, they suggested. They didn’t fit in with their ” current business model.” 

Well, after 8 years of NO RESERVATIONS, in which I have been allowed to travel this world unfettered and largely without constraint, I found myself once again thinking, “What’s the most ****ed up thing I can do on the show?” The answer, it seemed, was to embrace the beast. Go right back and do what would have been unthinkable back then (or at any time since): make a show about a subject that every single travel and food show has done a million times, in a place that has been more than adequately covered (as least as relates to slowly smoked meats). Go right to the heart of core Americana—that uniquely All-American genre of cookery called Kansas City Barbecue. And while I was at it, I thought—why not go all the way—attend my very first tailgate party? What could be more unlike me? I’ve been to Saudi Arabia. Tribal Liberia. China. Why couldn’t I embrace this curious and much loved indigenous practice as I had this—just cause it’s American? The plan? To go to Kansas City—and challenge ourselves to making a single subject show—almost entirely about briskets, ribs, pulled pork, sticky sauce—and yet do it in a way that had never been done before. Meaning, I would challenge the fine ZPZ team of talented cinematographers to make Barbecue Porn so extreme, so hardcore, so enticing that we could bring life to even this tired subject.  And what would I say about all this? What would be my point of view?
It came to me over late night vodka shots in a Croatian parking lot: ZAMIR!


Who better to explore those most American of subjects than my always optimistic Russian friend? What better way to look at my first tailgate experience than through the fresh,  un-jaded eyes of my veteran sidekick for whom America is still a Wonderland of the unfamiliar, strange and fabulous?  Lured by possibly misleading promises that he would be trained and groomed to replace me as a television travel host, Zamir was flown to Kansas City where he would be (he was assured) instructed in the dark arts of hosting a food show.  On Monday night, you will see the results.

And we would need music. Good music. More importantly, we would need cheap good  music. Fortunately, I had recently become aware that the Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of THE BLACK KEYS were very fond of a good meal and were, after many years on the road, susceptible to offers of free food. In return for a lunch of chicken wings and ribs, they quickly agreed to drive their van from their hometown of Akron Ohio, to Kansas City and join me for an afternoon of bourbon and barbecue.
 
The tailgate party, by the way, turned out to be something of a mystical experience. The Kansas City Chiefs had not been having a good season when we arrived. Even the most enthusiastic KC fans that day, huddled in the cold parking lot outside the stadium, did not give them much chance against the phenomenally streaking Green Bay Packers. But they hadn’t accounted for the Magical Powers of Zamir. He arrived fully decked in Chiefs colors, waving his giant foam hand and screaming “Let’s Pack the Packers” (while consuming Godawful quantities of Jello shots and bourbon). His unbridled, child-like enthusiasm proved contagious, urging the team on to an unexpected upset. Local talk radio the next day suggested that my Russian friend might have in some way, actually been responsible for this victory. Had he given the Packers the “Evil Eye”? Was he some kind of Eastern European Good Luck Charm? Did he have…”Powers?”  The next day, local sports radio spoke in hushed and respectful tones of the bearded Russian who had appeared—supernaturally—in the parking lot prior to the game, spoken in what were described as “tongues” (or possibly gibberish), invoking through some ancient Dark Art, a force that swept across the gridiron that day, and crushed the sons of Lombardi under the Chief’s mighty hooves. 

There is a lot more to see—and to eat— in Kansas City than barbecue.  But that’s not what we were there for. We had other business: To go where many had gone before. Only do it better. And weirder. 

I think, I hope, we succeeded.

Hard 8


Eight seasons of NO RESERVATIONS.  Who would have guessed?  I sure as Hell wouldn’t have. How long could we get away with it? Not very long was the prevailing wisdom. And yet here we are.  Nearly 700,000 air miles later, about two thirds of the way through shooting—and it’s looking pretty good. Mozambique—airing tonight—looks SO good, in fact, that our Emmy Award winning cinematographer Zach Zamboni says it’s the finest work he’s ever done.  (Personally, I think the upcoming Penang episode is a close contender).

In following weeks, we attempt to take the much photographed world of Kansas City Barbecue waaay past 11 on the food porn dial, investigate the Croatian Coast,  visit Lisbon, Baja, Penang, Burgundy, Austin,  Finland—and take you deep inside the mysterious cult of the annual gathering of Cook It Raw (this year in Japan), where some of the world’s best chefs challenge each other to seek, forage—and then cook far, far out of the box. Soon to be shot are shows in Emilia Romagna, the Dominican Republic, Rio and Israel.

“Where have you not been that you’d like to—but haven’t been able to?” is a question I’m asked frequently these days. And the answer is Libya, the Congo, Iran, Myanmar. Difficult places all. Myanmar has been loosening up a lot lately so I’m hopeful that’s in our future. We’ve been trying to do a Libya show since the beginnings of the uprising there—but security concerns seem to foil us at the last minute every time we get close. It’s a major frustration. The Congo is another place I’d love to do a show. Its history has been a long personal obsession. Year after year, any hopes of shooting there have also been foiled. The people—and the food— of Iran have come highly recommended, year after year, by travelers who have been there. It’s actually a very young country demographically. But their government is way too loathsome and unpredictable at this point to reliably plan a shoot there—and there’s talk, of course of imminent airstrikes on their nuclear facilities. So, probably not this season. 

“Is it still fun?” is another question I’m asked often.

Answer: “Hell, yeah.” 

Our ride. I shall name you, “Big Bopper”

Our ride. I shall name you, “Big Bopper”

Outrageously good pork and cabrito last night at Porteño Sydney

Outrageously good pork and cabrito last night at Porteño Sydney

OVER. AROUND. THROUGH.

Our late model SUV roars down the two lane highway between Nampula and Ilhe Mocambique. Two white guys in front: me (an American) and Fernando (Portuguese) and Carlos, our Mozambican fixer in the back. Fernando’s got the car pushing 80, blowing past mud hut villages with thatched roofs no power, no water, life inside largely unchanged in a hundred years but for the school children in their freshly washed uniforms returning from school in the baking heat. All along the route, families crouch in the sun, or under the shade of baobab trees, sorting cashews. Every few hundred yards, a young man in ragged clothes extends an arm with a plastic pail into the path of our oncoming vehicle, hoping we’ll slow down, stop, buy some nuts. 

We whip right by them. It seems, I am uncomfortably aware, a perfect metaphor for much of Africa.

We are back shooting new episodes of NO RESERVATIONS and immediately noticeable what a difference it is from the experience of making THE LAYOVER. Unlike the relatively languid pace of NoRes, we shot 10 episodes of The Layover in a month and half, a mostly experimental high speed crunch through three continents, my crew running backwards, pulling focus on their new Panavision lenses, verite style. The heat in Singapore and Hong Kong brutal, a week’s worth of meals in two days and unlike NoRes, the bastards were shooting every minute. No escape from the harsh, gaze of their cameras.

A “coffee shop” in Amsterdam. A mind boggling variety of insanely potent blends of hydro laid out before me. (Of course, as a responsible television host and role model for youth, I did NOT participate in anything so bestial as the use of mind altering substances—even in a city where their use is legal. That would be wrong. And no doubt contrary to network policy!) Strangely, and with no prior warning, I found myself….uncomfortable with the crowd in the smoky room. I began to withdraw into myself—one of those weird, mini-moments of paranoia where you think everybody’s looking at you. Only in my case, everybody WAS looking at me. Three cameras hung in the air a few feet from my nose, unblinking, waiting, waiting for me to come out of my shell. I sat stunned and cotton-mouthed, looking in vain for an escape. My host, a jovial, red-eyed weed barista said, “Dude! You okay?”

It’s nearing the end of another epically long, delicious and excessive meal at Montreal’s JOE BEEF. There’s been some wine consumed and we are now deep into the Calvados.  The conversation has drifted (as it tends to in such circumstances) away from matters at hand—like what to do on Layovers and how cool Montreal is and Fred and Dave, my hosts are catching up on chef gossip and the like.  Producer Tom Vitale (twitter handle @tvsuperstarr)  starts to get the concerned puppy look he gets when he’s not getting the on-camera “content” he needs and gently—if somewhat slurringly, interjects, putting to  Dave a TV friendly question, trying to get him back on topic.
“So, Dave…What do you LOVE about Montreal?” he inquires. 
The question lands with a dull thud at the table.  There is a moment of silence as Dave, a rather large—some say imposing— fellow festooned with much ink, smiles warmly and considers. In a low, sweetly benign tone, he says to me—without looking at Tom (but heard in his earpiece). 
“You know…I like him. I love him. I love him so much I’d like to make a skin suit out of him. I wonder what his pelvis will sound like when I break it?”

Tom barely spoke for two days.

San Francisco. Last day of the series shoot. Wrap party at the Fairmont Hotel’s magnificent Tonga Room.  After many (some might say too many) Mai Tai’s, two time  Emmy Award winning  cinematographer Zach Zamboni (twitter handle @zachzamboni) peels off his clothes and hurls himself into the un-chlorinated Tonga Lagoon. Not medically advisable we are informed by our waiter. Stone, the network line producer, on site to observe, follows suit. I have the photos.

SOUTHERN COMFORT

I just got back from family vacation, where, for ten days, I violated all my rules and everything I’ve ever preached about how to travel.  I stayed put. I rarely left the hotel grounds.  I ate in the same two restaurants for most of my trip—rarely deviating from pasta, pizza and gelato. Though there was a lake a few hundred yards walk down, I never put so much as a toe in it—spending the bulk of my days instead, splashing around in the shallow end of the pool with a Barbie pail , an inflatable porpoise, and a relentlessly energetic 4 year old girl. It was marvelous.

I missed—or was at least physically absent from—the monstrously overblown “controversy” about the dietary choices of  “regular people” and the larger question of whether I am  a cruel, horrible, snake-eating, Yankee liberal elitist—or just an occasionally obnoxious guy making a point.  Or a bit of both. Without revisiting a week where I found myself in the rare, worrying– and yet strangely  satisfying position of having both FOX News AND the New York Times drop a deuce on my head, I’ll let this Monday’s episode of NO RESERVATIONS make my argument for me.

The show begins in New Orleans, a city I feel very connected to—and continues deep into the heart of Cajun country and culture. The South—particularly (but not exclusively) Louisiana, is where “American” food comes from.  There are certainly other uniquely regional cuisines and specialties in this country—but creole and Cajun constitute uniquely American-born mutations. They could not have occurred anywhere else.  Like the birth of jazz—they were created  at bizarre yet magical intersections of cultures and circumstances—the end products of long journeys, much pain and simple pleasures.

One of the things I’m always looking at as I travel around the world is “where the cooks come from”.  And if there’s a regular feature, a common thread wherever you go in this world, it’s that the best cooks and often the best chefs come from the poorest or most challenging regions.  And it is without doubt that the greatest , most beloved and iconic dishes in the pantheon of gastronomy—in any of the world’s mother cuisines—French, Italian or Chinese–originated with poor, hard-pressed, hard working farmers and laborers with no time, little money and no refrigeration.

Pot au Feu , Coq au Vin, Sup Tulang, Cassoulet, pasta, polenta, confit, —all of them began with the urgent need to make something good and reasonably sustaining out of very little.  So many of the French classics began with the need to throw a bunch of stuff into a single pot over the coals, leave it simmering unattended all day while the family worked the fields, hopefully to return to something tasty and filling that would get them through the next day.  French cooking, we tend to forget now, was rarely (for the majority of Frenchmen) about the best or the priciest or even the freshest ingredients. It was about taking what little you had or could afford and turning it into something delicious without interfering with the grim necessities of work and survival.  The people I’m talking about here didn’t have money—or time to cook.  And yet along with similarly pressed Italians, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and other hungry innovators around the world, they created many of the enduring great dishes of history.

So the notion that hard working, hard pressed families with little time and slim budgetshave to eat crappy, processed food –or that unspeakably, proudly unhealthy “novelty dishes” that come from nowhere but the fevered imaginations of marketing departments are—or should be—the lot of the working poor is nonsense.

The many Cajuns who were good enough to host us on this Monday’s episode make this case, I think, far better than I ever could.  Notice, when you watch the show, howeverybody cooks.  Men, women—even the kids seem to be helping out.  Many aren’t cooks, per se, but everybody we met , everybody, was really, really good at at least one dish.  Cajuns proudly trace their roots to a particularly harsh and brutal diaspora, followed by a steep learning curve as they adapted to an incredibly difficult new environment.  Their culinary traditions reflect that.

At the traditional “boucherie” I  attended, an  entire community swung into action within seconds of me putting two  bullets into the guest of honor.   And one and all– everyone, from musicians, mechanics, to the town mayor—set about demonstrating the real guiding principles of  gastronomy. Slow cooked, “smothered” and “stuffed” turkey wings, a stew made from the backbone of the pig,  delicious, hot boudin made from the blood or less expensive bits, head cheese, cracklins. None of this was expensive. None of the cooks were professionally trained. But what I ate that day—and on other days—in Lafayette, Breaux Bridge and Eunice was some of the most delicious food I’ve had anywhere.

And what about New Orleans? There’s nothing fancy or expensive about the wonderfully kooky Afro-Chinese hybrid street food, Yakkamein, or red beans and rice—or the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s.  A good muffaletta sandwich, an oyster Po’ Boy—these are not expensive luxuries, they’re birthrights—and no one who’s eaten them can ever say they are any less delicious than anything served in a Michelin starred dining room. Made well, by someone who knows what they’re doing, they are unimprovable by man or God.  They are also, one would assume, quite delicious and quite fattening enough without squeezing them between two Cinnabons.

For ****’s sake, the South pretty much taught us all to cook.  They know what good, affordable  food is—having pretty much written the book on the subject. All I’m saying is that Macaroni and cheese is a good and noble dish.  Deep fried macaroni and cheese is no better and certainly no more affordable.

This is the last episode of NO RESERVATIONS of this season.   We begin shooting a new season  in September, but in the interim period, while we’re out there travelling, I hope you’ll find amusement—and maybe even some useful information– in THE LAYOVER, a ten episode, high speed mini-series we just shot in an alternately thrilling and exhausting bounce  around the world, from New York, Singapore,  Hong Kong, Rome, San Francisco, Miami,  Montreal, Amsterdam, London, and Los Angeles.

And for the NOLA/Cajun episode, I want to thank Lolis Eric Elie, Wendell Pierce,  David Simon and everybody from the HBO series “TREME”, upon whose previous works and extensive research and experience we shamelessly piggybacked.

A continuous dribble of stuff we're thinking about and think you should know about. -Tony