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.