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Adam Richman On Hush-Hush New Projects, NoLa Politics, And Why Audiences Need Him

adam richman interview may 2013
Adam Richman is quite verbose. With a knack for storytelling (and impersonations), a childlike curiosity for the ways humans express their individuality, and, let’s face it, a set of cheeks made for TV, it’s no wonder the chatty host has landed two new shows — NBC’s Food Fighters and Adam Richman’s Fandemonium on the Travel Channel — that are both in production at the same time. The guy can talk, and he’s fun to listen to.

Returning to New York City in between “living these two very different lives — [as a] studio game show host in LA and sort of crazy traveler on the weekends,” Richman will host this Friday’s Comfort Classics at the New Taste of the Upper West Side for the third year in a row. He hopped on the phone with us to talk (and talk) about the journey he’s been on ever since Man V. Food and what we can expect on his two upcoming shows (like why one is a “meritocracy”).

Richman spent a generous amount of time sharing every conceivable detail about Food Fighters and Fandemonium, and even weighed in on the Top Chef New Orleans BP money kerfuffle. He talked about finding his place in the world of food TV, saying, “I could rhapsodize about wild west salmon, but there’s nothing I could say that Eric Ripert can’t say better. There’s nothing that I can do about king crab that a marquis chef in Anchorage couldn’t do better. Do you need Adam Richman?”

See how he answers that rhetorical question, and all of our actual questions, in the Q&A right here:

The Braiser: You have two new shows coming up, tell me what your life is like right now.
Adam Richman: It’s a little crazy, but my whole thing is, it’s way better to be busy than the alternative, you know? I don’t think anyone really goes through the hardships of, like, unemployment, food stamps, unpaid apprenticeships, and student loans, and all that stuff; you don’t do it to not be successful.

The other thing is I like hard work. I like the challenge and there’s a kind of inertia and velocity to travel that I think is kind of exhilarating. And if you have wanderlust, which I think I do, living these two very different lives — [as a] studio game show host in LA and sort of crazy traveler on the weekends – it’s a really cool thing to experience.

So you are literally producing both shows at the same time?
Well I’m executive producer and host of the Travel Channel show, I’m just the host for NBC. The thing is I’m also currently working on my second book, so that’s in the editing phase and a digital series is coming out, so I’ve been editing and writing for that, and doing lots of charity stuff in between. So yeah, it’s busy, but again it’s good busy. It’s the type of busy that I know I can look back and go ‘hey, I was super productive in a positive way and I like that!’

Tell me more about the digital series that you mentioned, I hadn’t heard of that.
I’m keeping it kind of mum ’til it’s released. I don’t mean to hold my cards unduly close to the vest, [but] I don’t know what I am and am not allowed to talk about. I don’t know if the entity that’s publishing it wants to do a big roll-out, so I wanna just be respectful of the folks I’m collaborating with.

Is that the case with Food Fighters, because there’s not that much out there about that show?
Well, we just had the upfront so I think maybe [NBC was] just holding their cards a little close to the vest until it was officially released in a network capacity. But it’s awesome, I’ll tell you everything about it. Essentially we have tryouts all over the country. We find the best home cooks in the country, and they bring five of their signature recipes that they consider to be their best, and they go up against five professional chefs of varying skill levels, and the professional chefs attempt to recreate, or do their version of, these home cooks’ recipes. There are five showdowns per episode and for every chef you beat, the home cook has a chance to win some pretty life-changing money, with the grand prize being a hundred grand.

It’s really kind of groovy to me to see someone’s mom, someone’s dad, someone’s grandma, aunt, uncle, getting recognized for having culinary merit for these great dishes that they make at home.

So the format is going to be…
So one home chef with five recipes, goes against five different professional chefs, in ascending levels of expertise. The higher level of difficulty of your opponent, the greater the prize purse, if you will.

Can you share what chefs are signed on to play?
I think that they’re still firming them up. When I left rehearsal this morning, they were having a big pow-wow. Again, I’m just the host on this one. I’ve heard very big names bandied about, but I don’t know who is locked in, and that’s very dependent on NBC and Electus Productions. But if I come across a great chef, and I certainly know a number of them, I’ve given names and numbers and put people in contact.

The names that I’ve heard are marquis names that I think even those not in the food world would recognize, from the sort of pop-culture world.

So they might be chefs who are already on other shows?
Oh, without question or pause. In fact, I can almost guarantee that the fifth round chef, the final battle in every episode, that chef, I would virtually guarantee that most of America would have heard of them.

There’s gonna be different ones for each episode. I don’t want to say so-and-so is doing this show and they’re not just because I’ve heard their name in passing, but the names I’ve heard repeatedly in passing are what I think a lot of people would consider to be marquis culinary talent, if nothing else than from an audience draw perspective.

Is there anything else about that show you’d like to share with our readers, or anything that excites you about it?
For me, it’s they are having these open casting calls all around the country. So home cooks all around the country are gonna get a chance to tryout, compete, hopefully be on the show. That’s what gets me jazzed because so little of this world…allows any kind of open tryout of any kind.

Also as someone who’s learned most of his culinary skill either on the job or at the hands of great home cooks, I’m just really excited, and I think America can get excited, about the fact that these are people that would be instantly recognizable — because they are someone’s mom, someone’s grandma or aunt — [will] get the chance to shine on the national stage and be given equal credence and equal footing with the marquis, trained culinary talent.

Who are some of the home cooks that have influenced you in your life? Is there someone you’d put up to be on the show?
Like any good Jewish boy, I gotta say Mom. But the thing I have to say, where my mom really could flourish on the show, is that the home cooks that I’ve seen… We don’t live in a day and age where the home cook is just like meat loaf, Tuesday taco night, and maybe a salad with raspberries in it or something.

The modern home cook is really someone that is very advanced and very interested. [Someone who] watches shows on Travel Channel, Food Network, Cooking Channel, and Public Television and buys cookbooks and reads The Braiser, and reads Epicurious, and reads Eater. I think we’re dealing with a much more informed home cook, a much more curious home cook. I feel, because of the internet and because [there are so many] recipes that require a greater degree of expertise or skill, because that stuff has been made accessible, I think moms in middle America are throwing down dishes that will surprise and inspire a great many people, because they are so strong and so well-executed, despite the fact that this is someone who’s never worn a toque, nor gone to CIA or FCI.

So Mom’s noodle kugel might not cut it?
Well, the irony is there are some home cooks that are finding success with noodle kugel because, remember, a trained chef may do too much, may get in the way of the recipe, may obscure the simplicity of a great recipe by doing too much. And that’s sort of the beauty of it. I don’t judge. I’m not judging. There’s a secret panel of five, that you don’t see, that judge on the basis of blind taste tests. If the majority votes for our home cook, then the home cook wins and wins money and wins that round. But, you know, it’s a meritocracy if you will.

And that’s the thing that appeals to me as the host, is there’s an inherent strategy. Because the home cook gets to choose the recipe they want to do per round based upon their opponent’s expertise. So if you’re going against a major barbecue chef, you may not want to do your grilled streaks. You may want to do your strawberry cobbler. And to watch a very skilled chef attempt to do a dessert when they don’t really have that skill set, it’s very interesting and it’s yielded some great results in rehearsal.

The noodle kugel can cut it, but I think if anyone’s just expecting kugel and chicken soup and meat loaf, you will be really pleasantly surprised to see moms start throwing down with étouffés and really cool stuff.

Speaking of étouffés, you’re known to be a champion of New Orleans. Have you been keeping up with all this buzz about the city taking money from BP to pay Top Chef to film there, and do you have any thoughts on that?
I have not been privy to that. I’ve been living with my face in a binder and I wish I had actually heard that story before this interview. Honestly because I’d love to speak to it from an informed perspective.

Basically the story is BP set up a fund to pump money into NoLa after the oil spill and one fund in particular is supposed to help encourage tourism. The city is using that fund to pay Magical Elves to film Top Chef there. We wrote about it, Anthony Bourdain got involved in a Twitter debate about it, it’s kind of become a thing.
Here’s my thing, I am a champion of that city. I love it dearly. I’m proud to say I’m friends with many people in the culinary industry there. I myself sailed under the banner of Jim Beam for a while. It’s funny, there’s a great — I’ll call him a chef — there’s a guy named Justin Kennedy that owns and runs one of the two most famous po’ boy establishments in the country. He runs Parkway Bakery and he is New Orleans in his soul, in his demeanor, in his way.

We went to the Superbowl together and he said to me [puts on a convincing Creole drawl], ‘Man, N’awlins is a pink Cadillac. Everyone wanna ride around and everyone wants to take a picture next to it, but nobody cares that it’s got a shot transmission. Nobody cares that it don’t run right.’ It’s a city that’s rife with crime. Not all over, I don’t want to say it’s pervasive, but there is a significant crime element. When I was there for the Superbowl I asked a former cop to take me down to the Lower Ninth Ward. And I went out to the St. Bernard Parish. And I’ve seen the damage that’s still there.

For me, and this is armchair quarterback at it’s finest, admittedly, the people are the lifeblood of that city. The accents, the music, having someone call you ‘baby’ and [say] ‘yeah you right’, it’s everything we’ve come to love about that culture. Far be it from me to know how civic planners promote the city effectively, but I will say, if there’s anyone from Katrina that is still homeless, that is still without health benefits, that is still suffering, and is not receiving funds, then it’s my opinion it would be a travesty for any funds to go anywhere other than helping [the] populace.

This fund was from BP sort of as a ‘we’re sorry about the oil spill’…
Yeah, the Deepwater explosion. But it’s a funny thing that people don’t realize that it wasn’t just New Orleans. I spoke to fishermen in Mobile, Alabama and people lost confidence in Gulf Coast seafood the more dispersants were put in the water. Whereas you can normally cull all that oil, when you disperse it, it gets assimilated into the seafood at a much more molecular level and much more pervasive poisoning.

Anyway, the source of the money, this is obviously a super duper hot topic. If those that were immediately effected by that tragedy, if they themselves, and remember what New Orleans had been through, they were just wobbling coming off of Katrina and then got hit with this massive oil disaster. If you’re not paying reparations to the victims first, I don’t personally understand what that money is for in the first place. I don’t grasp the correlation between recovery money and promoting tourism. I can see, yes, you promote tourism, you bring in money, and then you can help the victims.

I also don’t work in the city, I don’t work at Top Chef, there’s plenty of culinary merit there. Major, major stars like John Besh and my friend Brian Landry who cut his teeth working for John Besh at August and now he’s got restaurant Borgne you know you have prodigious talents that are much more home-spun like Jerry Amato over at Mother’s and Justin at Parkway, the Domilise family at Domilise’s Po-Boy in town. But here any money coming into New Orleans, especially from an entity that damaged the city as egregiously as BP, for that money not to go directly to those who are effected by that damage, that saddens me. I don’t want to make it about vitriol. Anger’s not gonna help; help helps.

Are you of the camp that maybe New Orleans doesn’t need Top Chef?
No, I don’t want to align myself with any camp. My stance is this: if money’s coming from BP, it should go to the victims affected by that disaster and by Katrina. If it’s aid money, then it should go to those in need. That’s where it should go. I don’t know what Top Chef costs. No one has campaigned for Man V. Food to come there, we just went to cities. And I’m not saying we were the paragon of awesome, I’m just saying I don’t really know this whole notion of campaigning for a show to come to your city.

That’s kind of a good transition into talking more about Fandemonium. I was wondering if the idea for that show comes directly from your previous experiences traveling around and tasting things on TV, or if you have a sports fan at heart that birthed the idea.
That’s a really great question actually. So here it is in a nutshell. I was working at Madison Square Garden Television when I got Man V. Food. And while I’ve always been interested in fan culture, I had never been as immersed in it as when I worked at MSG. Because I could walk the lot one night and [there would] be like every Latin music fan in all the five boroughs going to see Juanes. The next night it would be moms and their kids going to hear their buggaboos or whatever, the Australian guys. The buggaloos or something? I don’t know. Anyway there was some big Australian entity and they were the big kids band of the time. Then there’d be Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, then there’d be a Ranger game. And you’d see the one common factor was passion, and ingenuity, and a desire to pursue that passion regardless of what you’re passionate for.

So fan culture was something I always wanted to do. Flash forward to the conception of Fandemonium. So I wanted to do a show that — hopefully, God willing, I’ll still be able to do — focusing on what fans eat at different events. Whether it’s concession-based or tailgating; what are people eating at Japanese baseball games, at New Zealand all-black rugby games, at a Sumo matches, at Wimbledon, as much as what are they eating at Ren. fairs? Travel Channel wanted to do a show solely about tailgating. That, personally, didn’t interest me, to be quite honest.

You’ve already eaten a shitload of wings and hamburgers.

Well it was a couple of things. We were starting after football season and not too many cultures really have a tailgate element to them without producorial posing something on reality. So what we kind of realized was that, while going back and forth to different permutations of the show and what the show could be and trying different things, we ultimately arrived at what the network titled “Fandemonium”.

I am a fan of fans, but I also want to become one. So the idea was let’s be a show where I dive headfirst into fan culture. No commenting, no bias, no prejudice, no mockery or derision, open-minded, open-hearted and be the audience’s eye in. Learn their traditions, drink their drinks, eat their food, paint my face, learn the chants, and figure out the ‘why’.

Why, in this economy, are people willing to spend the kind of money they do on season tickets, these massive tailgates, or make these costumes? We went to a Ren. fair in Waxahachie, Texas for the show and there are these women that, like, work in a secretarial pool in a small place south of Dallas, and they’re spending $3,000 to $6,000 making these costumes over the span of an entire year, for an event that occurs for a matter of weeks. So it’s their passion that propels them forward, and that’s a beautiful thing. To hear them say something like ‘we come here to be someone other than ourselves in order to be ourselves’ that’s something so special.

I know I’m successful, at least I know I’m known, because of Man V. Food and the food culture. But I can’t disrespect my fans, I owe them that much. I know that food has to be a part of the show. But what’s cool is if you approach it as an offshoot of the culture and of fan passion, rather than ‘I’m a dude and I love burgers!’ That stuff is so done to death, and it’s not gonna speak to my mom, it’s not gonna speak to you, it’s not gonna speak to the president of the Travel Channel.

For example, we filmed a show in the middle of nowhere Alaska. It’s so cold…yet, people come there, spend thousands of dollars for this one week event on fuel, on food. But the food: the salmon, the Alaskan king crab that they caught, they have to calculate how much fish they catch during the salmon season so they have enough for Arctic Man (they call it ‘Burning Man’s Cold Ass Cousin’) – they smoke it, they candy it, they turn it into dip – but, again, that’s fan passion.

I could sit there and rhapsodize about wild west salmon, but there’s nothing I could say that Eric Ripert can’t say better. There’s nothing that I can do about king crab that a marquis chef in Anchorage couldn’t do better. Any more than I could go on about, you know we’re gonna do an event in New Orleans soon, but when people like John Besh exist, Paul Prudhomme, whatever, do you need Adam Richman? The thing is, you need Adam Richman, hopefully, as your cipher as an audience member, for what fans of that event do within that New Orleans culture.

So instead of getting into that ‘how to make étouffée’, ‘how to make gumbo’, la da da da da. Instead of that, just say, ‘you guys are at an event that is a 90-mile-an-hour snow machine race in the middle of nowhere, where the difference between life and death is one other layer of clothing or two inches and it’s a 1500-foot drop down a crevasse.’ And people die at that event every year, yet people come back for 30 years. Why? In this economy, people are taking such a beating in the working sector, yet people spend five, ten-thousand dollars. It’s about that passion.

[I’m] not commenting, not mocking, not saying ‘what in the hell are you thinking, man?’ It’s about saying ‘These are events that you could take part in. These are events that the only thing you need is passion, an entry fee, a Winnebago, and a warm coat. Go!.

What excites you about the Upper West Side, and has you coming back to do The Taste for a third time?
This is one neighborhood in a city replete with great food neighborhoods. It is a neighborhood that is often overlooked for its culinary merits. It is a neighborhood where modern masters and great restaurants that are, I guess, successful, Milos and Landmarc, can coexist with Barney Greengrass and H&H Bagels. So it’s very much a neighborhood culinarily in touch with its past and present, with an eye towards its future — restaurants like Dovetail.

Also for me, as a TV-food-whatever the hell I am, I get a chance to actually really interact with people. I love, love talking to my fans. I’m gonna be there, I’m gonna be available, plus, I love the fact that people who don’t know the neighborhood or the preconceived notion of it, really get to see what it’s about.

It’s also not just restaurants [at Comfort Classics]; it’s bakeries and specialty food purveyors. In this economy, if there’s anything I can do to help the little guy get a leg up, I’m all for it.

What makes this event about ‘comfort’ to you?
I’m a New Yorker and, to quote Mos Def, ‘I shout New York out loudly and longly.’ Some of these were restaurants that I absolutely adored, but the comfort element are chefs that in their restaurants tend to go more haute cuisine or more seafood based, or more user friendly and portable or vice versa; their restaurant may be more sit-down fine dining and they get to make some fun finger food.

I think the comfort food aspect is the chefs having fun with a dish they don’t normally get to make, which is always awesome. Whenever you have a chef that’s like ‘This is something I’m playing with,’ you know that’s always going to be the dope shit. Also, I feel that for people who may not necessarily go to these haute cuisine restaurants, the comfort food aspect will make it accessible which, for me, makes it a great honor to be a part of. Plus, you can get a kangaroo burger!

So if you only thought of Dakota, Zabars, and Woody Allen movies, suddenly it becomes the domain of Baconry, La Caridad and Flor de Mayo and these great falafel restaurants and, who knows, the sky’s the limit. I’m really honored to be a part of it. I’m even flying my grandma in, again!

For more from Adam Richman, read about Fandemonium on Travel Channel, Food Fighters on NBC, and be sure to enter to win tickets to this Friday’s Taste of The Upper West Side, which he’s hosting.

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