On Food Show Formulas, Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted and the Shadow of Anthony Bourdain

TV Features Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted
On Food Show Formulas, Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted and the Shadow of Anthony Bourdain

Peru. Of course we start with Peru.

Not that I’m bitching—Nat Geo’s Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted made me stop nattering about increasingly pallid riffs on an overworked formula and just settle in for the gorgeous photography. And something odd happened to me after a few minutes: The show reminded me that even if every damned chef learns how to make a Hollandaise sauce, it doesn’t invalidate the sauce. Recipes can be predictable, yes—and that can be invaluable in setting a context.

I would be shocked to see any review of this show that manages to avoid comparisons to the late, great and thoroughly lamented Anthony Bourdain, and I won’t even try to avoid it. When it came up at Nat Geo’s panel at Television Critics Association Press Tour this past Tuesday, Ramsay’s voice hit the highest decibel level of the panel; it seemed to touch a certain nerve. (Apparently he’s come to find jabs about being derivative—and profiting from colonialism—a little tedious.) And I will admit both of those things crossed my mind. Mostly the derivative part, though I cringed a bit when he says in the intro “this is definitely uncharted territory;” I mean, at no level is that even a tiny bit true. Not the physical places he visits, not the cultures he drops into, and not the show’s premise. (C’mon dude.) Indeed, the Morocco episode spends as much time investigating the artsy, hash-smoking expat community in charted-for-centuries-and-by-everyone Fez as he does in the remoter reaches of the Atlas Mountains (where he is visiting a community, so it’d be nice if he noticed it’s only “uncharted” to him). So there’s that. If it’s something you can’t get over, you’re going to have issues with Uncharted. But I find it get-overable, honestly.

As far as the ash-flicking ghost of Anthony Bourdain goes, I have to say this: I loved Bourdain and am more often than not irritated by the ever-swirling retreads of the formula he did so well. On the other hand, a BLT and a Reuben are both sandwiches—both contain bread, cured meat, and a leaf vegetable—and yet they are totally different. Three episodes of Uncharted were made available to press, and all three of them were set in locations where Bourdain also went; you can do a side by side comparison if you like. I did. I concluded that I was dealing with a Reuben and a BLT. You might prefer one or the other, you might think both are tasty, and we can generally agree they both exist for a reason.

Gordon Ramsay couldn’t out-Tony Tony in one million years, so it’s good he doesn’t try. He’s quite good at being Gordon Ramsay; in fact that’s one of the things you’ll notice. Watching some of Ramsay’s other programs makes it crystal clear that the torrential verbal abuse and wanton dragging of everyone he meets is performative; you know that’s not what he’s like in real life, but you’d be hard pressed to say what he is really like. Here, I think you see it. When you watch an episode you’ll automatically have Bourdain-goggles on unless you really don’t get out much (and you’ll almost immediately be aware of Ramsay’s somewhat intense physical vigor, for example). Where Bourdain would have loped, Ramsay jogs. Bourdain almost never cooked on camera in any iteration of his show (he does it ad hoc in Beirut while confined to a hotel), whereas Ramsay makes it a culmination point in every episode (more on that in a moment). Ramsay’s less contemplative and more direct, less about angst and more about confrontation, less of a poet and more of an athlete. That’s not a comment on the intelligence of the show or its host: It’s Nat Geo. Dumb isn’t what they do. It’s different. Which is just about the one word I wasn’t expecting to be saying.

And with Uncharted, production values are through the roof, so there’s that. No Reservations had its own 100% legitimate aesthetic; intimate, rough-and-tumble, up close, pared down, a little gritty. Uncharted is the product of a network that’s absolutely top-of-the-game on natural history programming. The scenery pops—I paused the New Zealand episode at least half a dozen times just to linger on a single shot for a bit: vertiginous cliffs, psychedelically blue rivers, foliage glistening in sunlight, flashing mother of pearl when an abalone is served in its shell. The camera work is always excellent and not infrequently breathtaking. The local experts and fixers they tapped are all wonderful and very well-chosen; they’re intelligent as hell and gifted at what they do. Some are chefs (Virgilio Martinez puts in an appearance in Peru; pioneering Maori chef Monique Fiso runs the show in New Zealand; Najat Kaanache, who has the additional distinction of having been turned down by Ramsay for work something like seven times, puts him through his paces in Morocco). Others include Mick O’Shea, who is the first person to do a complete transect of the Mekong River, and Kimi Wener, a Hawaiian free diver and spear fishing expert.

I recently heard a journalist make another snarky comment about “white guy parachuting in and knowing everything there is to know about a culture in four days” tropery, calling Uncharted and Ramsay out for disrespect because he makes a (pretty toothless) Flintstones quip about a stone tool or spits out the live grub he’s dutifully trying to eat. I completely disagree. Maybe living in northern Britain in my youth gave me an edge as far as understanding Gordon Ramsay’s sense of humor, but I don’t really think so. In either case, where my colleague saw disrespect I saw the opposite: Authenticity, curiosity and a desire to meet the world on his own personal terms, not to display some kind of weird performative authority over cultures and foodways he doesn’t understand. I mean, there’s more than one way to show respect, but if you think “be yourself” isn’t one of them, I’d ask how often you try it. Spitting out those grubs (one in Peru, one in New Zealand) was honest and it was humbling, a moment in which machismo and vigor took a backseat to vulnerability, self-effacement and just plain being open about the fact that he does not like the flavor of huhu grubs, with or without Monique Fiso’s caution to not to eat them face-first because “they might bite you on the way down.” He’s in over his head several times per episode. He knows it. He reckons with it. He’s respectful; what he isn’t is submissive.

Anthony Bourdain had a huge submissive streak. It was part of his secret sauce for sure, and it’s quite distinct from humility. No Reservations and Parts Unknown turned on that quality; he had the air of someone less out to acquire skills or ideas or experiences and more interested in letting them wash over him. It was, in the end, part of what made his shows convey deep respect for the places where he traveled and the people he met. It underpinned his commitment to rejecting good-bad binaries and embracing ambiguity. He didn’t come across as a person who was trying to take anything from those places or people (other than hopefully a modestly increased understanding). He was there to celebrate them.

Gordon Ramsay doesn’t exactly convey that, to put it one way, not least because he has decided to inflect the episodes with a competition element, in which he pits himself against the local chef, seemingly in an effort to prove he has instantaneously mastered their cookery. It’s a terrible move—why on Earth would the showrunners choose that over simply cooking something with, versus against, each other? It feels egocentric and it really messes with the pacing.

Honestly, though, it mostly feels born of the same pernicious impulse I went into this thing braced for: being overly reliant on a formula. Gordon’s competitive. Cooking competitions get attention; people like it. Maybe we need more “stakes” in this thing to distinguish the show from the eleventy-twelve other shows in which celebrity chefs have decided the genre is incomplete without their contribution, so we toss in a little pinch of Beat Bobby Flay like so much mean-spirited fleur de sel. I don’t know for sure. I’m convinced it was a bad move, and I’m convinced it’s worth watching Uncharted anyway. Because there is more going on than cult of personality; you will learn things. Some people will spit it out like a live huhu grub. Others will be too busy feasting on the epic physical beauty of the show, and the glimpses of foodways they probably don’t know much about, and they’ll be totally happy to overlook the odd display of ego from the host. Still others won’t even detect that, and I am not going to stomp my feet and demand that they do. In the end, as with most things, mileage varies. Personally, this is the first post-Bourdain globetrotting-chef-trope show that didn’t make me groan. And no, I don’t really think it’s disrespectful. Occasionally narratively klutzy, but it more than makes up for that with splendid photography, wonderful episodic co-hosts, and sheer energy.

Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Nat Geo.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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