clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Food TV Can Thrive After Anthony Bourdain, but Gordon Ramsay Won’t Be the Person to Lead It

The celebrity TV chef’s new series means to spotlight underrepresented food cultures. But it can’t escape its host’s boisterous persona, and the long shadow cast by Bourdain.

Elias Stein/National Geographic/Getty Images

It takes exactly 30 seconds for Gordon Ramsay to utter his first “Bloody hell!” in his new National Geographic TV show, Uncharted. The goal of the series, ostensibly, is to show viewers how to colonize non-Anglocentric cultures around the world in just one week. Each episode follows a road map: Ramsay is dropped into a remote part of the planet where he meets a rising chef who serves as an ambassador for the region’s cuisine; at the end of the week, Ramsay will prepare a meal for locals with the chosen chef, but not before getting a firsthand education on the ingredients that define the culture, which often involves him making a complete fool of himself; Ramsay, soon armed with a wealth of new experiences and ingredients, will then find a way to cook what is essentially steak and potatoes.

From the very first episode, set in Peru, it’s clear how and why this show was green-lit. “This is Peru’s Sacred Valley. At towering heights of up to three miles above sea level, it is a unique Andean ecosystem whose staggering biodiversity once fed the mighty Incan Empire,” Ramsay begins the show’s first introductory monologue. “And now it’s going to feed a British chef with a motorbike.” The elevator pitch: No Reservations meets Man vs. Wild meets Bizarre Foods, with the most recognizable food television personality on the planet. Cynicism may be at the moral heart of the entertainment industry, but even in an inglorious age of unimaginative reboots and retellings, the space that Uncharted occupies feels particularly fraught.

In the most recent episode, set in Hawaii’s Hana coast, the land’s multifaceted foodways are mentioned in terms of the cultural “trade winds” that have passed through the islands’ shores over time, a vague encapsulation of the centuries of occupation and colonization that have continuously redefined Hawaiian culture, for both good and bad. It was time, Ramsay decreed in the episode, to impart some of his Scottish influence on the land. “If I’m going to add a pinch of my Scottish heritage to this Hawaiian banquet,” he said, “I’ve got to come up with something better than haggis on a pineapple ring.” So he made a shepherd’s pie, with meat from an axis deer, an invasive species that first arrived as a gift in the 1800s and consequently imported in hopes of stimulating the island’s environment. The axis deer have done exactly that, in a sense: They’ve wrought havoc by literally eating away at Hawaii’s natural landscape, which has no natural defenses against imported wild animals. Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie, which was met with bemusement by Hawaiian chef Sheldon Simeon, was a stodgy proverb reheated in a cast-iron pan: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter cover story on the monumental growth of food television, it seemed as though the industry was still honoring the void that Anthony Bourdain left after his death last year. “There’s trepidation to try and fill those shoes and a real nervousness to developing a show that even feels like his,” Top Chef cocreator Jane Lipsitz told THR. Ramsay’s new show suggests not only that the fear of filling those shoes will be short-lived, but also that the TV industry hasn’t yet latched onto the most prescient wisdoms Bourdain imparted in his decades around the world and behind cameras.

From A Cook’s Tour, his first series, through Parts Unknown, one of the most fulfilling elements of the Bourdain experience was the broadening of his expanded universe. Occasionally, guides became friends, who then became recurring guests and trusted confidants. They would grow comfortable sharing stories of their culture, and revealing its idiosyncrasies in the way most relationships do over time. Bourdain had all the charm and snark in the world, but his shows were often at their best when he receded to the background. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of Uncharted’s attempts at engaging with cultures unfamiliar to Ramsay, the show’s format is cast as a sort of Ramsay accessory: Farmers, hunters, and restaurant owners load up his artillery with local ingredients, techniques, and specialties, and by the end of the episode, Ramsay unloads a full clip back at them and tensely waits to see whether those eating his creations will inflate his ego or knock him down a peg. While chefs and locals all get a chance to poke fun at the obscenely rich British white man metaphorically (and sometimes almost literally) showing his ass on television, Ramsay’s ego—lightly bruised, hardly broken—is what takes center stage, not the cultures the show is trying to highlight. If finding the next Anthony Bourdain is even feasible, it sure as hell does not look like Gordon Ramsay.

Of course, Uncharted is not the first post-Bourdain foray into culinary exploration. After losing out on the rights to Food Network’s stable of cooking shows in 2016, Netflix aggressively hauled in foodcentric series of varying scope, spearheaded by David Gelb’s Chef’s Table series and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. Last year’s excellent Salt Fat Acid Heat established new benchmarks for serialized culinary escapism in a post-Bourdain landscape and showcased how to champion underrepresented narratives.

This year, I found myself charmed by three Netflix series in particular. Flavorful Origins is a celebration of Chaoshan (or Chiuchow) cuisine by way of 20 artful, bite-size episodes highlighting various ingredients and delicacies that define the specific region of China’s Guangdong province that it originates from. David Gelb’s Street Food takes the self-seriousness of Chef’s Table out of the hands of the show’s typical subject (at least in its early years)—a male fine-dining veteran who often exemplified the hackneyed bad-boy-makes-good narrative—and applies that reverence to some of the most notable street food purveyors in Asia.

Taco Chronicles literally gives voice to the voiceless: Each episode is oddly, compellingly narrated by a sentient taco, capturing its own significance to Mexican life with the kind of lurid prose you’d find in the most orgiastic of Bourdain voice-overs. Each of the six episodes focuses on a different iconic taco variety in Mexico, and the proud cooks, chefs, and common taco enthusiasts who have contributed to the lore. Almost all of these shows are devoid of English, save for subtitles. If food is indeed a common language shared by all, then this is the moment to prove it. These are narratives that don’t necessarily require an established star at the center. It’s a novel idea, and Netflix, as a centralized streaming service, might have a leg up in realizing that as a viable paradigm. A traditional network, especially one without an entire stable of related food content, might require a recognizable personality to provide structure to a show conceit that is most likely siloed from the rest of its programming. The constellation of food television on Netflix feels bound only by the general sense of exploration that the shows all engender.

Lost in the desire to find the next Anthony Bourdain is the sense that food TV no longer requires that kind of archetypal figure, that the gatekeepers of culture we see on the screen should be the ones actively participating in its nuances, not a tourist tabbed as a universal authority. In the first episode of Uncharted, Ramsay playfully crafts an adversarial relationship with Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez; when Martínez suggests cooking together to feed some of the farmers and gatherers of Peru’s Sacred Valley, Ramsay immediately deems it a cookoff. Before the viewer even gets a sense of the show, its parameters were already turned on its side. I couldn’t help but think about how much Bourdain would have loathed that competitive element of the episode (among other things about it). “I don’t need to be number one,” Bourdain told Maria Bustillos last year. “I don’t need to beat the fuck out of somebody. I don’t need to be ahead. I just want to still be here at the end of the fuckin’ day, doing what I’m doing, without anybody hassling me.”

There is nothing altruistic about television. There are always executives to curry favor with, sponsors to appease. The act of filming and interviewing, of gathering narratives and insights from others, is intrinsically transactional. Bourdain wasn’t exempt, but the ways in which he and the show producers helped frame the way viewers saw other parts of the world felt as if it was born of a warmer, empathetic calling. That is lacking in a show like Uncharted, which was renewed for a second season before it even premiered; there is cynicism baked into every scene of the show, and it distracts from the legitimately gorgeous portrayals of civilian life in different parts of the world. These days, the best food television dives deeper, thoughtfully putting a magnifying glass to what can seem like second nature in certain cultures—the need to craft an overarching narrative might not be necessary. The stories tell themselves.