Appetite for Life: Adam Richman on food and travel
Adam Richman was born to eat, as he proved in gut-busting TV series Man v. Food. He tells us about the transportive power of grub and why good food should be for everyone
Half-time entertainment is usually a bit tedious. But one chilly Sunday in March, I'm sitting in my usual seat during the break in Tottenham's home game against Cardiff and watching an American celebrity keep a crowd of 36,000 enrapt.
Say 'celebrity fan' to any discerning football follower and they'll probably roll their eyes – think Snoop Dogg in a Celtic shirt – but the man in question is Adam Richman, charismatic host of a glut of Food Network and Travel Channel staples and general polymath of all things culinary. Within 15 minutes, he wins over the usually uninterested half-time crowd with his pride, authenticity and boundless knowledge, and leaves the pitch to a standing ovation.
A few days later, I'm sitting down with him in Soho. He's in town to talk about his newest offering, Fandemonium, a TV programme about food fandom, and the two follow-ups to Man v. Food, Amazing Eats and Best Sandwich in America. The British public have really taken to him – his trip has included interviews on Sky Sports and Radio 1. And all from a series of rough-and-ready food shows on a niche cable channel.
If you've never seen one of his shows... well, you should. His journeys to far-flung corners of America in search of local delicacies make for hugely addictive TV, and although Man v. Food found its hook initially in competitive eating challenges, by the show's end Richman's infectious personality and enthusiasm became the things that kept the viewers watching. He has travelled far and wide in search of hot meals, and I want to know the furthest lengths he's gone to for Fandemonium.
It's amazing here, in the middle of the tundra at the base of a mountain, you can still have incredibly good food
"Paxson, Alaska," he answers, after a pause for thought. "The closest town is Fairbanks, and that's 78 miles away. Paxson's carved out of the tundra at the bottom of Mount Hoodoo and you have nothing there other than what you find, so it's the best salmon, the best king crab I've had in my whole life. And it's not like these guys bought it in Anchorage from a fisherman they know, or at the market – these people lay their own crab pots; they go to salmon runs off the Kenai Peninsula or Salcha River, and they catch their own fish. And it's the likes of which you're not going to get even at the markets.
"Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention – these people made moose lasagne and caribou gumbo, and they could stand toe-to-toe with any respective Italian or Creole dish I've ever had. It's amazing that here, in the middle of the tundra at the base of a mountain, in the shadow of the Northern Lights, you can still have incredibly good food."
In his journey to find America's most larger-than-life food superfans, he sampled the ribs that were judged the best at the World Barbecue Championships in Memphis ("If I think hard enough, I can still taste them," he says) and met the drummer of US band Grizzly Bear – who made him what he calls one of the top three burgers he's ever had – at Bonnaroo music festival. And he's got a pretty strong basis for comparison. From Alaskan tundra to festival burgers, this man has mapped out most of America.
I think we're screwed if food's only the domain of the elite
I ask him what it is about travelling to source food that makes eating it that much more enjoyable, and he relishes the chance to wax lyrical. "Food's completely and totally transportive," he tells me. "They always say that smell is the most memory-evoking sense, but what's amazing is that if you make a dish... if you have paella in Valencia, and then you learn a great recipe and you get saffron and chorizo, a proper terracotta dish, and you make authentic paella Valenciana back in New York, or in Sheffield, or wherever, you take a bite and you're instantly back in Spain."
If I'd expected a flurry of hurried soundbites from Richman, I was wrong. I'd suggest he write a book had he not already done so last year: a "collection of love letters" to some of his most treasured food spots entitled America the Edible, which started as a diary he wrote after a rocky breakup during his second year of college.
"I realised I was writing as much about the food as my own pain and confusion," he says. "The food really was a great touchstone, and it became a sort of journal not just of great places to go, but of what it evoked within me.
Adam Richman's favourite food cities – in pictures
"It was always tough when I would watch cooking shows and they would use a $9,000 piece of equipment I never could, or an ingredient I could never find. So that's why I wanted there to be recipes as much as maps, phone numbers and addresses, because I want someone to connect as I've connected – I think we're screwed if food's only the domain of the elite."
Luckily for Richman, if that were ever the case it's definitely not any longer. In fact, you only have to take a quick walk around central London or to watch an hour of Food Network to see how global, and increasingly accessible, food's becoming. As for travelling to find it, Richman's made a very successful career out of doing just that. In an era when the'food holiday' is hugely popular, TV shows like his are a reminder of food's cultural significance and what it can say about the place it comes from.
"I've been told by people I've just met on the street:'I've gone to the States with friends and we charted all these barbecue places,'" he says. "Why would someone in Kent find themselves in Driftwood, Texas? But then they will get to see the Hill Country of Texas, and Balcones Fault rocks – and they only went there because they wanted to try some great brisket. I think that's a beautiful thing."
Adam Richman's Fandemonium aired on Food Network UK. For info, go to foodnetwork.co.uk