Man V. Food’s Adam Richman On His New Show And Moving On From An Internet Tarring

One thing you learn quickly when talking to Man v. Food‘s Adam Richman is that he isn’t Guy Fieri. Where Fieri’s permastoked ’90s food dude persona seems indistinguishable from his inner self, Richman makes no pretense of being the kind of guy who dreams about the world’s hottest buffalo sauce or wakes up thinking about 10-foot hoagies. While the show that made him a personality may arguably be part of the same wave of food programming as Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, Richman makes an unlikely populist.

For one thing, he came from the theater program at Yale, where he got his master’s degree, rather than the kitchen at Johnny Garlick’s. Which isn’t to say the guy doesn’t love food, it’s just that when he tells me about his food journal where he compiles lists of places to eat and food tips people have given him, he admits that it wasn’t just about food, but also a way to “make external observations that sort of allowed me to unlock a kinetic inner life.”

That he doesn’t softpedal his inherent earnestness and intellectual nature could be either a different layer that we didn’t see on Man v. Food or partly a reaction to our perceptions. It’s easy to imagine wanting to be more than just the guy who eats intimidating food and then sweats, but it also seems fairly genuine.

In his new show, Secret Eats — premiering with back-to-back episodes tonight on the Travel Channel — Richman promises to show us “unique foods, available only to those in the know.” The show was originally supposed to premiere back in 2014, though it was pulled after Richman got into a flame war that started with an Instagram commenter taking issue with his use of the hashtag #thinspiration (which is apparently associated with pro-anorexia blogs) and escalated into him using the dreaded C-word, which is not something a TV personality can get away with anymore, even in a comment section.

We talked last week, and Richman was forthcoming with how the incident affected him, describing it as “the darkest time.” Luckily for him, that period seems behind him now as he focuses on Secret Eats, in which he promises, George Zimmer-style, “You’ll find places you want to eat and dishes you want to eat every episode. I guarantee it.”

All right. Tell me about how you became a food star. Did you grow up working in restaurants? What’s your background?

I knew I always had an interest in food and did in fact work in the industry a little bit. I had a little lemonade stand and stuff when I was a kid of course, but I worked in restaurants since I was about 12 and always had an interest in working in kitchens in different capacities throughout the years. Then basically, I got out of Yale in 2003. I had a masters from Yale and an undergraduate degree from Emory in Atlanta. I studied international studies and drama, but I was always working in restaurants along the way to help support myself, and then basically when I came out of Yale, I signed with agents and they had let me know about the opportunity and sort of long protracted audition process and a vetting process and screen test and food knowledge tests, for lack of a better term. Then we shot a teaser for Man v. Food in 2007, and then 2008 it premiered and the rest is history, I guess.

So, would you call this, was that fate, or is this an accidental career?

No, there are no accidents. Luck is simply preparation meeting opportunity; and I think I was very fortunate that I was just very clear with myself what I wanted and I read a really good book at a right time that sort of helped me ascertain what career path I wanted and I was able to fine tune my life experience such that I had a broad enough experience to work to support myself, but enough experience that I had the credentials for the job I wanted.

What was the book?

The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine. It was one of three. I read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and then The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine; and that helped me sort of hone in on what I wanted.

Where was your lemonade stand? Where did you grow up?

On the corner of Homecrest Avenue and Avenue U was the lemonade stand. I grew up on Homecrest between Avenue G and Avenue U in Brooklyn. I still live in Brooklyn in fact.

What do you like about the food in Brooklyn?

What I love about the food in Brooklyn … I mean now it’s a very different food scene than when I grew up there. When I grew up there, it was the where our first generation family could afford to move and you were getting like undiluted culture from abroad. As much as you’re getting a lot of home cooking, now Brooklyn is chic and hip. There are parts that are more expensive than Manhattan. There was no Williamsburg in Greenpoint and all that — Bushwick. Bushwick was a demilitarized zone when I was younger. Greenpoint was Polish immigrants and Bushwick was like former industrial spaces where my grandmother was from. It’s a very different Brooklyn. I mean now, I think the diversity of it — the fact that I can still get a lot of the great treats of older Brooklyn, the little restaurants that the hipsters don’t know about, that are deepest, darkest Brooklyn, but also that I can get the more modern hipster food in gastropubs if I want to — that’s what makes it so cool.

I mean, it’s my home town, so I’m always going to love it.

Do you have a first food memory?

I’m not sure about first, but one of the clearest, early memories I have is learning how to make a cheese omelet with my great-aunt Ann, who lived upstairs from us. She used to do stuff like sleepovers at her house, and we used to have, like cooking lessons and stuff, but I just loved spending time with her and learning from her. I had had eggs, I had had cheese, and I had never seen the two of these things prepared in such a way that they became this whole other third thing. She taught me how to whisk eggs and taught me how to fold the omelet and how to warm up a pan. It was just fascinating to me. Even talking to you about it now, I can still kind of remember the type of bowls she used and all the kitchen. It’s a very special memory to me.

You’ve probably eaten a ton of good food over the course of shooting your show. What is it about a particular place that makes you come back?

There’s so many different things. Sometimes it’s a dish that you can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes it’s the staff and you really like them and you like the vibe they create. Sometimes it’s a matter of convenience, sometimes a matter of tradition, so many different factors. There are places I’ll go back to that aren’t necessarily the greatest, but it’s become tradition when I’m in certain cities or in certain places to eat there. I always keep up tradition.

The new show, it’s about secret menus and secret restaurants. How do you find these? What makes you the guy to tell us about secret food?

What makes me the guy, I am simply a man, not like some highly qualified food detective. I’ve been keeping pretty comprehensive food journals since about 1995, and I’m always adding to it. Someone will mention a restaurant to me at a book signing, like a fan, and I’ll write it down. I keep notes, I tag everything, and keep it pretty well organized. I’ve worked with an amazing show runners and some amazing associate producers. Basically we will set a date, a couple weeks or months or so in the future and we’ll say what cities we want to work on and then we all come in with our research from the web, from friends, from trips we’ve made ourselves, from a friend of a friend of a friend, and basically it’s almost like a scene in a movie where after a pirate raid, they all take out their booty bags and we sit there, we’re like, what do you got?

Tell me more about this food journal. How old were you when you started doing that?

Since 1995, so I was a junior in college. It started as just a journal journal and I had begun writing about this one particular place. I had discovered a restaurant and I was going through some stuff in my life and I started writing about it, but writing about the restaurant and everything and it suddenly made my feelings more accessible and it made me remember the moment better just because I was able to encapsulate that feeling and sometimes because I’ll be talking about the food or the music or the waitress’ smile or something like that. Those external observations sort of allowed me to unlock a kinetic inner life, and it was just a great way to explore my thoughts about the world without having to actually create a journal of Adam’s thoughts. But when it’s food exploration, if my thoughts or own feelings or reflections came they did and sometimes it was just good food. That’s okay too.

This show was supposed to hit in 2014 originally and then you had a bit of an Instagram kerfuffle. Was that…

It actually did, though. It did air.

Oh, did it?

It did, it just got postponed. Yeah, it’s been aired as Man Finds Food. They just re-titled it because they thought that it was a more accurate depiction of what you were going to be getting on the show. The Man Finds Food seems a little vague if the story is about really telling you what there is. It did air, it just wasn’t really publicized all that much.

What was that experience like for you? Did you learn anything from being the internet scapegoat for a day?

It wasn’t just a day, unfortunately. It was awful. It was certainly one of the darkest points. I mean… if I’ve learned anything, it’s simply that you learn the rules very quickly. If you’re going to be in the public eye, if you’re going to work in media, you’re just simply put a different set of rules and a different set of expectations and different set of limitations that are put upon you that other people may not necessarily have to encounter. It may seem unfair or arbitrary or capricious or whatever, but that’s the case; and if I want to have this life on one side of the camera, what I have to understand that that is commensurate with a higher degree of scrutiny, unfair or otherwise, and you just have to be very, very careful because there’s a lot of ugliness out there.

Is that part of the unfairness, when you say that, is that sort of like people on the internet can kind of come at you in a very vulgar way, but then if you respond in kind, suddenly you’re the bad guy?

Yeah, to be reductive about it, I guess, it’s just something there’s no percentage in it. The one thing is, in that postponement and in the holding-off of filming the next season, my crew lost work, restaurants lost publicity, restaurants lost exposure. These people are good people that gave time, money, and energy to… and I say money in terms of inventory. They spent, they used their chicken; they used their ingredients to be part of the show, to pay their staff to be there, you know what I’m saying? The fallout affected more than just me in an adverse way. Again, there’s no percentage in it.

What do you mean when you say there’s no percentage in it?

There’s nothing to win. There’s no way to engage with any of it.

You’ve shot new episodes since then, I take it?

Yes, we’ve shot 14 episodes across 13 countries. It’s all international. Then we shot a special in Greenland and Iceland as well and that will also become two episodes in the future. But yeah, there’s 14 episodes across four different continents. It’s just amazing. Restaurants that are completely hidden from sight to restaurants that are in areas that tourists never go; dishes that completely don’t appear on any menu and dishes that you have to have code words to know about.

I think I read a statistic that said like 70 percent of Americans don’t actually even have a passport. If you could convince people why it’s important to travel, what would you say?

Well, first of all, that number is actually on the rise, but it’s a matter of how many actually used them. That’s the big mystery, is that, something like four in 10 may have, but one in 10 actually uses it. But that’s sort of the obligation — if you’re making travel programming — is that some people, because of time lost, physical limitations, and otherwise, their couch is their passport, their remote control is their plane ticket, and that’s why it’s incumbent upon me to really bring these cities to them. But I think that for people that are hesitant to travel and go outside their comfort zone: 1) traveling is the best way to get a greater understanding of the world. All the blogs, all the journalism in the world, will never explain what England is like post-Brexit, like being there. Do you know what I mean?

We live in an incredibly shrinking world where I could stream something on Facebook Live from my phone in New York and someone in Guam could see it, more or less, in real time. We live in a really globalized society where the average food court now has food from five or six different countries; where the average subway ride to New York will expose you to eight or nine different languages. Where… the average museum pamphlet is in 12 different languages. The world is at your doorstep and whether or not you choose to engage with it or not is not really a choice anymore. I feel that traveling is the only thing that really brings about a greater understanding of a foreign culture, but also makes you deeply appreciate, in some cases, the beauty of other places and also sometimes helps you appreciate how lucky you are to be where you are.

You seem like a very earnest and thoughtful person. When you meet people, are they ever surprised like, “Oh man, I thought you were just the dude who ate chicken wings?”

Yeah, I think there’s a bit of surprise and sometimes disappointment in equal measure. I think that if 10 guys saw me at a restaurant, I remember it was like the day of … it was in the post season, the NFL post season and I had gone down to Florida because my grandfather was in the hospital at the time. This hotel I was in didn’t have the game for some reason. I went to a bar nearby and I was getting lunch and having a beer and watching the games, and I had this salad. Some guy recognized me and he was mortally wounded that I was eating a salad.

But I think that people sometimes in a rather unfairly cruel fashion doubt or are surprised by my intelligence and the fact that I have a degree from Yale or that I speak a bunch of languages or play a few instruments. I think that the show that they most well know me for, was about being congenial and warm and interested and that though there was a lot of knowledge doled out, I never wanted to do it in a heavy-handed way; and I think that maybe when people see me and everything in my life is not focused on chowing down, then they go, “Oh wait, there’s an actual human life at play and not just this sort of food cartoon character I played.” It’s not that that isn’t me — that’s a 100 percent who I am while on the TV show, but my interest and I think my person are a little more varied.

It seemed like part of the draw was people watching you get tortured a little bit. Would you agree?

I certainly hope not. I hope that it was about, I mean maybe it’s like I was really up against it, it made for good TV, but I think maybe people really enjoyed the adventure of exploring these cities and seeing these decadent dishes; and then just the “will he, won’t he” finish it aspect seems to be the most prevailing reason why people watch.

What made you want to do a show about secret food?

I personally always thought was a really cool thing, these sort of speakeasies of food, but also this sort of secret life, culinarily speaking of these cities. That Man v. Food profiled iconic eateries and well-known dishes, but people are also interested in the hidden, in the clandestine. To go from the places that the locals know and revered to the places the locals, themselves, don’t even know about. It was pretty cool to me to be able to be in Singapore with one of the most well-known and successful food bloggers and be able to be like I’m from such-and-such a place and hear her say, “Well, how in the hell did you find a place that even I don’t know about?” That was a great feeling.

I notice you guys sometime show the crew in the show. Sometimes they really hide it and then you guys are casual about showing the other people behind the camera. Is there a philosophy behind that? Was there a decision process for doing that?

Yeah, I really wanted to do that. I pushed for that hard core. I’ve always wanted that in shows, especially shows where you can’t lie about the fact that you’re shooting a TV show, that it isn’t just me walking down the street, that there is a whole bunch of us walking down the street. I think that there is a bit of honesty with the viewer, and also when we are lost, then I think it’s good that the other crew is there to echo, “Wait a minute. Where the hell are we? What are we looking for?” Even trying the food. People will say, “You just like everything,” and they get other people’s opinions on the dish. I think it’s also really cool.

How often does the crew get to try the food that they’re shooting?

Constantly. They don’t really get a chance to include it in the shot, but I always like feeding them because I always think that they have really good viewpoints and they have really cool things to say and they’ve been with me for years and their opinion is no less valid than mine.

What’s the last thing that you cooked at home?

I think maybe a pan roasted piece of fish with some vegetables, some fresh veggies I picked up at a farmer’s market.

Is there anything that you never order?

Yeah, plenty of things. Gosh. I don’t really eat veal. I don’t like green peppers, and I hate maraschino cherries. Hate it. With that bright red apple color? Ugh, gross.

What are your favorite and least favorite restaurant trends?

Favorite restaurant trend would probably be that sort of return to higher simplicity, like letting preparation maintain the essence of, like seeing dishes that are more about olive oil, sea salt, fresh pepper, herbs as opposed to loads of sauces and tricks, I would say that is for sure something that I love is happening. I love the return to the rustic and a return to the earthy and the elemental aspects of food.

Least favorite, I would probably say, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a trend perhaps, but I’ve never really enjoyed the super fancy, hyper-composed plates. I find them just a little alienating to me personally. I’ve had very high end, very beautiful meals at Michelin star restaurants, but sometimes when it’s like a streak of something and an olive on the plate, I’m like, I don’t really believe this right now.

Name something most people cook wrong.

Probably hamburgers. I think people pressing down on a grill which they shouldn’t do. I think they over-work the meat which they shouldn’t do. They over-season the meat which they shouldn’t do. They probably don’t rest before cutting into the meat, things like that.

Okay. What’s your favorite food movie?

I love Chef. I can certainly identify with several parts of it, but I think every kid loves Willy Wonka to some degree. An honorable mention to Big Night.

Yeah, that’s a good one. Have you ever had a timpano that he makes at the end?

Timpano? No, never had timpano.

All right. Final question. Home fries or hash browns?

Are you calling hash browns the ones that are in like Mickey D’s cake style or the ones that are shredded?

I’m thinking more ones that are shredded.

And then home fries being sliced potatoes with the onions?

Yeah, home fries like cubes. Cubes or shreds basically.

Home fries with onions and all that stuff, probably home fries.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.