by Karl J. Paloucek
Like a lot of shows, this one started in Britain: Two hairy guys on motorcycles who really know their food set out to explore the local cuisines their country had to offer and in doing so established a template for a show that was all but tailor-made for America. With its inventive food history rooted in its incredibly varied cultures, to say nothing of its highway infrastructure and motorcycling tradition, America was the next logical step, and as such, Hairy Bikers premieres Friday, Oct. 14, on History.
At the center of Hairy Bikers are Paul Patranella, a four-star, classically trained French chef — whose many honors include serving as President George W. Bush’s chef — and his best friend and riding partner, renowned motorcycle mechanic Bill Allen. Both take their passions for food and cycling to the road, where they meet the people who make some of the land’s most interesting dishes. Not only do they cook and eat with them, but in many cases they hunt, kill and clean their dinner in the process, whether it’s spearing bullfrogs, trawling for shrimp, capturing gators with a crossbow or even preparing road kill. We caught up with these two adventurers to give them a chance to brag about their exploits and tell us what it was like for them out there on the open road.
Lifelong friends who used to ride together, the two put their hell-raising days behind them to raise their families, but this show gave them the opportunity of a lifetime to take in more of America than they ever expected to meet, greet or eat. “There’s no end to the things that we’re getting our hands on,” Allen says. “You know, you’ll see a cooking show where it’s very elaborate. They’re going deep-detail into the preparation and everything. The average guy could look at that and say, ‘That looks delicious, but I could never make that.’ Basically what we’re doing is things that the regular guy can do, and variations of that. We might be cooking nutria, but if you look at the way we’re cooking it [people might say], ‘Wow, I could do venison that way.’”
Ah, yes — the nutria. Allen and Patranella had a lot to say about their experience of hunting swamp rats in the Louisiana bayou. “The swamps of Louisiana are overcome with nutria, which is basically, about a 20-pound rat,” Allen explains. “As Americans, we’re very visual people when it comes to our food. When you see something as you’re hunting it and see it on the table, you have the vision of everything you went through to skin it, and it’s not always so appealing.”
But Hairy Bikers is by no means a gross-out spectacle. Far from it. There’s plenty of history to be had as they seek out their destinations. “[In] Kentucky, we had to go to a distillery and see how they actually make bourbon,” Patranella recalls. “I learned a lot there, technologically speaking, about how to build a still. … The Low Country cuisine of South Carolina — I really kind of fell in love with that. There’s a lot of farm-fresh stuff there that people use.”
Although their itinerary was initially assembled by the people at History, the Hairy Bikers dudes had no hesitation about deviating from it if the journey demanded it. “We found a lot of the places on our own and just made the camera guys follow us,” Patranella says. “We made it all the way to Maine and went lobstering on a crazy morning when it was really foggy and we couldn’t see where we were going. That was pretty scary, but luckily the guy we went with had been doing it for a long, long time.”
Patranella and Allen spent some 65 days on the road shooting this series — a grueling journey that taught them a lot about their own friendship, the country in which they live, the people that make it what it is and the food they eat. “Whatever area you go to, whatever it’s known best for — that’s what we want to get into,” Allen says. “If it’s in South Carolina, it’s Low Country food — everything from the sea, and everything that that area’s known for. And find out the people who know where it came from, know where it started, and get to know how it’s made it through all these years, and how it started as a tradition.”
“It’s a cross-section of Americana,” Patranella affirms. “Some of it’s backwoods, some of it is a little more upscale. …. We’ve cooked a five-course dinner and we’ve eaten swamp rat. We did a clambake on the beach with lobster and a whole bluefish, and seaweed — the whole bit. And we’ve eaten pig ears,” he chuckles.
Patranella is already looking forward to the possibility of another season with a mixture of excitement, fear and dread. “I’m sure there’s some little producer, somewhere, coming up with stuff for us to do next year that is going to just make everybody cringe,” he says, sounding resigned. “If people call in and tell him what weird food they have in their little town, I’m sure that we’ll be there.”
America’s most insane eateries, there’s your cue — start dialing.