Adam Richman talks Secret Eats, savvy travel and why the play’s the thing

Adam Richman Secret Eats Cape Town Courtesy of Travel Channel
Adam Richman in Cape Town

Adam Richman amassed an international legion of fans thanks to a spate of food-centric Travel Channel series that made the most of his warmth, wit and willingness to try anything once if it looked semi-tasty.

And though his current outing Secret Eats — he’s the star and producer — sees the former Man Vs. Food favorite traveling the globe in search of cultural adventures and authentic noshes, Richman offers me a list of other irons in his fire.

“I had produced this play called Stalking the Bogeyman in New York, and we were nominated for an Outer Critics Circle award for best American play,” he begins (more on that later). “We were nominated for best play, best director and best actor. [I’m] promoting my cookbook, Straight Up Tasty. I’ve been blessed to start working with Williams-Sonoma. I’ve got two more books in the works. And now it’s food festival season. I’m very excited, because coming up I have Hawai’i Food and Wine and Greenwich Wine and Food, which are just phenomenal. I’m still sponsoring a bunch of soccer teams in England, and sponsoring some Little League teams here in the U.S. I actually just sponsored the entire Prospect Park Little League … .”

In there somewhere, the Yale drama grad traveled the world with his team, sussing out some of the tastiest culinary surprises from Manila to Mexico City for Secret Eats. Richman says that the plan was always to take the show international, but collaborating with the network on the places that made the cut resulted in some happy epiphanies.

“For example, I wouldn’t have thought to go to Warsaw, or Moscow,” he says. “Wouldn’t have necessarily thought to take an international food show in its first season to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Johannesburg.But I have to say, I am beyond grateful that we did. We were able to push the entire crew out of our comfort zone.

“It really is the essence of travel,” Richman continues. “It really is a bunch of people out of their comfort zone looking for hidden things and finding truly unexpected deliciousness. It’s not like you’re going to Venice, this well-trafficked destination. You’re going to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I feel that’s what make me grow as a traveler, a host and a producer.”

We talked savvy travel, adventurous eating and more with the perennial foodie-television favorite.

CGM: I’m a fan of the Secret Eats opening. Very you. Did you have a hand in it?

Adam Richman: We had always loved the opening of that movie, Catch Me If You Can; they do a lot of fun little animated sequences with the opening of that. We had played with that idea for Man Finds Food and for other shows. They did one for this — I was an executive producer — and I said, “I like the idea of there’s an entrance, and then maybe a light turns on revealing a secret entrance. Then we see a menu, and perhaps some wind flips up that menu revealing a secret menu.” So they added that.

I’ve always wanted to voice an animated character or be in something that’s action figure worthy — just to have an action figure of myself. I thought that would be cool. I figure if nothing else, little animated Adam at the beginning of the show is definitely a start. It’s the next best thing.

You and the network collaborated on the international destinations — but what about the actual local spots and dishes?

For me, the food becomes secondary. I always try to look at the culture first — for me personally, as a producer — and then just see what dishes can we pick that really evoke Kuala Lumpur, not ‘what four dishes look prettier on camera.’ I think that has also made better shows to this season, because we’re trying to really give you the feel of the city, not just, “This is yummy, this is yummy, this is yummy.”

For Secret Eats, it has to generally fall into one of two major buckets, which is, in restaurants, the off-menu dish. Then there’s also certain sub-categories like unusual dish in unusual place, unexpected dish in unexpected location, or a place that tourists would never go that actually happens to have really wonderful comestibles. In Cape Town for example, you have to do something with regard to seafood, and you need to do something in relation to the massive fishing community at the bottom of Africa. Naturally, that’s something that has to happen.

Then you also can’t forget that you’re in South Africa and there are myriad townships. That’s part of the culture. You can’t be a provincial, narrow-minded, First World, white television host. It’s nonsense. Gugulethu — much like Soweto is in Johannesburg — very much part of the cultural identity of that city and the history of that city. We naturally wanted to film something in one of the townships, so we went to Gugulethu. Then Cape Town, for example, is a very cosmopolitan, very art driven city. We knew we needed to film something in a more artistic area and something that was in part of the central area of the town, where a tourist might be. Then we found another place that was truly a hidden, hidden dining experience that wasn’t in a place that was so terribly unsafe or inaccessible, but still made some good television.

I think that example of Cape Town is so leitmotif for the rest of the season. Because I know London extremely, extremely well, and I was discovering places during this show. I go to London multiple times a year. I just produced a play there. I go there, I did an iTV show there (BBQ Champ). But I’m telling you, when we filmed Secret Eats in London, we went to places that I absolutely had no idea even existed — places that I had been near regularly. I was staying in a hotel and I just happened to walk in here. And it’s some of the best food I’ve had in my life!

The best part of travel and international travel especially, and, I think, the best way to get to know the culture is to eat authentically — but a lot of people are afraid to do that, especially in terms of street food. Do you have any sage advice on when you should indulge, when you should avoid, and when you should just go to the travel clinic beforehand and get yourself some meds in case you happen to choose unwisely?

I mean this in earnest: Traveling with that medication is non-negotiable. All of us traveled with — at least — a course of antibiotics. At least one, if not more than one. I had Levaquin, I had Z-Paks with me. I have Pantoprazole, which is an acid reducer. There are things that you can speak to your doctor about. Tell them when you’re traveling. Get a doctor that is savvy. In fact, there are entities like Passport Health, where they’ll give you travel and safety advisories. You got to be diligent about inoculations, too.

In terms of street food, No. 1, you got to sometimes take the leap. You’ll be right sometimes and you’ll be wrong sometimes. When you’re wrong, it is rough. However, my thing is this: ‘OK, there’s a lot of people here, they are in a relatively well-trafficked area, and they seem to be sought out in a well-trafficked area. That leads me to believe that whatever they have is desirable.

For example, in Bangkok, there’s a street called Thanon Sukhumvit. Secret Eats was there and I was just going for a walk, and I happened to look to my left and there were a bunch of tents, side by side by side by side, and  a bunch of tables, and there were little food carts parked up the street. A row of them. Some had a person or two, but I went where there was a group of people, largely Thai, and I saw a couple there, a white guy and his Thai wife and her family. I gravitated towards there, ordered a few things that sounded good to me. Some were fantastic; some not so much. But I think that for me, when you see locals walking somewhere and it’s not remote, and they are clearly the preferred ones, I say go for it.

I’m also a big, big, big fan of carrying hand sanitizer. Sometimes if you travel somewhere and they have non-disposable chopsticks — just the plastic ones — I’ll put some hand sanitizer on a napkin and I’ll actually rub it on the chopstick and my edge of my glass. Ounce of prevention for a pound of cure, right? And then when in doubt, alcohol. Alcohol is pretty good for killing lots of little critters in your system. I’m not saying go out and be a drunk, but a lot of times you’ll even hear doctors say, “Believe it or not, a shot of vodka might have killed it.”

I was on a set in Morocco and a few of the local actors told us to brush our teeth with the tap water in the hotel to introduce a bit of the, well, “local culture” into our system. I mostly did that by accident because I forgot to use the giant bottle of water the hospital gave us — but I did not get sick. Did I just get lucky?

When we filmed in Mexico City for this show, naturally we were all pretty, pretty, pretty vigilant — but I had one night where I was an idiot. I went to this beautiful market, really close to where Frida Kahlo’s house is. The food was amazing, but, like a schmuck, I was putting salsa and pico de gallo on my food. Those are raw vegetables — and generally pureed raw, unwashed vegetables. Something that you don’t necessarily think about.

Adam Richman Secret Eats
Adam Richman Courtesy of Travel Channel

Now, I spoke to an American business owner there who had moved to Mexico City and he’s having the best time of his life. I said, “What do you think, man? Is it true that they say you should introduce a little bit of water in your system day by day by day? That’s what they say for expats: Each day have a little bit more water to get used to it. Brush your teeth and rinse your mouth with it, and maybe just sip. You eventually work your way up.”

He said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about! Every couple of weeks we get Montezuma’s Revenge!” [Laughs]

Any other travel secrets beside the hand sanitizer trick?

I cannot overstate the importance of — and I’m not trying to be gross or inappropriate — but flushable moist wipes! And it’s not just for using the restroom, because the thing is, very often, it’s just simply a different type of sanitary conditions that we’re unaccustomed to. In Thailand, we could never understand napkins — they were a single ply, and they were about the size of a postage stamp. Maybe it’s in effort to conserve paper, but you end up using three times as many. If you have these moistened wet wipes that are meant to be cleansing and they biodegrade, don’t feel like a piece of garbage for throwing them in the trash or whatever, because they ultimately break up in water. No. 2, it’s a means of actually cleaning yourself. The other thing is, having sauce, having food on your hands, it’ll attract bugs and attract more dirt. Moist wipes are essential.

As far as travel, the breathable clothing, wicking clothing, compression socks, sensible footwear, there are things that aren’t necessarily glamorous or sexy, but essential.

Another part of Secret Eats is the experience of ordering off-menu — but lots of people are afraid of that idea, too. Can you talk about the concept and offer some encouragement for folks to give it a whirl, even if only at their favorite leateries?

Sure. I think there’s perhaps a different set of fears with regards to something like perhaps street food, where you may have a moment of pause because of sanitary conditions, because you can’t identify all the ingredients — whatever that may be. I think that that alone is maybe an understandable fear, that you say, “OK, maybe we have to take a leap.”

When it comes to off-menu dishes, generally speaking, they’re going to be awesome, and they’re going to be interesting and there’s going to be an interesting reason as to why they are off the menu. There’s going to be a significant reason as to the story behind them and how they were created. I feel that a lot of times we like having that cachet or it’s very labor intensive so we don’t do it that much anymore, or we only offer it during certain times of the year for those in the know.

So I tell people, “This is a chance to uncover and be part of this secret life of the dining identity of a city.” There’s the culinary identity of Nashville that we know, right? Some places like, for instance Hot Chicken, the Pancake Pantry, Noshville, City House — restaurants that have garnered attention, foods that are  just good and appreciated and well-known. No one thinks, what about this hamburger place where if you see the secret password, you get an entire secret menu that has dishes that no one else will know about? Or another restaurant that’s in the hotel, where you have to follow the chef on Twitter to get the password for the dish. And it’s usually a dish that he’s playing with and he’s not sure that he wants to add to the menu yet, but he knows it’s still solid, delicious food.

That is something that so few people will be part of, that in an age where the culinary world is smaller than ever, that you could actually break new ground.

Are  you recognized abroad as much as you are in the States?

Yeah — as much, if not more. It’s a little different than it used to be. You have to remember on the Travel Channel, I’ve done Man v. Food, Man v. Food Nation, Best Sandwich in America, Fandemonium, Carnival Chronicles, a live special, a couple clip shows, and now Man Finds Food  — or Secret Eats — two seasons of that. And back in the day, Travel Channel aired my programming a lot more than they are currently, unfortunately.

In the U.S., I feel that people will recognize me if they see me, hear my voice and see me, perhaps, in a restaurant context. However, in the UK, I still make up a good amount of the viewing dial, and I have a really, really, really solid following there. In the UK, I’m like Jerry Lewis is in France a little bit — which is fantastic. I’m very blessed, I have to say, to have the following. I was walking with our crew in Warsaw, and I kid you not — there’s a very famous saying about the street in Warsaw called Nowy Swiat that if you want to see someone you haven’t seen, walk twice the length of the Nowy Swiat and you’ll find them. While walking from Old Town down to Nowy Swiat, I got recognized by someone from Utah, someone from Sweden, someone from Spain, someone from Ireland.

Before I let you go, I consider myself a fairly advanced student of Adam Richman but I had no idea about Stalking the Boogeyman and the accolades the play received. Congratulations on that. 

Thank you! It’s a really good play about a very, very sensitive and very important subject matter that people are afraid to discuss, because it deals with matters of child sexual abuse and by a familiar adult. It’s a true story that my former roommate [director Markus Potter] had heard on This American Life, and he had bought the rights to this story and adapted it. It’s based on a true story on how one man [journalist David Holthouse] is searching for and planning to kill the man who raped him when he was six. We’ve partnered with SurvivorsUK and NAPAC, amazing organizations.

New episodes of Secret Eats with Adam Richman premiere Monday nights at 10/9CT on Travel Channel.

About Lori Acken 1195 Articles
Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.