411mania Interviews Man v. Food’s Adam Richman
Adam Richman is the host of the Travel Channel’s break out hit series Man v. Food, each week taking on an eating challenge that borders on the impossible while at the same time exploring some of that area’s top pig-out dining experiences. Recently the native New Yorker sat down with 411’s Al Norton.
Al Norton: I’m from Boston so I’ll try and leave our geographic rivalry out of this conversation.
Adam Richman: Don’t tell me, don’t tell me you’re a Red Sox fan. Don’t say it (laughing).
Al Norton: So how did you get the job hosting Man v. Food?
Adam Richman: The Travel Channel had two specials, one called 10 Best Places to Pig Out and one called Food Paradise and they knew that they wanted to develop a series around the subject matter because they’d had such an overwhelmingly positive response. Because I had been acting and traveling for acting for 11 years I had begun to not only amass a compendium of knowledge of places to eat around the country but in fact had kept a journal of them since 1995, since my junior year of college at Emory University. As an actor I’m sure it’s not too uncommon to work at a couple of restaurant jobs. I had been busboy, dishwasher, host, reservationist, waiter, souse chef, line cook, caterer, you name it. It was just sort of part and parcel that by the time the audition came around and the opportunity presented itself I had already at that point amassed an acting resume to speak of, a culinary resume of some import, and more than anything else had learned the foods of the nation pretty well.
Travel had sent the breakdowns out and my agent sent it out to their entire client base and then I annoyed my poor agent until I got an audition. From there it was a six round process, got the position provide there was a position to have, XX the producer of the show put together a presentation reel, and at first we were picked up for 10 episodes and then shortly thereafter got 8 more. God willing we’ll have season two.
Al Norton: How do you prep for the eating challenges you do on the show?
Adam Richman: It depends because there are hot challenges, cold challenges, and volume challenges. Sadly because of the shooting schedule I don’t always get a real chance to prepare. Here’s the thing – I’m not a competitive eater. I have no aspirations to be, and I don’t mean that as a slight against competitive eaters. The simple fact is that if I eat at all the day before I have a major, major obstacle going against me when it comes to the big challenges. The way the production schedules work sometimes it’s just not feasible or possible for me to get a day off before them. If I do have a day off I don’t eat, or eat very minimally, and I drink a lot of water and club soda to keep my stomach stretched and full and to keep myself hydrated. The most important aspect is that I work out like a beast. I work out like a beast the night before and the morning of. Right now I’m in North Carolina and I have a 17 chili dog challenge tomorrow. We’re about to go do a shoot right now at a restaurant, and we’re shooting late night, so the odds are stacked against me.
I never wanted to face these challenges from a competitive eating standpoint, ever. For me, it has to have the feel that comes with a bunch of dudes, or guys and girls, taking a road trip across the country and you find that one place that looks cool or your friend’s friends used to live there and they told you this place had amazing burgers, burritos, nachos, you fill in the blank, and you go there and you learn that if you finish the Wattusi Burger or whatever they call it, it’s free or you get a tee-shirt. It’s all just a hoot. It’s all meant as a lark. It’s not meant to be Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
Al Norton: I’ve been going to Eagles Deli (Man v Food did a burger challenge there during their Boston episode) for years and years.
Adam Richman: That episode was intense. The problem with that challenge was the logistics. We had been to East Coast Grill’s Hell Night the night before. I just want to say that it’s really not particularly intelligent to chew on the hottest pepper on earth the day before the greasiest, biggest burger on earth. It’s not an alchemy that I highly advocate.
Al Norton: Trying to ask this question as politely as possible, how long does it take your system to recover from these challenges?
Adam Richman: It depends upon the challenge and it depends upon the preparation. A challenge I feel like I had time to adequately prepare for and I think the results speak for themselves were the Big Texan Steak Ranch challenge in Amarillo. I did prep, they had a half way decent gym in the hotel, and because it was the only food I had in my system I had that post-Thanksgiving feel but nothing like I was praying for death as I have in other challenges. Sometimes your recovery has to do with spice, sometimes your recovery has to do with quantity. I know my system very, very well and I know what I can and can not endure and I know what I can and can not accept. I can sort of tweak my recovering regiment, if you will, to that challenge at hand. With some challenge for the next few days, time permitting, I’m going to avoid colas, coffees, just to give my stomach a fighting chance. If it’s a large one than I know I need to be crazily hydrated, I need to be doing lots of cardio to combat the caloric avalanche. It depends on each thing. Look, with spicy challenges, as my Grandpa used to say, may he rest in peace “it’s inevitable, you’re going to taste it twice.” Beyond that, it’s all a hoot. Look at what I do for a living; I travel around, meet great people, and eat great food. The challenges are physically grueling – I’m not going to say it’s a walk in the park – but it beats working for a living (laughing).
Al Norton: What’s the selection process like for the cities and specific restaurants?
Adam Richman: I think they use the challenge as the point of departure, that’s the integral part of the show. Beyond that it’s sort of like, “where are the challenges and what kind of challenges are they?” Burger challenges are a dime a dozen. Chopped meat is plentiful and relatively inexpensive and a burger is a really great canvas for some of these very crazy individuals who own these restaurants around the nation to go a little hotwire. And they do, I assure you they go all out. They’ll put everything on a burger from caviar to Dijon mustard and jelly. What ultimately happens is you have these very mundane challenges that happen all over and we try and find the special ones, a challenge that breaks from the norm, that really piques our interest and we know would pique our interest if we were a viewer. For example one that I found particularly interesting was at Crown Candy Kitchen in Saint Louis and it was a milkshake challenge. That kind of thing gets everybody thinking, “oh my gosh, how do you prepare for that? How do you deal with that? What’s the big problem – is it volume, is it brain freeze?” To me, that’s interesting. To me when the viewer is engaged in an active way so it’s not just like, “lets watch the human trashcan try to put this food down”, it’s like, “this dude is really going to go for it. He’s going to try and drink 5 twenty ounce malted milkshakes, nearly a gallon of milkshake, in under a half hour.” I think it’s kind of fun, this human experience of hurling oneself into the void that I feel every time I do it.
Al Norton: I’ve learned watching your show hungry is dangerous.
Adam Richman: I like the fact that that’s been the common response. Everyone is like, “why does it have to be on at 10 pm?”
Al Norton: I’ve been on a quest for chicken and waffles since I saw that episode.
Adam Richman: Oh my god. Those were absolutely wonderful. Then we went to Sylvia’s in Harlem and they did chicken and waffles. I’ve been spoiled. I go so far as to say I’ve been truly spoiled rotten because it’s not just that I had chicken and waffles, I had chicken and waffles cooked for me by Gladys Knight. That’s a check box on the human experience column.
I have to say, that aspect of it has been the most heartening of the show to me personally, not just because I get letters and emails from the restaurant owners who are really great people and are really grateful for the business the exposure has brought them. And that’s the truth, I’ve gotten them from Memphis, from Columbus, I’ve gotten them from San Jose. I love it. The San Jose episode hasn’t ever aired yet and they’re getting more business just on the strength of us being there.
It’s little things like when we were shooting in Saint Louis and this guy stopped me and asked me if I was who I am and I said I was. He was a union pipe fitter and they’ve been having a really hard time in this economy and he was just saying how he and the guys from his local get together and watch the show, and they order the foods that I am eating that week. He said they’ve had a lot of dark spots and it’s been a bright spot for them every Wednesday. Another example is a boy who has this really serious disease called epidermolysis bullosa, basically his skin blisters and sheers off very easily, and its’ internal as well so he has a lot of esophageal problems with eating. He watches the show and gets hungry. His parents were baffled because he ran into the kitchen and started eating. They had tears in their eyes because they couldn’t believe it. The fact that something that is to me a celebration of how great this country is and how great the tapestry of these cities are, and how food really manifests itself into the identity of these cities, that from that kid is able to get from me and the show the sheer joy of chowing down, the humanistic pleasure in it.
I love the fact that you get hungry. The food is great. The day we invent smell-a-vision is the day Man v. Food becomes the top rated show in the country.
Al Norton: Speaking of ratings, obviously you go into a show hoping it does well but did you ever dream that you’d have the top rated premier in Travel Channel history?
Adam Richman: Someone sent me an article about that but my producer, and I don’t know if he was trying to keep my head small, but he said that he’d seen the numbers and wasn’t sure if that was true. I genuinely prefer not to know that stuff. I don’t want it to become results oriented. I know that sounds very actor-y and stuff but I think that part of the success of the show is that there’s a real beating heart behind the machine. My series producer Dan Adler is not just an incredibly talented producer but I love him as I would love a brother. I work with great people. The experience has been so rich that rest of the stuff is deliciously redundant. “Oh my god, people love it?” That’s cool. “Oh my god, I’m getting paid to do it?” That’s cooler. In the past week I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean, Paramount Studios, the Red Woods in Northern California, the sunset over the Union Pacific rail yard in Denver, Colorado, and as I look out my window right now I see North Carolina pines for as far as the eye can see. Tell me I haven’t shot the mother load. Ratings and stuff, all that means is I’m doing my job. I want to be your eyes, my cousin Keith’s eyes, when we go to these places. I don’t want there to be an ounce of pretense. I am a foodie so I’ll talk about the smoke ring and how it’s the result of the myoglobin reacting with the carbon dioxide in the smoke, and you’ll be like, “Woa, Bill Nye the Science Guy, just get down to bbq, baby.” There’s just a real sense of unbridled joy. Yes, you do hope it goes well, especially having been a struggling actor, but it’s a blast and to work with the people I work with has made it the success it is. I can’t take all the credit for it. There’s one man doing all the eating but there’s a lot of people behind the machine.
Al Norton: Do you think you might do crossovers with other Travel Channel shows? Man v. Bizarre Foods, perhaps?
Adam Richman: Ironically enough I’m about to go to Minneapolis where a certain adorable, cuddly bald bear named Andrew Zimmer will be appearing on my show. IT should be really cool. The one I’m really nervous for is Tony Bourdain. I hesitate every time I say this because I know how private he is and how he feels about butt kissing but he is so incredibly cool that I so want to meet him. Not to sit there and talk about food but just to shoot the breeze and talk about the Ramones. OF course right after that segment would be Bridgette from Bridgette’s Sexiest Beaches because my Momma didn’t raise no fool (laughing).
Al Norton: What do you think your fellow Yale School of Drama classmates would say about your current job?
Adam Richman: Here’s the joke: Do you know how many actors it takes to change a light bulb? 11, one to do it and ten to say, “oh, I could have done that so much better.” I think there is an inherent degree of truth in that. Yale was very eye opening for me. I learned a great deal and I acknowledge that I’ve had opportunities because of that school that I would not have had otherwise. The thing is that there are those among my class and fellow graduates, those in my class as well as before and after me, that are theater purists, a little more dramaturgical than thou, you might say. My theory has always been it’s not show art, it’s show business. That may sound terribly callus and I don’t mean it to but I came to the school to improve my instrument but it’s a professional school. If I got an MBA and I didn’t get a job in business well then I really haven’t done what I set out to do. In the same regard, I went to the Yale School of Drama to make acting my profession and to study acting as a craft, and I feel that I do apply it, whether it’s breath support or articulation on voiceovers or those mini-movie montages that we do, many of which I come up with. It’s not that I’ve let that aspect go fallow but if you think that Ibsen and Chekhov are the be all and end all than yes, I suppose that watching an MFA eat a 72 ounce steak you may find less than edifying. But as my friends in Brooklyn like to say, they’re not going to pay my bills, they’re not going to take care of my family. That’s on me to do. I’m having the time of my life and I can only hope that they support me.
The people that I’m closest with from my class are over the moon about it. I try and approach this experience with such gratitude because a year ago I couldn’t get anyone to have me sign a parking ticket. I was another one of the denizens with my messenger bag, reading my sides on the subway and going to Ripley Greer studios on 8th Avenue to audition for a role at the Cleveland Playhouse. Now when I go to Cleveland people ask for my autograph at the airport. What a difference a year makes. I’m happy, and my Mom loves me and is proud of me. The fact that I’m able to do right by my Mom, to pay some bills for her after what she sacrificed, that matters more to me than having my name in the library somewhere.
Don’t miss Man v. Food, Wednesdays at 10 pm on the Travel Channel