“This was the first time that I had to use a machete to get my ingredients,” says Gordon Ramsay about his new National Geographic show, Uncharted. In the show, Ramsay travels to destinations around the globe to cook meals with locals and learn hunting traditions, many of which are physically demanding. Over the course of production, the chef wrestled with eels, rappelled down a waterfall for mushrooms, and got caught in a snowstorm gathering tea.
For this inaugural season (a second season has already been ordered) Nat Geo sent Ramsay to Peru, Morocco, Hawaii, New Zealand, Laos, and Alaska. They spent seven days at each location, with the action kicking off immediately, usually pairing him with a local expert.
The only time Ramsay felt truly in charge was driving the few vintage motorbikes he was able to track down during the travels. “The producers were getting pissed off at me because I wouldn’t get off the bikes,” he says, laughing.
We spoke with the Michelin-starred master about the lessons he learned on the road.
How did you select the places you went for this program?
This was really about showcasing these amazing cultures, and immersing in them, like that of the Tlingit community in Alaska. In the case of places I had been to before, I had been to Cambodia, but never to Laos, which is a completely different kind of experience. I was especially entranced by the Māori culture in New Zealand, and how they not only put food on the table through these ancient practices but also have really shaped the culinary landscape. The majority of them I had never been to before, and the ones that I had, in no way close to this level.
Did one location challenge you more than the others physically?
I would say climbing up a rock face in Alaska was particularly challenging. I was just about halfway up with the crew when a bloody blizzard came in. They came to me and asked if I wanted to turn around, but we were already in it. I just said let’s continue on. Glad we did. It was a stirrup climb, because the rock there is disintegrating and fragile, so we were pulling ourselves up for the most part. The winds got up to about 60 miles per hour, and there was a moment where we could feel the rock shaking.
There is a lot of climbing and diving. How prepared were you for that?
I have always tried to stay fit but I have never dived or climbed to this extent. This show pushed me much further than I have ever been before. I am not built to climb, as you know, but I just got on with it. It was interesting being back in Hawaii, because that is the place that I did my first Ironman, which was another tremendous effort.
Did you bring any cooking gear with you on these trips?
I wanted to tap into what was happening local so I decided to leave all my fancy chef gear behind. I didn’t want to be the new boy at school, you know, “all the gear but no idea.” I wanted to use the local instruments, like the machete in New Zealand that we used to clear our way. Or the knives that we used in Peru to cut the protein. That was definitely the right move, because now I can’t wait until I get to use a machete again.
This show is about engaging with locales on a culinary level. How in line is this to how you usually travel?
I have never been interested in going to amazing places to sit on a sun bed by the pool. I want to see the real side of a city or country. I cook as much as I can when I am traveling. If I am not cooking myself then I am looking for the most authentic experience to the area as I can find. I like to go off-peak and hit the old town. Every city has an old town. I would then do my research when it comes to restaurants and look for places that have been owned by the same family for a few generations cooking local food. You know you are in for a real treat when they barely have a menu for you to look at, because they are planning on cooking you whatever they get that day.
Did you have one place that you would to return to to stay, catch, and cook at?
There were really so many, but it was really special walking on the beach in Hawaii along the fishing shacks. Knowing that they are catching their fish right out there, gutting it and cooking it just steps away. They close when they run out. Those are the kind of places I want to be by, or grab my own fish and kitchen.
Speaking of the culinary elements, what cuisines really surprised and inspired you?
I thought the Asian-influenced dishes in Laos were something special. They were just magical. Fragrant. Delicious. The use of shrimp paste. You look at the Mekong River and what it produces for them. How they are able to thrive and survive during monsoon seasons. I have already brought three different dishes back to our new restaurant in London. That was an exciting development. The other revelation came in New Zealand when we were steaming our fish in a kelp bag. How that process brought this salt to the taste. And then throwing seaweed on the fire to add even more complexity to the fish.
I see you were able to get your hands on a few choice vintage motorbikes. What did you like about riding in these locations when you could?
I really enjoy a little nostalgia when it comes to my transport. Getting to ride around Peru in a beautiful BSA motorcycle from the 1960s. I have my fingers crossed that I will get to bring more bikes like that with me in the second season. One great part was that where we were going there were no traffic wardens or parking meters. But really, there is no better way to really soak in the coastlines and the mountain views from every vantage point. There is nothing like it.
Uncharted with Gordon Ramsay airs Sundays on National Geographic.