Best known for his tough mentoring tactics in restaurant-centered titles Hell’s Kitchen and 24 Hrs to Hell and Back, Gordon Ramsay finds himself far away from stainless steel appliances and starched chef’s whites in his latest culinary series, National Geographic’s Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.
In Uncharted, the multi-Michelin-starred chef headed out on a gastronomical quest that sent him to five different continents as he made stops in Peru, Laos, Morocco, New Zealand, Hawaii and Alaska. The journey challenged both the fortitude of Ramsay’s palate and his physical endurance as in between bites of rare local finds, the chef found himself canoeing down the Mekong, scaling steep mountains and rappelling down waterfalls. “I think like anything in life, if you want the best, then you have to work for it anywhere you are, and food is no different,” says Ramsay.
“Uncharted was diving into those unknown secrets, and getting offbeat, away from the tourist-y parts, embedding myself in that community, and from a chef’s point of view, getting close to the source,” says the owner of 35 restaurants worldwide, who, by his own admission, has spent two decades with amazing ingredients arriving at his doorstep. Uncharted provided him the opportunity to traverse the lands from whence they came—and to uncover ingredients he’d yet to savor.
Says Ramsay, “I’ve tasted ingredients across this program that I’ve never tasted before. The high-altitude fruit farm, a tiny farm in the mountains of Peru, the intense flavor was extraordinary. We’ll never get to buy that ingredient in London. It was so nice to see new ingredients tasting incredibly different to what we’re used to.”
Throughout the making of Uncharted, it was important to Ramsay to have young chefs from his various kitchens tagging along and learning about what people are eating the world over. “I took the blinkers off of these young chefs and dropped them into the obscurity in order to broaden their horizons and become less dependent on social media, and a little bit closer to the DNA,” says Ramsay. “The Maori, for instance, cooking in a hangi, getting beautiful kelp bags diving in New Zealand and steaming cod inside these bags. Then, these incredible pastes that we were using in Lau, the fish paste, and the spices, and the blend was incredible. Then, foraging in the Atlas Mountains in the middle of Morocco. Extraordinary.”
The Scottish-born Ramsay grew up in England’s Stratford-upon-Avon, where his mother worked as a cook in the High Street, his tasting table featuring ham hock soup with fresh barley, steak and kidney pie, poached tripe in milk with onions, grilled liver, bread-and-butter-pudding and, of course, Sunday roasts. While it can’t be said that Ramsay would ever turn his back on the traditional plates of his U.K. homeland, he has an appreciation for fare from all across the globe. He’s blown away by the produce in Greece, the food that Turkish chefs have brought with them to L.A., the wine in Israel and both the local sourcing and French influences in Canadian cuisine. For the dedicated diner and world voyager, food is a language unto itself, one that required no translator in the travels he undertook in Uncharted.
“Languages are difficult to understand, especially when you’re traveling the way I do. But there’s one language that we can all speak without understanding each other verbally, and it’s through food,” says Ramsay. “Breaking bread in those communities and understanding them through their food was so much quicker to get to the DNA of what they stood for.”
“That cultural intrusion and understanding their DNA, for me, was just almost benefitting what I stand for in terms of bringing those cultures together and having an amazing exchange of dialogue through food that enhances everything I’m learning,” he adds of the culinary lessons he heeded that he can apply back in his own kitchens.
Before Uncharted premiered, way back when it was first announced, it was met with a healthy amount of skepticism. It hadn’t been long since Anthony Bourdain, the beloved epicurean who fronted such favored foodie series as Parts Unknown, No Reservations and The Layover had died, and many were wary of what at first glance appeared to be a copycat—and a premature one at that—in Uncharted. For Ramsay, the blowback was upsetting, not least because he counted the late chef and TV personality as a pal.
“Tony was a great friend of mine, and we shared many a time across the table with a glass of wine, and such a tragic loss,” said Ramsay, adding, “I would never, ever attempt to copy anybody in their profession.” He continued, “I was more upset with people criticizing Uncharted without having seen it. Now that the program’s out and clearly been successful and rated very well, I’m at peace now, because it’s good for them to see there’s no comparison. It’s completely different. And it’s me doing what I do best, an adventure with food, understanding cultures, and from becoming an amazing prolific chef to becoming a teacher, to becoming a pupil, stripped of everything I know, and putting myself into that area of their expertise.”
A second season of Uncharted was given the green light by National Geographic before the first season even bowed. Ramsay and his team are aiming to do it up even bigger for the show’s sophomore outing, with stops planned for Tasmania, Indonesia, Jamaica and South Africa, “places that are incredible culturally laced with some of the most exciting cuisines ever,” says Ramsay.