How does one go from the Yale School of Drama to eating 7 pound breakfast burritos for a living (with a stint on Law & Order in between)? Heeb chats with Adam Richman, the host of the #1 rated show on the Travel Channel, Man v. Food, about his circuitous route to foodie fame.
For those unfamiliar with his show, Richman, 36, travels the country in search of the best regional grub, stopping in greasy spoons across the nation to compete in food challenges along the way. He’s memorably taken on a milkshake challenge (drink five 24-oz milkshakes in under 30 minutes), a curry so hot it might be the spiciest in the world, and 15 dozen oysters (yes, that’s 180 oysters). Each time a cook brings him some carbo-monstrosity you think, “he really can’t eat this,” yet more often than not, Richman does — the sweat breaking out on his forehead and all. To some, it might be food porn at its finest while others are merely grossed out as evidenced by comments on the internet and one particularly biting remark from Food Network star, Alton Brown. Either way, you have to give the guy some credit for how much he can pack it in.
But don’t think all he does is pig out for a living. These last few months have been particularly busy for Richman who recently came out with a new book, America the Edible, a collection of food finds, memories, and what he calls “culinary anthropology”. He also has a new version of his popular show, now called Man v. Food Nation. Amidst all this, Richman found time to talk to us about some of his hardest challenges (“cold eggs suck”), Jewish frats and shiksas, and why cooks shouldn’t try to beat him.
So did I see you on a Law & Order episode?
You did. Law & Order: Trial By Jury. You saw me play Officer Marty Cataldo. I’m a swarthy Jew so naturally I always play Latin or Italian.
I understand you have a Master’s from the Yale Drama School? How did you go from Theater and Television to hosting a food show on the Travel Channel?
Basically I have been working in restaurants since I was a teenager. I acted in my youth and did some TV stuff as a kid. Stopped it. Did a little bit in high school. Went away to college. I was told like most good, northeastern Jewish boys that I was gonna be a doctor. Went away to Emory, which is basically like part of the L.I.E [Long Island Expressway]/Jersey Turnpike attached to 85 South (and I actually did an experiment at Emory with my friends: I went into Cox Hall which is this dining hall and I yelled out “David!” and a bunch of guys turned around. “Seth!” and a bunch of dudes turned around. “Michael! Andrew! Aaron!” You know, whatever. And then we did it with the girls. “Lara! Dara! Tara! Sara! Mara! Sara! Tara! Jamie! Jodie! Lindsay! Stephanie!”) You know what I mean? Oh my god. So naturally, the first thing I did was date a shiksa. But, yeah, come on, my name is Adam — forbidden fruit is my stock in trade. So I went to Emory and then in a $5 bet with a fraternity brother of mine, I auditioned for the theater program there and just unlocked something.
What fraternity were you in out of curiosity?
I’m a Jew, pick one of the three! Seriously, pick one of the three.
OK. ZBT, AEPi, what’s the other one?
Ding ding ding! Number two. You got it. AEPi. It’s Sammy, ZBT or AEPi, right? I was in AEPi. I started acting, decided I wanted to make a go at it and starting acting professionally. I had a research grant, I lived in Ireland for a bit, I lived on an Indian reservation for a bit. But what started happening [is] my junior year, I started keeping a food journal. It happened randomly. I had a monster break-up with a Jewish girl from New Jersey. I bought one of those Moleskine books probably to write, like, kind of douche-y, sappy, college-boy broken-heart poetry. And then I just kept doing it and then eventually that journal became a reference tool, if you will. I kept it up through living in all these places. I kept auditioning, kept acting. Got into Yale. Got agents out of school. Began doing regional theater and television and in so doing, again, augmented my journal. I auditioned for Man v. Food. I had nothing to do with the conception or the creation of it at least in the initial stages. I auditioned. It was a six-round process. No challenges along the way, it was just talking about food.
So no challenges, tell me about the audition process if they weren’t actually seeing you in action yet?
Yeah. So you had to eat this-and-that and the other and they needed to see that you can eat.
And they were taking a big risk because what if they hired someone who, unlike you, was gonna go to these barbecue challenges in Nashville and then suck?
And tank. [During] the final screen test it was like, “Holy Shit. They really alley-ooped this one for me!” because the final screen test was at Katz’s Deli. If you’re a New York Jew, you know fucking Katz’s! I went there a day before, learned it, just fine-tuned it and came in. And I came in and I worked out like a beast that morning, didn’t eat that much the day before, and I walked into Katz’s and that smell was like ambrosia. And to be given a reuben and fries and slaw and whatever from Katz’s deli for free — it wasn’t a challenge. And it was interviews, screen tests, this-that-and-the-other and they said basically “You have the job, provided there’s a job to have.” We shot the pilot in Memphis [and] we were picked up for 10 episodes. A day before our San Jose challenge, which was approximately 4 episodes before the end of Season 1 we were told we were picked up for another 20. And then by that point we had asserted ourselves as the #1 show on the network and the highest-rated show in its history.
So when your agent first told you about the casting, did you ever think it would become, as you said, the #1 show on the Travel Channel and it would take off the way it has?
No, no. And anyone who would ever answer “yes” to that question is an arrogant douche. [Laughs]
So let’s talk a little bit about your new show. How does Man v. Food Nation differ from its predecessor, Man v. Food? What’s different about this new iteration?
You got it. Man v. Food was essentially everything in the context of Adam. Adam, this culinary warrior, knowledgeable traveler, goes to America and finds the greatest chow down spots. In terms of reality, I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn — how the hell will I ever know about, like, the Dagwood Challenge in Columbus, Ohio? The fact is, the only way I knew about the Dagwood is because hundreds of people attempted it before me and they created the legend that I answered the call of. The thing is, it’s a fine line before that kind of thing becomes self-aggrandizing. So I wanted to actually showcase the people who helped create the legend, the people of the community taking on these iconic challenges.
I understand you recently came out with a book, America the Edible. Can you talk a little bit more about the book and your theories on regional foods? Why do you think New York Jews like Chinese food so damn much?
Because what else is open on Christmas?! I have been around Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton looking for Chinese food on Christmas more times than I can count. It’s like a law. Jews go to movies and eat Chinese food. America the Edible was very much inspired by the food journal I’d been keeping since Junior year. My theory is that the bagel you have while you’re running to the subway is not the bagel you have while you’re cuddling with someone Sunday morning with the Times in bed. It could be the exact same. You go to H&H and you get the exact same bagel but you’re running to the “2” train and you’re grabbing a bagel and a little cup of coffee or you wake up late, it’s 11 o’clock, you have the bagel, you toast it, you come back to bed, you kiss, you do the crossword together. And suddenly this bagel goes from sustenance and fuel to a shared, plush carbohydrate experience.
So I kind of talked about that and I wanted to work in this sort of macro eye, this sort of culinary Anthropology…what’s a good example I can use from the book? Alright, Hawaii. Everyone will always think of the two flavors of Hawaii being pineapple and ham, right? The thing is, neither pineapple nor pigs are indigenous to Hawaii. They were brought there. The original Polynesians brought them there. The only thing that really was there was taro, which became poi. Everything else was brought.
And don’t they eat a lot of Spam in Hawaii now? Because of the army?
They do. They eat Spam because it was in labor camps. There were Japanese labor camps. Between the naval bases and poverty among migrant workers, suddenly they had these canned goods readily available. So there’s a thing called a spam musubi. And it’s nori sheets with rice, egg, furikake and a slice of spam. And it’s this huge snack around Hawaii.
Is it any good?
I’ve had it. It’s pretty good. Maybe an acquired taste. I like spam musubi, but they have all different kinds. But that is a direct line to Japanese labor camps. America the Edible, though, it’s that stuff. It’s my own foodie adventures like I said. There are recipes inspired from or taken from the restaurants featured in each chapter. There are lists of everything from great eating streets throughout the U.S. to condiments you don’t have in your fridge but should. There are lists in the book like “great, authentic Asian restaurants in Cleveland.” I know there’s a lot of stuff about my love life…
What do girlfriends or dates think about your job? Is it something that wins you fans in that department, would you say?
[Laughs] Wow. That’s a great question! You have to get past the fact that we live in a culture where if you’re on TV, some people will just be attracted to you because you’re on TV and that’s nobody I want to be with. People who just view me as a curiosity and stuff like that, you know? As the Beastie Boys say “I’ve got no time in my life to get uptight y’all.” So I just don’t mess with that. Some girls, I just dig it.
You’ve sort of become this foodie sex symbol. I don’t know if you realize this but when you google your name, some of the things that come up as the most popular searches are “Adam Richman Weddings” or “Adam Richman Married.” What do you think about that?
Really? I’m shocked. I guess I’m shocked.
You need to google yourself.
Really? Wow. Wow. I guess I normally avoid that stuff because who likes to read bad stuff about them if that’s out there too so I generally try to stay off message boards and comments pages.
I have to ask you: How many times has a challenge, uh, not gone well? I believe the euphemism you’ve used for puking on the show is “reversal of fortune?” Do you have any particularly gruesome tales?
There was one time on camera in St. Louis where we cut to a screen that said “Trust us folks, it ain’t pretty.” But honestly, you’d be astonished how often people will approach me, ostensibly a complete stranger, and ask about medical stuff, cholesterol, ask about bathroom stuff. ‘Cause in a million years, you would never talk to another human being about that if he didn’t do this for a living.
Can you tell us a little bit about your typical diet or exercise regimen when you’re not doing these challenges? How do you not become obese?
Well I’m not doing the challenges anymore so that’s the first thing. When I’m not filming, I try to keep it very, very healthy as best I can. When I [went] home or when I would come off the road I would be essentially vegetarian. I do lots of supplements. I stay at hotels with gyms and I try to get a bare minimum of a half hour of cardio in a day. Lots and lots of water. And I do cleanses and stuff like that. From doctor-approved stuff, not like hippie-dippy stuff.
Right. And when you were doing the challenges, did you have a specific routine each morning before you’d go on location to shoot?
You know, it depended upon the type of challenge, quite honestly. Spicy challenge vs. quantity challenge. But before quantity challenges it was always lots of exercise like leg and back work-outs in particular. They’re your biggest muscle group so they activate your metabolism quite a bit. And then I would do interval sprints on the treadmill or jump rope.
Have there ever been challenges where you’re forced to eat an ingredient that you dislike?
Yeah, absolutely. Denver — the Denver challenge! I don’t like green peppers and I don’t like little chunks of ham and that challenge had both.
Remind me what that challenge was again?
It was a gigantic breakfast burrito that the guy actually made bigger than he said. Like it was supposed to be 7 pounds. He thought the idea was to stop me and so he deliberately made it unbeatable and I’m like “Dumb, dumb, dumb move because the places where I win the challenge always do better business.” ‘Cause people watch it and they go “if that schmuck can do it, I can do it.”