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How Cooking-Travel Shows Are Changing TV

Toyo hunches over his street food stove, cooking tuna with a blow torch, stopping to light his cigarette with it and produce a cheeky grin.

The Japanese chef, who owns a roadside stand in the city of Osaka, is one of many highlighted in the Netflix series “Street Food.” Over the course of 30 minutes, Toyo talks about his difficult upbringing and his tooth and nail fight to open the restaurant and keep it that way.

Being able to see stories like Toyo’s on screen is one of the beauties of food TV in the era in which we currently find ourselves. Shows are now travelling all around the world and, in the spirit of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, delving into local cultures and cuisines through the eyes and personal stories of those sweating behind the wok, forming the focaccia and hacking through dense forest to find that special ingredient.

What’s interesting, however, is the different approaches that this year’s shows take to the task of featuring cuisines from around the world.

On the one hand is Gordon Ramsay’s method, showcased in his new Nat Geo series “Uncharted” premiering tonight, which combines learning from the locals, a decent dose of adventure and, in typical Ramsay fashion, a sprinkle of healthy competition.

The key ingredients to the shouty chef’s latest venture are the local experts and chefs who guide him, mentor him and challenge him at each destination.

In one episode set in Morocco, Ramsay is put to the task by Najat Kaanache, a feisty chef who was rejected from working at one of Ramsay’s restaurants when she was younger and is not afraid to let him hear about it.

“She busts his chops because he didn’t hire her,” says “Uncharted” executive producer and showrunner Jon Kroll. “And then Monique, the chef from New Zealand, is this badass machete-wielding Maori, so he can barely keep up with her, it’s a unique relationship he has with each chef.”

Each hour-long episode being set in one country gives Ramsay the time to get to know local people and begin to understand their cuisine. At the end of each episode, he is challenged by each mentor chef to a cook-off in which he prepares dishes using the ingredients he has learned about and climbed down waterfalls to collect. Nat Geo vice president of global scripted entertainment Geoff Daniels describes the series as “dirt under the nails exploration,” bookended with a “trial by fire.”

While this may seem like a manufactured end to the show, the intrigue in those moments often comes when the locals he presents his dishes to don’t hold back on what they think, which “brings out a side of Gordon that Americans haven’t seen.”

“He’s really a fish out of water, most people in these places have no idea who he is, and he faces some of the harshest critics he’s ever faced in these locals who don’t know he’s a celebrated chef with Michelin stars. They don’t hesitate to tell him when something is under cooked or under seasoned,” Kroll says.

Indeed in the episode set in Peru, one of Ramsay’s dishes could have done with a little more time in the oven and remains almost uneaten on the table. Viewers are used to seeing Ramsay refuse to eat and even spit out what’s presented to him on “Kitchen Nightmares,” so it feels like a welcome dose of his own medicine.

Other shows, like “Street Food,” lean entirely into telling the local stories, but without the presence of a celebrity chef host.

David Gelb, executive producer on “Street Food” and one of the Supper Club minds behind much of Netflix’s foodie content, reveals that the show was born out of working on “Chef’s Table” and wanting to move away from grandiose restaurants and Michelin-starred subjects.

“Their lives haven’t been laid out in thus biographical way before,” Gelb says of the chefs featured in the show. “We take great inspiration from the late Anthony Bourdain, a personal hero of mine and great influence on our show, and we loved how he would always go into cities wherever he was shooting and look for the real flavor, the real society here, avoiding any tourist traps. We were taking that cue from him and going even deeper into the lives of these characters.”

With shooting on the streets of major cities such as Bangkok, Delhi and Seoul came the extra challenge of cramped environments and members of the public going bustling around them; a far cry from the “controlled restaurants environments” of “Chef’s Table.”

“This show has  a bit more of a loose feel to it….We’re out on the streets, on the corners, in little stalls, in shared markets, and so we need to find ways to not interfere, not get in the way, while still delivering the kind of quality and beautiful aesthetic that people expect,” Gelb says.

Shooting abroad more or less “on the fly” is a problem that host Samin Nosrat and director Caroline Suh face on “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” as well.

Based on Nosrat’s cookbook which posits that the four titular elements are key to all good cooking, the series sees the Berkeley-based chef travel to Italy, Japan and Mexico to meet local chefs and experts to find out how they produce and use each element differently. Suh says they centered the show deliberately around home cooks and local producers to ensure that “cooking didn’t seem like an unattainable project that only world famous chefs could engage in.”

“Good food around the world is more similar than it is different,” explains Nosrat. “Originally I thought about it as a show where we go to many different countries per episode and then eventually, once we had a production deal and budgets and reality and timelines, that got whittled down to one country per episode.”

But Nosrat believes that, as with Ramsay’s show, keeping each episode to one destination helped her get to know the characters she meets and understand the cuisine better.

One important aspect of the series which Nosrat “thought about for a long time,” and which seemingly governs all three shows, is avoiding stepping on people’s toes.

“For me a lot of it comes down to being the daughter if immigrants who grew up in the States, so I show up and I want to ask questions and I don’t ever want to tread too heavily on someone else’s ground. I wouldn’t like it if someone come into my house and was like, let me show you what I know, how we do it from where I’m from,” she says. “We’ve traveled all this way to learn from these people, so it was really important for me to defer to them and let them show me, because one of the things I’ve learned as a writer is that when I’m interviewing people, the moment that I become silent, that I leave that extra little pause, that extra little minute is when they start to say the surprising them.”

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