ABOUT CHEF UNLEASHED
People pitch me TV ideas all the time. Some are good, some not so good. Having done my fair share of TV, I’ve gotten to a place where I’m particular about the projects I choose to do. I’ve also watched how our celebrity-driven culture has infiltrated the food world, with some alarming side-effects. But I’m getting off-topic.
Last year, a couple of guys approached me about doing a food/adventure show called Chef Unleashed. One of them had written about me a couple of times in food magazines and the other was known for directing music videos and concert movies. I was intrigued. The approach they suggested was fresh and honest and, as it would turn out, envelope-pushing: They actually wanted to do a show that would challenge and excite me, a chef, and, in so doing, challenge and excite viewers.
The impulse behind the show was simple: Everybody onboard loves food, is fascinated by where it comes from, and is not squeamish about how to get it, whether it might be game hunted on open terrain or tuna hand-gaffed by blood-soaked Sicilian fisherman, a tradition that goes back 1,000 years. As the guys wrote in their proposal, “Chef Unleashed invites the viewer on a global eating exploration. It’s a new kind of reality show, about where good food really comes from—when it’s done right.”
I appreciated the directness and honesty, along with the prospect of traveling the world to explore how the very best food is raised, butchered, or farmed in its native habitat: Chef Unleashed would have me put on waders, pick up a rifle, wear a hardhat, don overalls, whatever it might take. Real stuff. Challenging and yet totally entertaining. No oohing and aahing studio audience. No eating of 40-pound omelettes or 9-foot hoagies. No races or contests.
We went to the Texas Hill Country in January and shot a pilot with one of my favorite purveyors: Broken Arrow Ranch. They’re the go-to guys for wild game in the US. We had a blast. I learned how to “field harvest” deer alongside their sharpshooters and, in turn, I taught them how to use the whole animal, including the heart, the kidneys, the liver. We had a huge feast at the end, outside, with the moon rising. Some of the ranch guys were pretty skeptical about a.) my hunting ability (well, honestly, I was skeptical about my hunting ability, too), and b.) my approach to cooking. But when it was all over, everyone was fast friends. We learned a ton from each other and it was, I have to say, one of the very best days I’ve ever experienced as a chef and easily my best experience doing TV.
The guys working on the show captured it all brilliantly: my excitement, my apprehension, my eyes opening – and my hosts’ too — to new ways of doing food. I have no doubt that the pilot will open more eyes, right down to the very frank, honest, and totally riveting footage of Texas deer – majestic, gorgeous animals — being hunted (and butchered) to provide food for our dinner tables.
Oops. Mistake. Yes, we were pretty aware that we were, to repeat the phrase, pushing the envelope with this. And I admit, it was pretty gory stuff. If you watch, you’ll see my very real reaction to it.
But this was not – at all – about shock value. This was all about getting down to the very source of the very best food and showing where it comes from. People who know me know I’ve been waging war against our Styrofoam-wrapped, hormone-pumped supermarket culture my entire career. Chef Unleashed allows me to continue that by other means, along with cracking some jokes, making new friends, and preparing some great food. But I suspect that some squeamishness – both the kind that I encounter occasionally in diners at Incanto, but, seriously, more often in TV executives who like to say they’re always looking for the next “new” thing, but in reality are pretty terrified when they ever really see anything new – got in the way of our show: The program made its way around the network that paid for it. And then just kind of petered out. Whatever. These things happen all the time and I refuse to take it personally. I’ve done other projects that didn’t get above the ground floor. Fair enough.
But this one is different. I think it’s a great opportunity for viewers and for a network game enough to break the boundaries of where food TV is right now. I’ve said way too much and yet I don’t think I’ve even given the best picture of what I think this show could become — something, I believe, that can inspire a lot of people in their own kitchens, in their own journeys. It’s part travel show, part cooking show, and total adventure. It’s a food and travel show that looks and feels like no other. I love it and, even in this roughed-out pilot form, I think you might, too.
Thanks for checking it out.