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‘Uncharted’ culinary territory is life-changing for Gordon Ramsay

Outside his comfort zone, the ‘MasterChef’ learns the methods of other cultures and savors the feeling of vulnerability.

Chef Gordon Ramsay cooks on an outdoor stove of hot rocks in Peru’s Sacred Valley, in an episode of his new travel/culinary series “Uncharted.
Chef Gordon Ramsay cooks on an outdoor stove of hot rocks in Peru’s Sacred Valley, in an episode of his new travel/culinary series “Uncharted.”
National Geographic/Ernesto Bena

Gordon Ramsay’s latest TV series is all about cooking, chefs and unique ingredients. Sound familiar?

If you’re thinking “Hell’s Kitchen” or “MasterChef” (his hit reality competition series on Fox), forget about it.

This time out there is no gourmet kitchen on steroids, no showdown of cutthroat chefs vying for the chance to helm the next tony Ramsay eatery. It’s a brave new world.

Ramsay’s latest TV foray is titled “Uncharted” (9 p.m. Sundays on the National Geographic Channel), and for the 52-year-old Michelin-starred chef who has elevated cooking — and restaurant kitchen expletives — to an art form, the title represents culinary and cultural discoveries from around the globe that wowed him at every turn. But it’s also a journey of self-discovery for Ramsay, who admits the last time he felt so vulnerable was as a 23-year-old in Paris, questioning whether he’d ever be as good as the master toques in some of the best restaurants in France where he honed his skills.

Gordon Ramsay prepares a feast for the locals he met during his culinary adventures in Peru’s Sacred Valley during the filming of “Uncharted.”
Gordon Ramsay prepares a feast for the locals he met during his culinary adventures in Peru’s Sacred Valley during the filming of “Uncharted.”
National Geographic/Ernesto Bena

The six-part “Uncharted” takes Ramsay to Peru, New Zealand, Morocco, Hawaii, Laos and Alaska, where, each week, he uncovers (literally) ingredients and culinary traditions from “some of the best chefs in the world” and the local residents eager open their hearts and homes to the newcomer. From barbecuing guinea pig in Peru to cooking braised goat in a 3-by-6-foot pit he must first dig with a shovel in New Zealand, to savoring camel meat cooked in clay tandoors in the fiery bowels of a bath house, Ramsay finds himself way outside his culinary comfort zone, and that’s a very good thing, he says.

“I love working hard. I’ve never shied away from it,” Ramsey says. “I started out [in his career] with nothing. ... I get embarrassed with the adulation and the fame because for me it’s all about the passion. Some people become famous but don’t have a passion. For me it’s just something inside me. I’m the real deal. I’m a chef, and that gets misconstrued because of the popularity of the programs or a billion hits on YouTube. I lean more toward the heartbeat of where I come from more than anything.”

Here’s more of what Ramsay had to say about his very personal journey in “Uncharted.”

Q. How did you select the destinations featured in the series, and what surprised you about them and yourself along the way?

A. I like to go to places that I haven’t been to before. For example, I’ve eaten Moroccan food before. I’ve perfected the cuisine. But in those markets [we visited] and coming to understand the Berber community, they way they live — foraging, rappelling down that waterfall to get these amazing ingredients — was extraordinary. I’ve never done any of this s-— before [Laughs]. You don’t get a chance to practice and rehearse this. You either make it or you don’t.

Chef Gordon Ramsay (left) battles a strong river current while diving for snails with locals in Laos for an episode of “Uncharted.”
Chef Gordon Ramsay (left) battles a strong river current while diving for snails with locals in Laos for an episode of “Uncharted.”
National Geographic/Jock Montgom

It was like, shut the f--- up about your Michelin stars. There’s something quite unique about being in that situation, about the vulnerability. That’s the level of insecurity that got me to where I am today. I went on this kind of journey once before — moving to Paris when I was 21 and getting my ass kicked thinking I’m never gonna get as good as these guys. That’s exactly how I treated this series.

Listen, I’ve been to Alaska, but spending time with the Tlingit community where we were snowed in and couldn’t move anywhere. And there’s this smokehouse with a father and daughter and the daughter is patting down the intestines of a seal she shot that day to stack and get it smoked to take to school for some snacks. How cool is that?

Moroccan chef Najat Kaanache and Gordon Ramsay prepare their meals for a Moroccan New Year celebration.
Moroccan chef Najat Kaanache and Gordon Ramsay prepare their meals using traditional methods and ingredients for a Moroccan New Year celebration.
National Geographic/Mark Johnson

Q. Part of what’s cool about this series is that you prove you don’t need a big, fancy kitchen to create extraordinary food.

A. Trust me — in the outbacks where I was, there is no Williams Sonoma with all their f—-ing worthless kitchen equipment.

Digging a pit [with Maori chef Monique Fiso] in New Zealand — I’ve never cooked a goat like that in my life. It was literally falling off the bone. The meat was so succulent and so tender and so delicious. What an amazing way of cooking. Heating up those rocks! And then baking an amazing dessert in there, too. But this is how they live every day of their lives, cultivating the food they eat. The gratefulness for what they cultivate and cook — there’s no pity party going on. They survive.

That was the exciting thing on this journey for me. Watching how families live to survive. ... It’s nice to just slow down. No TV, no iPads. [I met] kids [who] are farming at the age of 10 and scaling mountains [for their ingredients] and are fit as a marathon runner by the time they’re 15!

Q. Were there moments when even a chef of your caliber found your culinary skills were almost inadequate? Did you find out new things about your skills that you didn’t even know you had?

A. Yes. right. Digging that 3-by-6 pit. My back was f—-ed 20 minutes into it. And I’m like s—-. So [chef] Monique said, “Give me the shovel and I’ll do it.” I’m watching this girl dig a hole and I’m thinking, “S—-, she wants to put me in there because I’m so slow.” [Laughs] Then you look at the technique — the chopping board [a slice of a tree stump] — and nothing prepares you for that. You’re stripped of everything. You think you’ve got everything in your drawer and I realize after a while I’ve got nothing! So you dig deep, you improvise. You don’t look for the sharpest knife. You don’t worry about having the best chopping board. You don’t have the most amazing kitchen equipment. You just get on with it.

Q. What are three key ingredients or dishes that you simply must now have in your world?

A. The amazing Alaskan king salmon. It’s just extraordinary. Just slice it with a touch of lemon. That beautiful Paua clam I went diving for in New Zealand. Just exquisite. And those purple potatoes from Peru. The flavor of those potatoes!

New Zealand - Gordon Ramsay prepares a meal with local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques for elders in New Zealand. (Humble Pie Rights Limited/Justin Mandel)
Gordon Ramsay prepares a meal with local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques for elders in New Zealand on “Uncharted.”
Humble Pie Rights Limited/Justin Mandel