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Gordon Ramsay's New Show Is a Toothless Attempt to Follow in Anthony Bourdain's Footsteps

'Uncharted' struggles to find its place between the authenticity of 'Parts Unknown' and the drama of 'Kitchen Nightmares.'

by Bettina Makalintal
23 July 2019, 4:44am

Photo by Ernesto Benavides, courtesy National Geographic

When news of Gordon Ramsay's National Geographic show Uncharted broke last summer, critics piled on and rightly so, calling it "the last thing the food world needs right now" and a "colonialist mess," and describing Ramsay as "no Anthony Bourdain," who had died just a month before. The brash British chef responded exactly as one would expect. "Judge [Uncharted] when you see it," he told Entertainment Weekly, "I can’t wait to make all those bitter, twisted, little, boring truckers who aren’t busy enough in their lives eat their words."

Uncharted premiered yesterday with a pilot episode set in Peru's Sacred Valley, where Ramsay scales a mountainside with acclaimed chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz, learns to prepare local dishes including roasted guinea pigs, and then presents dishes inspired by what he's learned to elders. The six-episode series traverses through New Zealand, Morocco, Hawaii, Laos, and the Alaskan panhandle. Parts of Uncharted have a fun showiness: Ramsay puts himself at the butt of jokes ("I'm Gordon James, not James Bond," he says, when he sees a cliff he'll have to scale); he rides a motorcycle, and cooks outside over open fire at high-altitude. Still, after watching three of those episodes, it's fair to make the call: Uncharted feels less like eating those words of criticism, and more like chewing on gristle—tedious and bland.

Because a lot has happened in a full year, let's revisit the controversy. As described in the press release, the then-pre production Uncharted would have three parts: "unlocking a culture’s culinary secrets" through exploration, "tracking down high-octane traditions, pastimes and customs that are specific to the region in hopes of discovering the undiscovered," and "testing Ramsay against the locals, pitting his own interpretations of regional dishes against the tried-and-true classics."

That "anthropology-through-cuisine" slant relied on a foundation of colonialism, Alicia Kennedy wrote in the Washington Post. It wasn't a great look for a platform that had just publicly acknowledged its racist history and its effects on the people it covered. There was the idea that foreign cultures aren't valid or real until experienced by Westerners—"This is definitely uncharted territory," Ramsay says at the end of the show's intro, despite having been brought to communities by local guides—and also the idea that Western knowledge is needed to improve them.

"The ridiculousness of Ramsay’s premise lies in a flawed belief that Old World culinary technique is the standard by which all food should be measured. And that’s absolutely not true," said now- San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho in Kennedy's piece. News this past February of Ramsay's London-based Lucky Cat—described in a release as "the go-to destination for exquisite, authentic Asian cuisine"—smacked of similar sentiments.

To others, the idea that a man known primarily for shouty, know-it-all verbal abuse could approach travel with the same level of care and respect as Bourdain also seemed unlikely. "The sound you hear is Bourdain, who died in June," Tim Carman wrote, also in the Washington Post, "trying to convince St. Peter to give him a day pass so he can come back and slap some sense into Ramsay, who apparently didn’t read the Columbusing memo on white men 'discovering the undiscovered.'"

For the most part, Bourdain earned the respect of people from the cultures he covered because he sat down, broke bread, and listened. "Black folks loved this man because he didn't appropriate, when it came to us all he could do was celebrate. He told the world we were the center of Southern & Brazilian food and he let us speak for ourselves," tweeted the food historian and author Michael Twitty, who added that Bourdain "challenged us to not see bad or good but human."

The criticism must be discussed because, watching Uncharted, it seems vaguely like the network has taken some of these conversations into account. The controversial competition aspect, for example, isn't so much a Master Chef-style cook-off as it is Ramsay sitting casually outside with a group of Peruvian elders, serving what he's learned about their cuisines, and being told that his undercooked meat wasn't a popular choice. "I want to cook what I've understood," Ramsay says, before the cooking challenge. And instead of screaming at people, Ramsay's obscenities are reserved for situations: dangling off a mountainside, or being surprised by a guinea pig, for example.

While it's impossible to know what decisions happened behind the scenes, the show just feels walked-back. It's biting off pieces of other shows—the authenticity of Parts Unknown, the Ramsayisms of Kitchen Nightmares, the shock factor of Man vs. Wild—but never fully committing to any of them. The result is a show that isn't so much bad as it is vaguely boring to watch. For some of us, I imagine, that's a relief when what we expected was off-the-rails offensive. But if a travel show feels lost, what's the point?

From a viewer standpoint, the success of travel shows comes when a host can convey experiences we might not be able to experience. No Reservations and Parts Unknown worked, for example, because Bourdain seemed in control of the narrative; he was there to ask questions, not to answer them. In Uncharted, Ramsay doesn't seem sure of what the narrative is and his role in it—should he be Nice Gordon, or the Gordon everyone has come to love (and hate)?

Ramsay, in the version sold to us most prominently as the kitchen's angry, macho, shouting, authoritarian white man, is not the understanding drinking buddy of Bourdain. If Bourdain helped us see "not bad or good but human," as Twitty wrote, Ramsay, through Kitchen Nightmares, operates on a binary of good and bad, with little regard for the human collateral between. For Ramsay to work in the context of Uncharted—reliant upon the on-the-ground knowledge and expertise of others, and in places more daring than the kitchen—the show needed a different type of Ramsay.

That change, of course, is good. But it seems that for Uncharted, there's the rub: Ramsay is caught between two worlds. There's a clear desire on his part to learn and grow from other cultures, but there's also the shroud of Ramsay's long-standing persona, built on a foundation of being presumed as the only person in the room who's worth a damn. In the context of how we know Ramsay, the show's deference feels forced and tenuous. As a result, the show can't quite make up its mind about what it is either, and it makes for an experience that isn't compelling.

The adrenaline-inducing stunts and Ramsay's willingness to go along with whatever his hosts throw at him pull the show along, but ultimately, there's not much thrust behind the story. What's the point of Ramsay being told his food is good or bad, other than some sort of feeling of indirect retribution for his bad behavior on other shows? And sure, Ramsay pays attention as locals teach their customs and traditions, but it's easy to wonder whether listening felt as tedious for him as it feels to watch the show.

Perhaps Uncharted was doomed by its premise, perhaps the critiques put too many tensions in the show's creation, perhaps Ramsay just wasn't feeling it. In any case, it doesn't quite hold up to the legacy of either Parts Unknown or of Kitchen Nightmares. Both of those, at least, have a little more heart behind them.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.