Adam Richman spends the first several minutes of our interview discussing the best way to get places in L.A., as most Angelenos do. He can't count himself one anymore, but he used to live here, coincidentally one block from this writer's current residence.
Now, however, Richman is a citizen of the world. He travels most of the year filming, for Travel Channel's Man vs. Food and his newest gig, Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America, which premieres tonight.
As is his shtick, on camera, Richman is usually seen downing mass quantities of food — piles of pancakes, hundreds of spicy chicken wings, burgers the size of basketballs — and as such, he's become known as the guy who stuffs his face unrelentingly. That's barely the surface of him, however, as we discovered during our lengthy conversation. He's a dedicated food anthropologist, author, actor and baseball fan. He's kept a food journal for years. He speaks multiple languages. He has a master's degree from Yale, for goodness' sake. To write him off as a glutton is to shortchange him immensely.
He also, for what it's worth, is a really friendly guy. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: How many weeks would you say you travel per year?
Adam Richman: [Whistles.] Quite a bit. I would say, conservatively speaking, 40. And that's work-related travel, so if I go away on my own … but generally speaking, January through September is pretty much straight filming, with a couple days off here and there.
SI: Does that wear on you at all? It must.
AR: Sure, sure, it does. Air travel, first of all, you increase your tendency to get sick because you're breathing circulated air and you're touching surfaces that multiple people are touching. But I'm king of the hand sanitizer and the Emergen-C packet.
It's funny, it took me getting a job where I eat some of the most indulgent foods on the planet to actually lead a healthy life when I'm off-camera. So just eating well and staying hydrated when I'm not filming have proven instrumental in keeping me healthy.
But the other thing is, it takes a toll on your personal life. I have a lot of friends who I don't get the chance to see. I have a couple friends who've had babies who I haven't gotten a chance to see, other people I haven't been able to see in a couple of years. So that's difficult.
Much to my mom's chagrin, I'm a single, childless man.
SI: When you are filming, what do you eat on the days you're not obligated to wolf down massive piles of food?
AR: I eat very light. When the crew breaks for lunch, I have a salad — no cheese, no croutons, no sour cream. Just chicken, no tortilla strips in it. Just vegetables, chicken, dressing on the side, please. And unsweetened iced tea.
SI: Does it take a lot of self-discipline to order that way?
AR: Oh my God, yes. Oh my God. You go into these kitchens with great food, and they have these hotel pans with all the fixings for pizza, or all the different things for burritos and they're already premade, or you go to a barbecue place and they have hot pans full of pulled pork, and sliced brisket, and mac 'n' cheese, greens, and whipped mashed potatoes and sweet potato fries right there. And the chef wants me to eat.
But the things is, I can't do it. I just can't. Sometimes I have to spit a bite out because it's going to be too much. On the show, I'm in almost every shot, and if I get slow or sluggish, it has terrible ramifications for the shoot day.
Also, I want to be around for a while, and I think the healthier I eat now and the healthier I stay now, the greater chance I have of staying in this business and staying healthy in it.
SI: Has it taken any of the joy out of eating for you? Does eating just feel like work at this point?
AR: I was actually just thinking about this the other day. Like, the hamburger has become in so many ways so demystified to me because I've had burgers all over. Now, does that mean that I don't love the classic burger? Of course I do. But the things is, I never order them anymore. If I go out to a diner, the first place I'm always invariably looking is 'salads.' I know that's kind of boring or whatever, but I realize that kind of stuff, that comfort food stuff, I don't crave that anymore.
Ironically enough, my agent took me to Umami Burger when I was last in L.A., and we went for it with great zeal and gusto. But that doesn't change the fact that I ordered the beet salad. I still Umami'd it out. I had the Umami burger and I tried a few more…
That's the funny thing about L.A. Everyone is so beautiful and gorgeous and lean, but you guys have In-N-Out, Umami, the amazing Father's Office in Santa Monica … there's that one place on Venice that does those amazing bacon and avocado burgers [Howard's Famous Bacon & Avocado Burgers], The Shack in Playa del Rey, the hickory burger at Apple Pan. There's tremendous burgers to be found all over Los Angeles.
When I go to L.A., I have to go to Zankou Chicken for a shawarma plate. I have to. I love, love In-N-Out. Double Double Animal Style.
SI: Do you count L.A. as one of your favorite food cities?
AR: I love cities that have that beautiful holding of hands between the cuisine of the foreign and ethnic minorities that settled there and the harmony that exists between them and the fancy, highfalutin white-tablecloth restaurants. I think the good [food] cities recognize an interplay between those two entities.
L.A. for me — I've done more lo-fi eating there than I've done … like, everyone always asks me if I've been to Animal. I haven't. Or Pizzeria Mozza. I've had food from there but I haven't been there yet. I know there's a lot of phenomenal fine dining to be found in L.A., but then you have the potential of the greatest tacos, cemitas, chalupas around the street corner. Or go get amazing Chinese or amazing buns, Armenian food, Thai food at Hollywood and Kingsley … You could go on and on. There's so much profundity there.
SI: Switching gears a little bit, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AR: Well, my folks told me I was going to be a doctor, so for a long time that's what I thought I was going to be. Dream jobs included long reliever for the New York Yankees. I always wanted to come out [on the field] to Eric B. & Rakim's “Don't Sweat the Technique.”
I've always loved performing and acting. I've always had the utmost respect for firefighters. I'd like to learn more languages. I thought about international business or international affairs.
But honestly, I've been working in the food industry since I was 13. It wasn't until a couple years ago, before I got the show, that I really realized I could marry my two loves: performing and food. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to do that, and I still consider myself very fortunate.
SI: How many languages do you speak?
AR: I speak French, and I speak Hebrew, and I speak [a little bit of] Japanese at best.
SI: I read you kept a food journal as a young man. How has that informed your work?
AR: I started the journal when I was in college in Atlanta. A girl really just ripped the heart out of my chest in a really bad way. It really busted me up. And I guess I've always had a tendency or a flair for the dramatic, and so I bought these Moleskine blank books to write some poetry in. I used to go for drives and I found this amazing little place, which sadly is no longer there, called Virginia's. And I went there and started writing.
I realized that I was writing about — in an effort to journal my feelings I was writing about the decor of the restaurant, the food, the waitress, the music that was playing — and I realized I was chronicling my experience, and doing the requisite amount of introspection I think one does with a journal, but was really using food as a point of departure.
So I did it and realized, wow, I love going on drives and getting lost and finding my way back. I started accruing a knowledge base [of local restaurants] and realized I had places to take dates that all the other fraternity boys were not taking their dates.
Parents or friends would come into town and say, “Hey, you know a lot about food in Atlanta. Where should I go?”
Then when I started doing regional theater after Yale, I began just to add onto the journal. So when I auditioned, I had a better knowledge of regional food around the country than most, because I traveled and I chronicled it.
SI: How important has writing been to your life?
I've always had a knack for creative writing. I love it. One of the things is I deliberately chose a relatively uneven style for America the Edible. I tried to make each chapter have its own voice. I wrote the Savannah chapter in the style of Flannery O'Connor, I wrote the St. Louis chapter in the style of a Bertolt Brecht play. Just a different sort of vibe for each thing.
I feel that food books are best when they're about more than just food. When it's just about what's on the plate, I can see why that appeals to some people, but it doesn't speak to me or, I think, to a lot of my contemporaries. I always respected people like Anthony Bourdain, who would make it about food and the love of it and the lifestyle within it.
I think Andrew [Zimmern] is great at that, too. They're two wonderful examples. And Andrew has proven to be a profound mentor: as a man, as a host, as a person. I think I'm around good company.
Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. on Travel Channel.
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