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June 08, 2020

Outer Limits

Where does a Michelin-starred chef and worldwide TV purveyor — who’s also an Ironman competitor and racecar driver — find the next television frontier? For Gordon Ramsay, it’s Nat Geo’s Uncharted.

Gina Piccalo
  • Beside a Louisiana bayou,Ramsay and chef Eric Cook prepare for a gumbo competition.

    Rush Jagoe /National Geographic

On a clear blue spring afternoon in the bayou — before the virus crisis eclipsed this part of the country — Gordon Ramsay is surprisingly chipper and admirably coiffed, considering he was gigging for bullfrogs well into the night, lost in a gator-infested corner of a Louisiana swamp.

He sums up the experience with characteristic aplomb. "It was a fucking disaster," the master of the f-bomb declares. "When the wind blew us, it blew us out of reach of everybody. We started off somewhere easy, sort of local. We ended up in the middle of nowhere."

That's precisely the point on National Geographic's Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, a culinary adventure series that launched its second season on June 7.

The show stands apart from Ramsay's considerable oeuvre of kitchen nightmares — not just because the exotic settings offer spectacular drone footage — but because the Michelin-three-star chef is out of his element. He's not exactly f-bomb-free on Uncharted, but he's definitely more vulnerable.

"This is the viewer's revenge," quips Jon Kroll, the series' Emmy-winning showrunner–executive producer. "In this show, he gets a taste of his own medicine. Sometimes I think it should be called '101 Ways to Kill Gordon Ramsay.'"

Earlier this year, the chef and his crew of adventure-show pros filmed season two on six continents in six weeks.

They aimed to push him to his limits, but that wasn't easy, given Ramsay's passion for extreme sports and risky hobbies; he's an Ironman competitor who races Ferraris. The first season taught them that the more challenged he is, the likelier the audience is to stick around.

"Everything we're doing here is real," says Ramsay, who is also an executive producer of the series, in addition to host. "It's true to the bone. It's not a travelogue show, where I'm walking through a town eating and drinking. I'm disappearing for a week. And you may not see me at the end."

That last threat is mostly hyperbole, considering how thoroughly the team vets every leg of the journey. Even so, Ramsay is thrown into some rough situations without much prep.

In Louisiana, just two days before the bullfrog debacle, a helicopter had dropped him onto an ocean sandbar 30 miles off the coast to fish waist-deep in shark-infested waters. The weekend before that, he'd been 2,700 miles further south, fishing for black piranha and hunting giant bird-eating tarantulas in a remote part of Guyana.

The key, Kroll says, is to find the perfect balance of non-touristy adventure, culinary intrigue and tests of strength and stamina.

"In this day and age, reality shows are done with less reality," he says. "Networks request shooting outlines. They want to preproduce within an inch of its life. We really value authenticity. We will make sure that all the elements are there: a good contributor, an ingredient he might want to include, interesting cultural context.

"But we want to throw him into the scene and roll cameras. That's unique in the Gordon Ramsay canon. We do all our controlling in the preproduction stage. We want the actual filming to feel as real as possible."

There have been moments when the experience was a little too authentic, even for Ramsay.

Like the time in the Mekong when he ate a snail that "didn't sit well with him," as Kroll says. Or earlier this year, when he had to jump out of a helicopter into a shark-friendly patch of Tasmanian ocean where visibility was just six feet. To hear Ramsay talk, though, he lives for those kinds of risks.

"If I could do an Ironman in Hawaii, I can outswim a great white," he asserts. "That's how stupid I think. And then I think, 'I'm about 220 pounds. Six-foot-two. Dropping in the water. Surely that shark would be scared of something.'

"So, I think that by the time he turned 'round to get my ass, I would have hit the beach. I get excited about that. That is a massive rush."

It also makes for good TV. And after 20 years of leading successful reality shows, launching two of his own indie production companies and earning an Emmy nomination in 2017 for hosting Fox's MasterChef Junior, Ramsay has learned a thing or two about engaging an audience.

So National Geographic was all in when the chef's production company, Studio Ramsay, presented the concept for Uncharted.

They brought on Kroll, a veteran producer who won an Emmy in 2004 for CBS's The Amazing Race, and a team of talented veterans, including supervising producer Tara Williams (USA's Temptation Island, CBS's Pink Collar Crimes) and two-time DGA Award-winning director Neil DeGroot (NBC's The Biggest Loser, TNT's 72 Hours).

The three of them spent months scouting remote outposts and navigating rough terrain to taste hyperlocal cuisine.

The production's harried pace, unthinkable in the new era of COVID-19, proved especially prescient. Seven episodes were in the can by the time the coronavirus swept the globe — Louisiana, Guyana, Tasmania, South Africa, Norway, India and Indonesia. Only three shoots were postponed — in Mexico, Texas and Jamaica.

"I actually think the industry is going to be able to ramp up for more intimate, remote productions [rather] than giant productions in one small space," Kroll says. "Shooting in the open air in remote locales is a great way for the industry to get back on track." ...


For the rest of the story and many more photos, pick up a copy of emmy magazine.


This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2020

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