Quest for the Best

Gordon Ramsay takes the road less traveled on his “Uncharted” culinary journey to find simple flavors in locally sourced ingredients.

National Geographic/Justin Mandel

Waves break against the rugged intertidal zone on the coast of northern Portugal as the bottle-green Atlantic Ocean swirls and froths. The European continent ends abruptly here in cliffs that tumble down to the rough, weathered fingers of black rock formations that seem to reach for the ocean depths before plunging into the abyss. Along this same coastline, skilled big-wave surfers are drawn to some of the world’s biggest waves, rearing up from the largest underwater canyon in Europe to reach 100 feet high. To be carried out to sea from this jagged boundary, the next stop is the archipelago of the Azores, and then, eventually, the United States.

Clinging to the purple and green algae-crusted rocks, chef Gordon Ramsay crouches low as the surge inundates his tenuous perch with the force to knock him off balance and into the ocean. His quarry, the goose barnacles called percebes, grow attached securely to the rocks amidst the strong, crashing surf. The challenge of harvesting them results in a high price—both at market and for the dedicated people who gather this prized shellfish from beneath the water line. For Ramsay, the heightened risk brings a delicious reward.

“I want to reposition the view of a region’s cuisine, and show that by peeling back the layers, we can get to the root of its reputation,” says Ramsay. “What are the pieces that people have forgotten or taken out of context? At the end of each adventure, I think about how I can put respect back on the table with everything I’ve learned.” Learning to not turn his back on the ocean while harvesting some of the most expensive shellfish in the world is part of this week’s curriculum.

Ramsay is in Portugal to highlight how the simple way of life is evident in the country’s gastronomy, which has been consistently eclipsed by its superstar Spanish neighbor. “This knowledge has given me another string to my bow,” says Ramsay. “It’s opened up my mind to larders of ingredients that I’m not using, and has given me a broader foundation from which to draw.” 

Timing the wave sets to avoid drowning while chiseling away at crustaceans that look like the feet of a prehistoric clawed beast isn’t the only reason Ramsay is in Portugal. With his desire to get to the source of native ingredients’ pure flavors, he’s fishing for iconic Portuguese sardines, herding black Iberian pigs for the chance to taste famed porco preto from the country’s Alentejo region, baking the beloved Pão de Ló sponge cake, and tasting wine from Colares—where vineyards grow low along the ground, looking like emerald serpents in the sand.

More than just a cooking show, Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted is a dirt-under-your-fingernails quest to learn about the ingredients, flavors, dishes, and cultures unique to different locations around the world. The series’ third season follows Ramsay to 10 destinations: Texas, Portugal, Maine, Croatia, Puerto Rico, the Smoky Mountains, Iceland, Mexico, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Finland. Top-tier chefs in each location (Justin Yu, Kiki Martins, Melissa Kelly, David Skoko, José Enrique, William Dissen, Ragnar Eiríksson, Gabriela Cámara, James Rigato, and Kim Mikkola) open the door to a delicious education about the heart of the region’s culture, as Ramsay learns to harvest ingredients he’ll later use in cooking a feast for local experts. It’s their judgement that determines whether he gets a passing grade in the end.

By now, Ramsay’s television audience has gotten a taste of his passion for adventures outside of the kitchen. “Uncharted for me is about telling the story of something happening locally and not something happening in a restaurant,” he says. “I have to be careful not to overstep that important element, so the simplicity of flavors in locally sourced ingredients is the essential character of the show. Season 3 has been about taking my focus a step farther up the ladder in terms of my level of commitment to find the very best in the world.”

As viewers follow Ramsay to each destination on his mission, it’s the local chef who serves as the initial guide holding the lantern to illuminate the distinctive elements of the region’s cuisine. Assisting the chef are specialists whose experience with these elements serve as exemplars, from fishing to farming to foraging. After more than 30 years behind the stove, Ramsay revels in his role as student, and brings a sense of wonder to his outdoor lessons. There’s no competition or bravado until the Big Cook at the end of the week, where he goes head to head with his chef professor to prove that his lessons have paid off.

In Texas, Ramsay works with chef Justin Yu, who combines the influence of Houston’s diversity with the fresh simplicity of Lone Star State ingredients at his modern bistro Theodore Rex. In Maine, chef Melissa Kelly finds that her dream way to cook is spurred by the fresh ingredients of her farm, which is an essential source for her restaurant, Primo. Chef David Skoko bases his cuisine on the preparation of fresh fish and other seafood from Croatia in his family’s restaurant, Batelina. Mexico’s chef Gabriela Cámara offers the best of her cultural heritage at her Mexico City restaurant, Contramar, and Cala in San Francisco.

In Michigan, James Rigato casts a spotlight on the city of Detroit with fresh, ethical ingredients at his restaurant, Mabel Gray. Finnish fare infused with Asian flavors is the menu’s focus at chef Kim Mikkola’s Helsinki-based restaurant, Inari.

Each chef taps into their knowledge of the region’s food culture, and considers what’s essential to include in Ramsay’s lessons. “There are a lot of stereotypes about the people of the Smoky Mountain region, but when you actually meet them and get out in nature here, most visitors leave with stars in their eyes,” says chef William Dissen, who chooses sustainable sources for his restaurant, The Market Place. “I want first-timers to leave here feeling the same way I do about this place. Chef Ramsay seemed to be wholeheartedly enamored of the region, and did a great job parsing the different heirloom ingredients and cooking techniques.”

Adventure is an essential component to truly get a sense of place and understanding of a region’s culture, according to Ramsay, who is a strong believer in going to the source. Taking the road less traveled helps him get a true impression of the heritage of local cuisine—the why behind a dish. Even when he’s rappelling down a 50-foot waterfall and hand-paddling a kayak through raging rapids deep in the Smoky Mountains, struggling to keep up with a team of lobster fisherwomen off the coast of Maine, or tumbling off a horse while attempting to round up cattle in south-central Texas, Ramsay connects these experiences to the story of a living food culture.

Those experiences may even come years after being first introduced to an ingredient, but they still give a sense of how a culture’s cuisine is interwoven with its features. “After watching my friend David [Beckham] play soccer in Madrid, we’d always go for percebes, but I didn’t sense they were so difficult to get hold of until I was getting pounded by the giant waves while I was trying to harvest them in Portugal,” says Ramsay. “When you’re underwater and your ears are full of seawater, it’s very hard to pay attention to what’s going on outside that moment. Then you feel the momentum of a swell coming up, and all of a sudden, this crashing wave comes, and you’re clinging to these sharp rocks to prevent from being drawn out to sea with the strong current. The percebes taste even sweeter now that I know what it takes to get them.”

As someone who enjoys pushing boundaries, Ramsay is down for nearly anything to get closer to the source of local ingredients, even if that means his skills may come up short. Herding cattle in Texas astride a horse named Mouse, Ramsay had to concentrate to stay in the saddle, and still fell off. “I’m not that good at horses,” he says. “I tried to keep up with those young girls who were so skilled at riding and made it look easy. I had no idea how hard it was. I tried to blend in with the locals, but I stood out, for all the wrong reasons.”

Despite the fact that Ramsay has only a few days to get a deep sense of each destination’s gastronomy, he enjoys taking a back seat and letting the local experts lead. “On the very first day when we met, when chef Ramsay was asking me questions, he was giving me the space to speak and he was super humble. That’s something I admired and will be an example for me in the future,” says chef Kiko Martins, whose passion for human connection through food is a focus in his varied television appearances in Portugal. “The nice thing about filming with him is that he knows so well how to cook and deal with the camera, and he pushes you to do your best. He gives you the space to be who you are, and if you embrace that, he’ll push you even higher.”

Once heavily reliant on outside ingredients, many Puerto Rico residents have pushed for more self-sufficiency in the wake of Hurricane Maria. That new focus required Ramsay to find people who are part of that movement. “He was like a sponge, taking in all that I shared with him about the important elements of Puerto Rican cuisine,” says chef José Enrique, who leans on his heritage with locally sourced ingredients. “All some people see from his other shows is his intensity, but he was really attentive and cared about what people are doing now in Puerto Rico.”

Continually pushing one’s own boundaries can bring a greater sense of accomplishment, but it may also result in failure. Uncharted gives Ramsay a wealth of opportunities to step outside his comfort zone, but because he’s discovering the details of a culture’s cuisine in the span of a week instead of a lifetime, there are also increased opportunities for failure. Weather and wildlife don’t always cooperate; fishing and foraging still require the important element of finding.

“There’s so much to learn from that level of failure, but nothing to be embarrassed about,” says Ramsay. “I think Uncharted keeps it raw and less set up, and it’s important that no matter how much I put into something, I want to tell the story and feel the disappointment when it doesn’t come together—when I don’t catch the fish or get a dish perfectly right. I don’t want someone standing there with a fish to swap out when I don’t catch one so it looks like I did. I have to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad, and the catch with the no-catch.”

“I think people who end up in this profession are similar characters, so every time I meet a chef, there’s a connection,” says chef Ragnar Eiríksson, who revels in Iceland’s simple ingredients found close to home for the tapas-style dishes in his restaurant, Vínstúkan Tíu Sopar. “Chef Ramsay got to the heart of Icelandic cuisine in a short period of time. The weather when he was here was really insane, though. I was a little bit embarrassed, and found myself apologizing for the weather, like it was an alcoholic uncle who got in the way.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an added challenge for Uncharted this season, and a true challenge to humans around the world. The devastation of its effects on global health and economy has been felt deeply, and many people are attempting to find a silver lining. Resulting from restrictive lockdowns and fewer chances to eat out, we’ve spent more time with food—broadening our knowledge and improving our skills. “When all this ends, there’s going to be a huge surge of excitement to go out and enjoy ourselves and travel again,” says Ramsay. “I think this season of Uncharted with National Geographic is going to help catapult the importance of deep history and understanding of the gastronomy of a place, and give people much more to experience in a culture.”

“What’s special about this season is that it was 100 percent shot during the pandemic,” says Executive Producer and Showrunner, Jon Kroll. “We were able to return to production safely with the assistance of infectious disease specialists, but we also limited our locations to North America and Europe, to avoid long-haul flights. And because we were shooting during the summer and fall, we were able to visit places that would have been too cold to shoot in winter, when we are usually in production.”

“The pandemic has given many of us quality time to reflect on what’s important,” says Ramsay. “I’ve spent more time with my family in the last 12 months than I have in the last 12 years. When I return home, I share my experiences with my family and consider how those adventures have changed me for the better.”

Family connections aren’t the only relationships impacted in the past year. The ability to communicate among colleagues has been limited to digital missives, from telephone to email to Zoom. “Through the pandemic, I’ve kept in touch with many of the chefs from this season by email,” he says. “Each and every country has different governments, some more supportive than others. We’ve been sharing ideas for inspirational ways to create food for special occasions and help generate support. Soon enough, things will open back up, but we all need to get to that point together.”

During the past year, we’ve all had time to consider how the future of travel, food and our understanding of the world should evolve. The sense that we’re all interconnected—despite the miles and continents in between—is felt more keenly now, as is the understanding of the impact of climate change on our planet. While the outside world may call to us with a siren’s song, people have also grown more likely to care about the story of an ingredient and how it fits into the overall puzzle of a culture in a place.

“One of the themes for this season is finding the Uncharted in your own backyard,” says Kroll. “People might not ordinarily think of some of these destinations as being off the beaten track, and we’ve been able to show these places in a very different way. What we may consider ‘normal’ can still be extraordinary.”

For Ramsay, there are endless possibilities to open the door to the extraordinary, even when he doesn’t always come out on top. Whether or not he achieves perfection with each dish on Uncharted, he’s intent on experiencing the essence of each culture. “There’s something gratifying about getting your ass kicked when you’ve managed your craft after three decades behind the stove,” says Ramsay. “I’m not blinkered thinking there’s nothing else to learn in my life.”

This article was produced by National Geographic Channel in promotion of the series Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted.

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