Bigger, Bolder, Further

From bull-racing in Indonesia to piranha-fishing in Guyana, Gordon Ramsay ups the ante on his next "Uncharted" culinary journey.

Photo by National Geographic/Justin Mandel
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Gordon Ramsay and local fishermen drag a net to catch fish in Kanur, India.
Photo by National Geographic/Justin Mandel

Two bulls streak through the knee-deep mud of a flooded rice paddy in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Behind them, dwarfed by the animals’ size, a human jockey with outstretched arms holds tightly to their tails and keeps his feet balanced on thin wooden frames attached to the bulls. The sport, called Pacu Jawi, is a thrilling blend of bull racing and mud skiing created to celebrate the end of the rice harvest. It includes a big helping of unpredictability—when the bulls may decide to go off track and run toward the tightly packed crowd of spectators.

Through the noise of the cheering crowd, Chef Gordon Ramsay is negotiating for the best-quality beef for a dish he has to prepare for the governor of West Sumatra in a few days’ time. A rancher agrees to give him the cuts he needs on one condition—that he take his turn behind the bulls and see how long he can hold on in the race through the rice paddy.

“This is insane!” exclaims Ramsay, as he looks over the spectacle. “OK, I’ll try it.”

It’s a deeper sense of getting down and dirty that Ramsay is chasing in this second season of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, to learn and discover for himself the secrets behind various cultures’ cuisines. “We’ve raised the stakes,” he says. “It’s a little bit more ambitious, more adventurous, and more dangerous. We’ve upped the ante for the food, as well. I’m not saying that I want to give every chef a passport to kick my ass, but I want them to come out of their comfort zone. It’s important to give them carte blanche to cook with no protection. Don’t worry about me, but push me as hard as you can.”

He’s here in West Sumatra to unpack the building blocks of this region’s cuisine: masakan padang, the most popular and influential style of Indonesian cuisine. From fierce spices to the regional specialty, beef rendang, food here is traditionally burning hot with tons of chili, coconut, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and coriander—spices that flavor and preserve the meat in a region where many don’t have refrigeration.

True to the nature of this season of Uncharted being more ambitious and adventurous, Ramsay’s epicurean compatriot here in West Sumatra is William Wongso, an award-winning chef considered the godfather of Indonesian food. A mentor to many of the country’s best chefs, Wongso has earned a reputation as both a teacher and a task master. He’s embraced both roles and thrown down the gauntlet, challenging Ramsay to a rendang cook-off with a high-stakes judge. Ramsay has only a few days to immerse himself and go to the source to better understand the region’s cuisine and use of ingredients. But like Ramsay says, “the best food in the world takes effort.”

Continuing the Uncharted journey of drawing connections between exploration, adventure, and food, Ramsay travels to 7 destinations this season: South Africa, Norway, Tasmania, Indonesia, India, Guyana, and Louisiana. Acclaimed chefs in each location (Zola Nene, Christopher Haatuft, Analiese Gregory, William Wongso, Shri Bala, Delven Adams, and Eric Cook) give Ramsay an introduction to the essence of local flavor and send him on an adventure to dive deeper and fully understand the essence of their cuisine. At the end of the week, Ramsay must put his newfound understanding to the test by cooking for local experts and letting them decide whether his lessons have paid off.

“The bones of last year are evident this year, stripping back the layers and really understanding the DNA of local food,” says Ramsay. “I like to start at the beginning of the journey, to understand how the foundational blocks of that cuisine were layered to build the reputation that exists now. When I meet these local chefs who are key to that level of discovery, I really want to be mentored by them. I don’t know what they know, and I want to learn it.”

With Ramsay’s background, as an internationally renowned, multi-Michelin-starred chef, restauranteur, and TV star, it would be understandable if he chose to rest on his laurels. But instead of spending time boasting, he’s spreading the recognition around by his handing the baton to other chefs whose talents he has nurtured and enjoyed watching them flourish.

While many of his TV shows feature competition, Ramsay says he no longer gets a chance to be competitive in the kitchen. “I walk into my kitchen, and it’s pristine. I’m tasting a ravioli, a sauce, slicing a touch of Kobe beef, tasting different ice creams and sorbets,” he says. “And there are 25 chefs there, so I’m just conducting. There’s something in me that needs to be vulnerable to be successful,” he says. “When I’m back in the trenches like this, I love it. Because it puts me back behind the line again. I’m a member of the band, not the conductor. I’ll play the drums, jump on the bass or even play the lead guitar—whatever you want me to do.”

This season, Uncharted has turned things up a notch, diving deeper into destinations and adventures to dig into the foundational elements of regional cuisines in order to turn a spotlight on them. In some cases, that means going farther off the map to places that aren’t easily accessible, like deep in the tropical rainforest of Guyana. Despite the horror-movie reputation piranhas have for their razor-sharp teeth and relentless bite, it was here where Ramsay fished for black piranhas, which range from 5 to 15 inches long and have the bite force equivalent to 30 times their body weight.

“We try to highlight not only the ingredients in these destinations, but also technique,” says Ramsay. “I’m actually glad that we can’t take some of these ingredients home, because their flavor and freshness contribute to the sense of place of their origin. I think what I take away from these destinations are cooking techniques: how they’re cooking these dishes, how they built these fires, how they butterfly fish or slice meat. At home, we’ve spatchcocked chicken, but in Guyana, they did the same to the piranha we caught—jacked open and butterflied. I’ve never seen the head cut open like that. I’ll definitely use that idea, and have thought about it transferred onto something like a John Dory.”

Each local chef is the master of their own regional cuisine and serves as the key to unlocking the secrets for both Ramsay and the viewers. After they’ve sent him off to learn more about local ingredients and cooking styles, they’re curious to see how he integrates those lessons with his own experience.

“When someone like Gordon comes along and looks at these ingredients, he looks at them objectively for what they are, with all the knowledge of cooking that he has, without being constrained by history or the ‘proper’ way of doing something,” says Chef Christopher Haatuft. “Something like adding the blood to the reindeer stew, that’s something people don’t do here. But he uses a reference to a French dish called lièvre à la royale and connects the two because it makes sense with a broader viewpoint. That’s a clever thing to do.”

Uncharted is a show where we get to do wonderful things, but we also have to deal with the challenges,” says Executive Producer and Showrunner, Jon Kroll. “We have a lot of production challenges: weather, schedule changes, travel delays—and the mantra we are learning to live with is, ‘You know what you call a show where you don’t have these problems? Charted.’”

Aside from the remarkable talent on-screen, one of the keys to making the show a success is a close-knit, small production team that works on momentum. They travel, prep, shoot, travel, prep, shoot—and for some of them, there are no off days. The controlled chaos is akin to a traveling circus. On set, camera and sound folks squeeze into small and difficult-to-reach places to catch the action. Kroll, Director Neil DeGroot, and Supervising Producer Tara Williams orchestrate the scene with expert hands, but always with a please and thank you.

“Gordon dives in to these dangerous scenarios, but the truth is that safety is the most important thing to us, so what we do is completely safety checked,” says Kroll “This season, we’ve taken an approach that ‘Gordon can do anything’ and ‘anything is possible,’ which has led to him doing some absolutely ridiculous things he has no business doing, and I’m just going to keep having him do them until someone says no—as long as we can do them safely.”

Back in the West Sumatran rice paddy, Ramsay learns the techniques from local ranchers for a successful run in Pacu Jawi. “These guys are built like windy pieces of asparagus and are flexible and tiny,” he says. “Their feet are tiny. You need to get your toes bending over that small wooden frame, gripping it. I wanted to keep my shoes on, to get a better grip, but they said if my foot got caught, I’d get dragged. As it is, days after, I found bits of mud everywhere.”

There are plenty of moments during filming that have made Ramsay nervous, many of them involving animals. Whether it’s rhinos, hippos, caiman, venomous snakes, or great white sharks—each locale has required a watchful eye. “When you see those animals live in their habitat, it’s way different than seeing them in captivity,” he says. “I felt like hippos were following me around in South Africa. Every time I woke up at night, I looked outside my hut, and it seemed there was always one nearby. I’m absolutely convinced a hippo just went out there and blew his nostrils to show me how much he could mess up my sleep.”

While guests at the Big Cook, the end-of-episode meal prep, in each destination range from experts Ramsay has met during the week to disaster relief volunteers, the aforementioned governor of West Sumatra, and a Zulu chief, a notable uninvited guest showed up in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region while he and Chef Zola Nene were preparing their dishes. A hippo, the most dangerous terrestrial animal on the African continent, chose to become a close member of the live audience, distracting both Ramsay and Nene from their tasks.

“I don’t think people realize how scary hippos actually are,” Nene says. “But Gordon was still able to focus on the task at hand. What I think is so endearing and wonderful about the show is seeing the side of him that every chef has, wanting to learn about other food origins and other cultures. He was very receptive and he accepted the gravity of cooking for a Zulu chief, was respectful, and took my advice well.”

It’s the expert guests at each Big Cook who judge whether Ramsay has learned his lessons well enough—understanding traditions and new ingredients, as well as sometimes presenting the ingredients in a different way and maybe even impressing the locals with his innovation. But through it all, Ramsay is focused on hearing and learning from their critiques.

“I don’t over-study before I get there, because I want to go into it with a fresh pair of eyes,” he says. “It makes me slightly nervous, because I don’t want to disappoint them. I respect what these chefs and individual experts are doing, so I try hard to get up to speed with what they’re showing and telling me. The best thing is to let go and let them lead me, to just listen and absorb.”

Instead of just dropping into a destination and eating at a handful of restaurants, the essence of understanding a culture’s cuisine is to pay attention to those who have deep roots and experiences in the place. Chef Eric Cook, whose New Orleans restaurant menu defines its dishes as “refined, Southern food,” explains Cajun cuisine in a way that many visitors to the city are unaware.

“It’s a matter of what you have around you, because it’s simple people: farmers working the land with big families who had to keep moving and keep working sunup to sundown, so they had these one-pot meals,” he says. “Make a big roux, and add whatever you’ve got that’s in season. Harvest when it’s bountiful, cure, smoke, hang, jar, store, live on the land. Respecting that means everything to me.”

By increasing the pressure to go farther off the beaten track, Ramsay has seen not only regional traditional cuisine, but also how communities deal with invasive species that threaten to change their way of life. In Louisiana, nutria (a semi-aquatic rodent) were introduced from South America in the 1930s by the fur industry. They’ve thrived in the lush coastal marshes, eating marsh plants and roots, and when the roots are gone, the soil around the plants erodes quickly. Marshland is then converted to open water, contributing to the loss of coastal areas already impacted by a variety of other factors.

“What’s really banging things home for me also is the impact of invasive species in these places,” Ramsay says. “People who live in the destination understand the devastation that these non-natives can bring, and whether they immediately pivot to include them in their foodways or merely work to reduce their effects, I learn the most from being right there to hear their stories.”

Through it all, the food discovery and white-knuckle adventures, the theme of each episode serves to keep even the most hardcore elements on track. All Ramsay’s mini-adventures are parts of the whole picture: connected to transportation, ingredient gathering, and deeper cultural understanding. And in the end, they combine to relate to the final meal made outdoors by Ramsay and the local chef.

“I was quietly nervous when I was first meeting him and had to cook for him,” says Nene. “Listen, it’s Gordon Ramsay at the end of the day. But to be honest, he made me feel at ease. It helped that he was coming into my area of expertise and I was showing him something that he may have never seen before.”

“When I started cooking here, it was hard to find excellence or great examples where I could learn how to run a restaurant,” says Haatuft. “I downloaded a lot of Gordon’s shows, and they gave me some of the best advice I still use today for ordinary people running restaurants. It was a crash course in restaurants, like Restaurant 101. For me, that was invaluable.”

Beyond the bigger and bolder adventures that the second season of Uncharted brings, Ramsay appreciates the small things. “I think for me, it’s all about just stripping back those layers and really understanding the interconnected nature of ingredients and culture is essential. Sharing that information and hearing people say they learned something new or can’t wait to go explore and taste these dishes—that’s what I’m going for. I’m really excited for this. There’s no adventure like it.”