By Tim Cigelske
As host of the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food,” Adam Richman’s job is to go head to head with the likes of a 72-ounce steak in Texas or an 11-pound Carnivore Pizza in Atlanta. But as someone who’s worked in every facet of the restaurant world, he never loses sight of the human element behind the spectacle. He’s most proud of bringing attention to mom and pop restaurants around the country, whether that means staring down a huge plate of nachos or sampling a local microbrew. We caught up with the Brooklyn resident to discuss his favorite beer pairings, his most difficult “Man v. Food” challenges, and where he might be spotted with a pint.
You have a birthday coming up. As someone who goes out to restaurants for a living, what do you do to celebrate?
Birthdays aside, when I’m not on the road, I just enjoy being home. I’m less motivated to go out because I miss being home. I miss my couch, I miss my bed, I miss my space, and I miss Brooklyn. So generally speaking I go out less. I seldom, if ever, fully unpack my suitcase, so the times I have to stay stationary I relish and hold very dear to my heart.
Any plans for a “Man v. Beer” spin-off?
I think both my liver and my silhouette would not forgive me if I did that. I do love beer, obviously, and I think it pairs well with food. I think wine is the beverage that most often gets associated with food pairings, and some people think beer is the providence of frat boys. I think that’s a misconception. I doubt there will ever be a spin-off in that regard, but I definitely enjoy a glass of beer as much as the next guy.
What are your favorite beer and food pairings?
I always go with IPAs for really spicy foods. The hoppiness can really stand up to the spice. I’ve also found if you’re ever eating Asian food, for some reason, Tsingtao goes really well with shrimp and creates a kind of caramel in your mouth. It’s just fascinating. Something about the protein structure of the shrimp, the spice and the Tsingtaocreates a whole new taste. And burgers and pizza and stuff open themselves up to so many beers in so many different ways, it’s hard to pick just one.
Is there a celebration beer you’d pick after a victorious challenge?
I don’t know if there’s any room. I’d pick an imaginary beer after some of these gigantic challenges. That’s one thing with beer: In many cases it’s like drinking a loaf of bread.
You’ve sat at a lot of bars on your journeys; which have been your favorites?
My rule whenever I travel is do whatever the locals do. So here are some of my favorite local places, but I want to make it clear that these are only my immediate recollections: There’s a place in St. Louis called Iron Barley, and the owner, Tom Coghill, is very, very knowledgeable about food and beer pairings. He has cask ales and some really hard-to-find stuff. I would also say Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse. In fact, after the challenge I did there, the owner set up a little tasting for me using local brews from Alaska. Anywhere in Portland, Oregon. God, Portland was amazing. I had a different IPA each night. In fact there’s one called [Ninkasi] Total Domination IPA that is phenomenal. The Pit in Raleigh, N.C., is very, very astute when it comes to pairings. Ed Mitchell the owner has forgotten more about BBQ than most people will learn, and they have great local, rare beers. It’s just awesome.
Do you have a favorite hometown bar?
A few, but my lips are sealed. I like them because they aren’t overrun “destination” bars. They’re social hubs, places for philosophical discourse and great watering holes. But they’re mine and I’m very protective of them.
What’s been the most difficult challenge to take down?
All the spicy ones and anything starch-based. Ironically enough, as hard and as agonizing as the spicy ramen at Orochon Ramen in Los Angeles was, I still sometimes wish I could go back and take my time and have a good, cold beer with it.
You follow a very specific health regime—working out, not eating the day before taping, for example—but have you had any health problems as a result of the show?
No, I stay on top of my stuff. You can’t do a show like this with a cavalier attitude. I’ve stayed very much on top of my health, and it’s incumbent upon me to do so.
You Tweeted that a 5K race may be in your near future. Do you have any Man v. Running training tips?
I think your shoes are essential. I have no arch, and I’ve always been a severe overpronator, and I think it’s important—especially for a bigger dude—to visit a running store and get on a treadmill with a camera behind you and really pay attention to the way your foot strikes the ground. Do your research before you get into a store. As I look at 5Ks, it’s not about times; it’s about doing it at a consistent rate of speed. I think a lot of people, especially bigger people, are dissuaded from going to the gym or running because they don’t want to be around superfit or superthin people and athletes. I tell everybody, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step. Every day just try a little bit more. You have to be forgiving on your body. One other thing: If you’re training for a road race, running on the treadmill is not an effective training methodology. There’s such a marked difference between street running and treadmill running, so ween yourself off the treadmill.
On your first Guinness World Record attempt, you and a group of locals fell 40 pounds shy of a 190-pound burger. Any more record attempts in you?
No, the one time I tried to do that in Detroit was about the owner, in my opinion, and I just happened to be there. I really try to approach the challenges from a much more humble aspect; just one guy, one meal. When the show’s over, I probably won’t do them again. I think the notion of any sort of self-aggrandizing feat completely flies in the face of the basis for the show. This is just me doing my thing to the best ability I can, and whether I win or lose, now people are learning about a great restaurant and an opportunity. I’m just the conduit for that. I’m psyched about my record because I’m so competitive just innately, but I have no intention on heaping laurels and glories.
Last time we checked, you’re 24-14 in food challenges. Do you have a goal in mind?
Obviously, you want to stay above the Mendoza Line. You want to stay above .500. But that’s just me being competitive as a former athlete from high school and college. I think the record is more a product of my pride than from the show as a whole. My goal has never been to be a great competitive eater. There are others out there who have by far more skills than I do on that front. There are a couple of challenge records that I dispute out of macho pride, but if experience is any teacher, macho pride never leads down any good road.
Why do you think the show’s been so successful?
I think the bottom line is a lot of people really groove on “Man v. Food” by virtue of the challenge and the excitement of it. You know, it’s part Roman Coliseum, part house party, and that’s awesome. But the thing I’m most proud of is, especially in this economy, that mom-and-pop restaurants have been exposed to the world now and are doing great business and are getting recognition for their culinary achievements that they’ve worked for. And to know that I’m in some way responsible for giving independent restaurant owners—who are doing this with heart and family recipes, with no publicity machine, no corporate headquarters, your great-great-grandmother opened it kind of thing—to know that “Man v. Food” is bringing business to them is the single best aspect of the show. It’s the thing I’m absolutely most proud of.
Well, you should be proud of that.
Thanks, man. And to be quite frank, I think a lot of people get told the great food cities of the world are Paris, New York, Los Angeles, maybe London. And no one talks about Springfield or Pittsburgh or Amarillo having a culinary identity, and I think the show helps stir up a tremendous amount of civic pride. I’ve spoken to families who feel that a family of four can go to a great location and have a memorable experience. They can see from the show you can forget about airfare and just get in your car and the next great dining destination could be right around the corner or right in your backyard. The American menu is often maligned as comfort food or very simple, but I think “Man v. Food” can show some of the stories and poetry behind that simplicity. It is a great, great country waiting for people to eat and drink.
If you could invent your own dream food challenge, what would it be?
A tiny one. I’m full. •
Photography by Scott Raffe