For some, it is an abomination—a downright irresponsible embrace of gluttony. For others, it's pure entertainment—a sadistic amusement that pits one man against insurmountable, artery-clogging odds. If No Reservations is the sophisticated, intelligent star of the Travel Channel, then Man v. Food is its sweaty, gourmandizing cousin.
When it premiered in 2008, Man v. Food was a pioneer of hybrid food programming, in which multiple show formats combined to form a 'new' show (think of Chopped borrowing elements of Iron Chef and Top Chef). Essentially, the show fused the jovial-host-eats-across-America concept of Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with the pain-for-audience's-pleasure spectacle of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
The result was a show that featured visits to several popular restaurants in a given city, leading up to a food challenge (a generally timed test against either unbelievable food quantities or unbearable pepper heat). And while its host was more Fieri than Kobayashi, the series' format proved irresistible to audiences and the show quickly became Travel Channel's most popular program.
At the show's core was its genial host/victim: Adam Richman.
Where Did Adam Richman Come From?
Beyond his massive appetite and clear passion for eating, Richman's biggest asset is his boundless energy. Holding an MFA in acting from Yale, he brings theatrics to the show with his often overblown tasting reactions and his dramatic pacing during food challenges. And while the hamminess is present throughout, the show's food IQ is rather low. Despite claiming that he's a "food fanatic who's held nearly every job in the restaurant 'biz" in the show's intro, Richman describes dishes with the detail of someone who has watched too much Triple D: lots of loud adjectives, silly analogies, and varying degrees of praise.
The show's main purpose, as it lacks much culinary insight, is for Richman to take on a gastronomical challenge and then allow the schadenfreude to kick into full gear. Restaurant patrons cheer while the host struggles and sweats through a multiple-pound burger or ghost chile-coated chicken wings.
It's this "v. Food" portion of the show that has generated the most criticism, with Alton Brown decrying Richman's food feats as wasteful and irresponsible. Still, this element of the show is what keeps it from being a slightly more repetitive version of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Here are five episodes to serve as a Man v. Food primer. The list includes four quantity-based challenges and one heat challenge (once you've seen one of these, you've seen them all) from states across the country. I'm not saying they're the best (though Boston is likely my #1 episode), but rather a broad sampling of the show's offerings:
The show's first episode is probably a good place to start. At the episode's outset, one might notice a major quirk: the first bite Richman takes, of a deep-fried mushroom at a burger joint, prompts a near-orgasmic reaction. This is a face you'll see over and over again with nearly every bite he takes in the pre-challenge segments.
After the initial burger joint, he heads to the Stockyard Cafe for an admittedly good-looking chicken fried steak. At this point, a first-timer will likely have decided whether or not the narration (with phrases such as "beefy inferno") is endearingly kitschy or plain vexing. Finally, Richman confronts the Big Texan Challenge, in which he has an hour to crush a 72-ounce sirloin + sides. Joined by two roller derby skaters, Richman tackles the steak with a smile on his face. This was early in the show's taping...the fatigue quickly sets in as the challenges get increasingly intense.
As I've already mentioned, Boston is a series high point for me, not because the restaurants he visits are unique (they're not), but because the show actually does a solid job of channeling the Massachusetts character. Once you look past Richman's tendency to add an 'ah' where there should be an 'ar,' his visits to a character-rich Cambridge hotspot, a classic seafood joint, and the BC-themed Eagle's Deli are surprisingly engaging.
When Richman steps up to tackle a 5-pound cheeseburger with several pounds of fries, the Boston attitude starts to come out as hecklers, including Sox player Kevin Youkilis, prod the native New Yorker (there is plenty of "Yankees suck" to go around). Also, Richman's competitor Chuck is an absolute wonder to behold.
Before Richman gets himself wrecked by chiles in Sarasota, Florida, the show is a chronicle of salty, battered stoner food—deep-fried and overloaded hot dogs, fried chicken and hoagies stuffed with every item to ever grace a deep-fryer. Yet after these grease-bomb indulgences, Richman faces a scarily intense heat challenge with the Fire-in-Your-Hole Wings.
The fried chicken wings sport a sauce consisting of habaneros as the primary ingredient and perhaps most painful of all, ghost chile extract, which tastes even scarier than it sounds. Declaring it the hottest thing he's ever eaten, Richman struggles, cries tears of fire, and sweats his brains out. In the end, he takes refuge in a walk-in freezer with a glass of milk.
While I'm certain there is plenty of delicious food in Seattle, the intro segments at Red Mill and The Crab Pot are nothing too exciting (though the Red Mill onion rings look mighty fine). Instead, this episode's main attraction is the somewhat revolting food challenge at a breakfast restaurant, Beth's Cafe.
Twelve, yes twelve, eggs go into a chili-cheddar omelette that Richman must take down along with toast and home fries. The end result will be revolting to some and a delight for lovers of dark humor. Imagining that many eggs in one man's stomach nearly makes me sick. This is as close as Man v. Food ever got to Fear Factor
Alaska doesn't get much food show love, so I thought it was actually pretty cool that Richman's producers sent him up north. In fact, he begins the show at roadhouse in a small town 100 miles from Anchorage. This visit even offers a Man v. Food rarity, a look at an obscure and distinctive food item: hubcap sized sourdough hotcakes. After a segment in a burger joint, Richman takes on the six-pound Kodiak Arrest (haha, get it?) challenge, which pairs salmon cakes, crab legs, reindeer sausage, potatoes and dessert.
There's my take on Man v. Food, which may not be a groundbreaking show, but if approached the right way, it can be a perfectly entertaining program. Have any favorite episodes? Share them in the comments. Also, feel free to share your experience if you've ever attempted one of the challenges featured on MvF!