On August 23rd at 9pm EST the Travel Channel airs Driven By Food with Andrew Zimmern, the Bangkok episode. I was one his hosts in Bangkok, showing him Muay Thai and Sak Yant in the city.
In December of 2015 I had the opportunity to film with a new show on the Travel Channel, hosted by Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern. The new show was under the working title “Meter’s Running,” now called “Driven by Food,” and Andrew explores locations and cultures via taxi cabbies as guides. My bit was mostly explaining Muay Thai. Filming was a long, exhausting and very fun day, which concluded with a night of fights at Rajadamnern Stadium. The show is airing August 23rd, (Tuesday, 9 PM on the Travel Channel) and, upon learning I’d be filming with Andrew, I’ve frequently been asked, “what’s he like?” So, here’s my answer:
Andrew is very much like he appears on TV. He’s adventurous, he’s much taller than I’d anticipated, he’s quite open, and he’s got an edge to him. The TV personality is rather jolly and that’s definitely part of his persona, but the darker, sharper undercurrents are far more complex than the “top note” we see on TV. Something that can’t really be captured by his TV personality, however, is the way he looks at you when he’s listening. Looking into a camera is one thing, the way we connect and view the world through that lens will necessarily have a distance to it. But when Andrew is right there talking to you, he really looks at you. As part of our introduction, pretending to have just happened upon one another at this Muay Thai gym in Bangkok where his Cabbie brought him, Andrew asked me about what drew me to Muay Thai and where it’s going, as someone who has fought so much. I gave him a genuine answer about wanting to experience as much as possible because the learning, challenge and awe never ends. He smiled and nodded emphatically, because what he’s experiencing in the world with his travels and connecting with people across the globe, then bringing that into the livingrooms of millions of people… how do you ask someone, “so where are you going with that?,” something that fighters get all the time.
Andrew and the still photographer from his crew before Rajadamnern fights
In a word, Andrew is a chef. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows what that means, but for those who aren’t familiar, it’s both a compliment and also not. Chefs are intense. They are creative artists at the opposite end of the scale of the erratic, “let it all hang out” interpretive dancer; chefs are all about control and final say, but they also surround themselves with competence and brilliance so they can let everyone do their jobs until there’s a problem – they don’t micromanage but they definitely don’t tolerate slack. A few times Andrew snapped out of his “on camera” voice to question why we were being asked to cut, or reshoot a scene. He wants authenticity of a moment rather than endless footage for editing – he wants an impression upon first bite, a genuine response rather than pulling a face as if it’s the first time you tasted something – whereas his director, reasonably, needs to have enough material to have options in editing. Also part of being a chef is working incredibly long and difficult hours in a hot, chaotic kitchen. That requires a type of person to take on that challenge in the first place, but it also shapes a person into someone who can endure it. That’s why chefs don’t take shit and call into question any inefficiencies. If you’re working 100 hours per week and are a visionary, creator and artist, you don’t want to hear how things might be done, you just want them done the way you designed it or, failing that, the way that works.
It’s hard. This kind of work attracts a “captain” type, but it also exacerbates the solitude of a man (or the few women who run kitchens; those women are amazing). You’re working in a kitchen but you might as well be running a whaling ship in the heart of the sea for months at a time. There is strong bonding, much like a ship’s crew, in a kitchen. And I could feel that with Captain Andrew and his film crew as well.
[update: this, above, is Andrew recieving his sak yant from Arjan Pi – source]
He talked about his son, who he clearly loves, prior to receiving his Sak Yant from Ajarn Pi Bangkrating. I’m not sure if the Sak Yant scene will make the show edit. This was his first tattoo ever and Andrew walked into it with the same boldness and clarity that he approaches popping a piece of ancient, fermented food into his mouth. When we talked about the Yant, Andrew had his late father and his young son in his mind. While we were still at the Muay Thai gym, hours before we would sit down with Ajarn Pi, Andrew told me a little bit about his past, which he accepts, owns and carries with him. He said with noble openness, “I’m not such a good person.” He said it as though he says it to himself all the time, but I was a bit taken aback, but it was keeping with the seriousness of what Sak Yant is, a holy rite, a time of reflection and transformation. We had only talked a little bit by this point, but I immediately protested his statement, telling him that a bad person never says, “I’m not good.” The statement itself reflects a desire to be better, a meditation on what doesn’t come “naturally” or easily; that, to me, in and of itself is a good character. The only people I’m not interested in are people who don’t struggle with themselves. And there are very few people who don’t. Watching Andrew sit for his Sak Yant and then seeing his face when he looked at it for the first time, I felt a strong empathy with him. He can carry his demons without breaking stride, which is something I can’t help but admire.
There’s a scene in a show called Hemlock Grove in which a werewolf changes from man to wolf. It’s your standard snarling wolf snout reaching out from a human mouth, agape in agony. It is once the wolf has fully emerged that the scene becomes interesting: it eats the pile of human skin that it has just shed. This is one of the most beautiful and powerful images I’ve ever witnessed on screen, and whoever dreamed it up is a poet. Change is not comfortable. Becoming someone or something other than what you were may require being eaten by what you become. That’s what getting a Sak Yant feels like. That’s what striving to be “better” feels like.
Andrew’s “Gaew Yod” (9 spires) Sak Yant from Ajarn Pi Bangkrating
Read more about Andrew’s experience with Arjan Pi here.
If you’ve watched a few episodes of Andrew’s show, Bizarre Foods, you might know that he likes his flavors a little “funky.” Slightly “off,” but in a good way. When you’re tasting wine and you’re not just into the fruity, jammy notes of approachable, young wine, you’ll find yourself tasting tobacco, barnyard, or saddle. None of that sounds good, but it is. I like single malt scotches. The notes I’m drawn to are smokey, minerals and the earthiness of moss. You can taste those things because that’s where the water and peat moss came from that went into making the scotch. It’s called terroir (ter-wah) and it’s what gives wine or spirits character. That’s my impression of Andrew as well. In the hours we spent together, both “performing” with the cameras rolling and not peforming between shots, all these different notes in his character came through. He’s smart, focused, hungry to keep experiencing the different cultures and ways of life around the globe; he’s intense and assertive but also inviting and interested in picking up the details. Overall Andrew is very much like he appears to be in his show, but there are undertastes and notes that get flattened out by the camera, by editing, by watching on a screen. On a long ride in the cab between the Sang Morakot Muay Thai gym and Arjan Pi’s Sak Yant studio, Andrew scrolled through his phone’s playlist and hooked up a few songs through the taxi’s sterio: Frank Zappa and Brian Eno… you can describe the “flavor” of Andrew Zimmern, but only in meeting him to you get to enjoy that slightly off – but in a good way – “funk” that is the best part of his character. He is awesome.
So if you are fan of Muay Thai, or of Andrew Zimmern – or like me a fan of both – make sure you don’t miss the Driven By Food Bangkok episode on the 23rd. I excited to see what magic they made of our day.
You can watch a preview of Driven by Food here [click “watch the reel”]
[No shit, they let them fly a drone in Rajadamnern for the Travel Channel filming, a first ever for the stadium whose foundation stone was laid in 1941.] – you can see the instagram video below here.
You can read all my articles on Sak Yant here.