Hunting, killing, exotic animal bites, adventure! Yes, the “extreme”-themed cooking shows just keep on coming. Tonight, BBC America debuts its new food competition series, No Kitchen Required, where three culinary-minded folks travel the globe catching food, cooking regional dishes, and having their creations judged by demanding locals. British chef Madison Cowan, winner of the Food Network’s Chopped and all-around chum of the magazine, is one of the show’s stars along with New York restaurateur Michael Psilakis and personal chef Kayne Raymond. Here, Cowan spills about the challenges of making the show, which include getting bitten by bats and free diving in Phuket, and reveals which giant island marsupial tastes a heck of a lot like pork belly. Yum!
Ok, where exactly is “No Kitchen Required?”
Right, well, we were dropped into all sorts of different locations—Belize, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Fiji, Kona, New Zealand. First, we had to connect with the indigenous tribes wherever we are. And then we break bread with them, hunt, forage, fish, chat and learn from them. At the end of the day, we each had to choose a protein and then go out and hunt it, kill it, and cook it in the traditional style. Then we were judged by a panel of locals as to the integrity of the dish. The idea is to maintain the integrity of the native dish but still put your own personality into it. But the best part was getting to interact with cultures that you’d normally never hear of.
What was the hardest part—the hunting, the cooking, or the judging?
For me, the hardest part was the language barrier. But the hunting was certainly exciting. You’re doing something with someone that they’ve been doing for years, for generations. Half the time the guides were teenage boys who had been hunting since birth. In Phuket, I went free diving with this guy who was at least 60, and he would go down 50 feet and scrape the ground with his fingers. At 60! I couldn’t make it down 20 feet. Interacting with these people is incredible. They have so little, almost nothing at all, and yet they’re willing to share everything with you. It’s very humbling. These cultures are used to being manipulated. You can’t go into their communities and cultures and say we’re going to make a show, grease some palms, and then say ok, we’ve got what we need from you, fuck off. You can’t do that, so you may as well be humble and honest about it.
Had you hunted much before?
No, I’m not really much of a hunter. I mean, I hunted a few goats in the islands, but nothing along the lines of armadillo or bat or wild boar. You think of guys hunting in the United States and it’s with rifles, drinking beers, cracking jokes, farting, and shooting defenseless animals 100 yards away. Here, we had to get up close with the animals and hunt them with spears, machetes, or slingshots. I feel we were really giving them a fighting chance.
Wait, how do you hunt bat?
For the most part with my eyes closed. Bats are just rats with wings and I’ve got an aversion to rats. But it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. We crawled into these tiny openings in caves, lit torches, and smoked bats out into nets that were slung in front of the opening. Then we picked them out, put them into a sack and took them down by the river where we cut their heads off live, skinned, and gutted them. One bat wasn’t going to give up and bit me—talk about a fighting chance.
Ok, so what were some of the more unusual dishes?
One of us had to hunt and catch a gibnut. It’s like a rabbit, a rat, and a wombat combined. I mean these things are massive 20 to 30 pound rodents with two massive teeth in the front of its mouth. But the belly has so much fat that it was reminiscent of pork belly. It was actually quite good. We had to eat all sorts of things: armadillo, bat, and alligator.
So, did you learn anything you think you’ll use back home?
Oh, I learned something every day. I don’t think I’ll be cooking bat or gibnut, but I definitely learned a lot from the people.
How harsh were the local judges?
There were a few stone-faced judges who said, “This is not what we do at all!” But we actually asked one guy, “Have you ever eaten anything outside of your own culture?” and he said never. This guy has eaten the same five things his entire life. It’s unfathomable. You just have to allow these people to trust you. Sure, there were a few who watched a bit too much Top Chef and wanted their 15 minutes of fame, but for the most part, people were very friendly.
What was the mood like among the three chefs?
You know, competition brings out an interesting sides of people. But then, we were in some situations where all that didn’t matter. It was massively cold in New Zealand—raining sideways, the food was ice-cold—and we would try to keep warm by the fire. In one moment we’d be at each other’s throats and the next we’d be huddled together trying to keep warm.
No Kitchen Required premiers tonight at 10/9 Central on BBC America. Catch the trailer here.