Gordon Ramsay will go anywhere for an exciting meal. Gordon’s Great Escape, his latest culinary odyssey took him to Southeast Asia, where he catered for a wedding in the middle of the jungle, and ate snake heart in a roadside restaurant. Here, he reveals more.
You are back from your latest adventure to Southeast Asia – what did you discover?
I have always loved South East Asian cuisine and it was an extraordinary trip. I have learnt how to eat well but eat healthily. Everything was done with such simplicity. My biggest learning curve was cooking for just over a month without any butter or cream. Out there was fresh, healthy and even the fish at the local market in Vietnam were in tanks.
Were there lots of techniques that you’ll bring back to the UK?
There were lots of techniques to come home and reposition. I was like a magpie going to watch all these bits of glitter and all the sparkles and grabbing them and running back with all these magical ideas. It was the attitude of the locals that was more surprising, they were energised twice a day to shop and purchase all these amazing ingredients and to go back to cook for their family. All these young boys and girls were going to the market for their parents and buying some amazing fish and dictating to the providers of the store on how they would like it cut – some with the heads on and some with the tails left on. It was just so fresh, not a supermarket or refrigerator in sight, and everything was just so much more real. No clingfilm anywhere!
Did you find any surprising ingredients?
I am always looking for surprising ingredients as it keeps me on my toes so yes. I had a [snake] heart which was almost like raw liver. I could feel it literally beating in my stomach 3 or 4 minutes later. It was served in a shot glass with some strong alcohol and it was one of those warm oyster moments when you don’t chew and just swallow. In this restaurant, it was all the weird and wonderful mountain rats, cobras, rats – it was like going to the zoo for dinner.
Would you imagine bringing that kind of food back home?
No not really. I don’t want to see any protestors outside my door. I love the methods in the way they cook, the slow brazing, the poaching and how everything is all self-contained; their cooking is all about timing for the textures. It was all very uncontrived and more natural and incredibly delicious.
Did you sample any of the food on the roadside stalls?
Yes I went up and down the stalls. They are like little umbrellas, nothing glamorous. It could be a duck egg foetus 3-4 weeks old, like a duck head and feathers. It is known for being bought by young men to advance their sexual spirits – I suppose it was like a sort of egg Viagra – and that was somewhat weird. I went on a hunt for tarantulas, I went into the desert and found them and forgot all about the fear factor and grabbed them and took off their fangs and blanched them and deep fat fried them. It is not the kind of finger food you would expect to see in Claridge’s, but it looked like some sort of chicken wing that was full of grease and tasted of nothing. This is how the country survived. They had no option but to hide in the countryside and eat bugs. Every garden has this big net with a fluorescent tube and all the bugs fly into them and they empty it the next morning and fry them – same thing with the tarantula where they pack them up with protein and eat them on a daily basis for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
How was your health when you were there? Any upset stomachs?
Yeah apart from spending 2-3 hours on a toilet somewhere in a field on the edge of a mountain, or at the back end of a bus or even on a boat. I have a very sensitive stomach so I’m not very good at keeping those kind of foods down. I was actually ill for two days while we were making ground travelling across Vietnam.
What about the locals? What did they think of chef Ramsay?
I was this big, blond-haired, blue-eyed oaf – they are all very slim and lean, with hardly any fat anywhere as they don’t eat dairy. I was like Shrek disrupting the local villages because I looked kind of freaky. We helicoptered into a tribe and cooked for a wedding. That was hilarious, especially at 5:30am when they were sipping alcohol off this huge plant. They drank from 5am until midnight.
What about the characters you met? Were there any stand out people?
Yes, I met some very talented individuals. There was a catering school set up for street kids, they were rounded up and taught how to cook, and they then cooked for street kids in return. I cooked for the members of the royal family and the young kids were so good that I demanded that they cook with me.
When we are watching the show, will you be offering tips to the viewers?
Yes, every time I go on these amazing journeys, I always come back with a chest of exciting ideas. We have written this amazing book along the journey – it is almost like a travelog.
You have mentioned all these beautiful fresh ideas and ingredients, are any of them available in the UK?
You can cross over with ingredients because we have the equivalent. Whether it is baby squash or baby aubergine or courgette or whether it is the most amazing chicken or pork. The secret is in the paste, we have garlic, ginger and chillies and it is all in the making of the paste. It is the base of a superb Vietnamese and Cambodian dish – that’s the heartbeat. So yes, we have the equivalent to make those flavours absolutely pop.
You really enjoyed this experience, didn’t you?
Take a trip out there because it was a dream for me. No-one was looking for sympathy, and the whole place had this vibe of a hard-working culture, a culture which, in the case of Cambodia, was deprived of freedom for so many years and had to become so self-sufficient beyond belief.
So India is done, South East Asia is done, where are you planning next?
I am obsessed with Argentina. It is an amazing country and produces phenomenal food so yeah potentially Argentina. It would be great.
Gordon’s Great Escape, Mondays from 9 May, 9pm, Channel 4.