Jeff Corwin, the adventure seeking wildlife biologist guy on Animal Planet, right? Yes, THAT Jeff Corwin. Jeff also happens to be a passionate foodie and has a new show on the Food Network called Extreme Cuisine. I spoke with Jeff about the new show and his culinary travels. Corwin is not only a biologist but an anthropologist and Extreme Cuisine fuses all of Jeff’s passions together exploring food, culture and conservation. This show will be a fascinating look at international cuisine, unique cultures, and food’s place in bringing families together and shaping their history. And with a character like Jeff Corwin as host, it promises to be amusing and vastly entertaining.
Interview with Jeff Corwin
Your television career so far has focused on nature and animals. What was the inspiration to do a food show?
JEFF: I have a great fascination and passion for food. I really consider myself a foodie in regard to my spirit. I, typically, can be on the road ten months out of the year. So much of our lives is bent around trying to get a great meal wherever we are at the moment. It really becomes a mission above and beyond, say, filming silverback gorillas. We hear of this local place where they make this incredible regional dish. So, it’s been a passion of mine growing up in the restaurant business. I’ve explored a lot of things from winemaking to cheesemaking. My wife and I, for example, were filming in Europe that will take us on a side trip to France for a few days and we’ll explore the local markets. Or Italy. It’s really a passion of mine and I’ve always wanted to apply my adventure model, my exploration model
with TV shows to food. And that’s what we really do with this show.
The show is called Extreme Cuisine. What’s your definition of “extreme”?
JEFF: This special we filmed in Thailand, we spent nearly two weeks traveling from east to west, north to south. Many rural, remote regions in little villages, tribal communities to remote markets to sprawling urban food markets. When you think of Thai food, you think of Pad Thai and chicken satay and tom yum soup. Here, we’re off the menu, off the grid when it comes to food. The people in Thailand often use extraordinary flavor combinations. Their sort of Eastern sense of balance, of incorporating equality of sweet, sour, savory, spicy…often used to mask very simple proteins. They’re often eating the lowest of the food chain and out of that experience making an incredible epicurean experience. And that’s what we look at. So we eat everything from this regional dish called ‘jumping shrimp’ (it’s alive when you eat it!) to seeing how they sustainably harvest silkworms from bamboo, which is renewable, and use that to make an incredible snack. The food we look at is often outside the comfort zone of Western culture but for these people, the communities in Thailand, this is everyday food. It may be extreme to us but to them this is what they’re eating. We try to look at that and see how the food becomes the glue that keeps a community together and builds and sustains a culture…sort of moves the history of a people forward to the next generation. Just as we would with Thanksgiving dinner or a special dinner with friends. If I was in New England, it would be a lobster bake. There, it would be the whole Trang pork cooked in the Trang province.
The other thing we look at, which I’m really fascinated about,(and for me the mission is not to force this down the audience’s throat but to have it naturally bubble up through the adventure) is to look at how many people around the world survive by using local ingredients. And many dishes and many of the ingredients used to make that fabulous food were harvested within yards from where we were. When we ate the Trang pork, that pork grew up in the backyard of the people who make it. And the people who eat it live down the street. And it’s that sort of idea of local, really cool, unique slow foods, often simple foods but wonderful foods. This is what it’s really about. It’s about adventure…taking my passion as a wildlife biologist, my passion as an anthropologist, my interest in food and sort of braiding them together.
When I first heard about Extreme Cuisine, I envisioned you dining on larvae from tree trunks.
JEFF: In some cases it is that. But the dishes we look at, we explore and we taste. There may be an element of extreme in them but it is not shock value food. This is not a Fear Factor attempt to gross out the audience. I really focus in, I want the audience to look at this with a fresh perspective. You may
not like this. You may find this unnerving. In fact, I’m unnerved and I don’t know if I’m going to like this but you know what, I’ve been invited into this house and this is what they eat and I’m going to be totally honest and give it a chance. Ninety-nine percent of the time I was incredibly surprised. Not only how the food didn’t taste unpleasant but often tasted delicious. And the way they put it together…like one of the dishes they made was weaver ant larvae. And you think gross!, but the truth is this is a renewable resource. This is a resource that is available all the time. And it’s one with protein. And if you know anything about ants, you know they produce formic acid. Formic acid is their defense. They use that acid as a complement. It almost functions as that vinegar or lime juice would with the mint and cilantro and sugar and fish sauce and shallots and ginger. All this stuff comes together to mask the unpleasant and create a really surprisingly delicious dish. We look at
food like that. Watching the family come in the morning to the local expert who makes the Trang pork. They put in their order and we’re there for the day. At the end of the day he brings out this pig grown in the area that will support a local family.
So this is not like Bizarre Foods (with Andrew Zimmern) at all.
JEFF: The mission is not to shock. The mission is to enlighten. Also, I think there is something that I have in my storytelling process that includes a little bit of self-deprecation, a little humor. Taking a sour situation and learning out of it. That’s what we do in the show. It’s really about having a great adventure. And through that great adventure we make incredible discoveries. And the discoveries we make, in our visit to Thailand for example, is really the everyday eating experience of these people. We do everything from go to this Red Karen village and go to the river that cuts between Myanmar and Thailand and use ancient bamboo traps to trap catfish then hike into this family that really lives off the map. They live in this rice paddy and all their food, all their vegetables, all their proteins come from the surrounding forest and the agricultural land that they harvest.
You go into the woods and you pick wild eggplants. Little tiny aubergines that just explode with this sort of contrary bitter sweet flavor in your mouth. Wild ginger, wild basil, wild cilantro, wild spinach and some other greens. And you take that and mix it up, then you have to take the bamboo that has the silkworms in it or bamboo worms in it and turn it into a steamer. You steam your catfish in it and your rice in it. And you end up with a dish and you think, if you were in Le Bernardin or some high-end restaurant in New York City, they would charge you an arm and a leg for this. But these people just walk into their forest and did it sustainably and are able to create an incredible dish. And the only thing used outside of the ingredients to create that dinner was a match. A match that came from Bangkok. Everything else was local. To me that’s incredible.
I live on an island in New England. To me, one of the great experiences is in July going out to harvest mussels from my mussel bed. Get in my boat, pull my lobster traps, get some lobsters. We have a little pizza oven. My wife makes dough. Make clam pizzas. Do a little lobster bake on the beach. And to say, you know what, isn’t it incredible in the 21st century that we can go out in our backyard and get dinner. To me I think there’s a message behind that and that’s some of the things we explore. But ultimately, this is an adventure. It’s an expedition of discovery. Traditionally, I think people probably would connect that to exploring wildlife and conservation ecology. For this, it’s about food and how food keeps people together and celebrating the human experience. That’s what I really love about this because I never really had a chance to do this. This has sort of been a dream of mine to do for many, many years.
Do you ever take your family traveling with you?
JEFF: I do. My daughter, Maya, who’s five has been to Mexico, Africa, all around the world. My other daughter, Marina, is only 5 months. We did her first travel experience with her and it wasn’t a super amount of fun. She was about two months too young I think. But she’ll get there. Maya went on her first trip when she was 7 or 8 months and it really
was a good time for her. She basically grew up on the road. I look at her life…she goes out and helps me catch fish. We have mussel beds. We have clam beds. She helps me harvest and haul up the lobster traps. I think it is a great gift to give your children. I think what’s really special about this show is I think sometimes we forget where our food comes from. There is a process to making a delicious meal and how that meal is made between family and friends and helps bind relationships.
When you’re traveling, do you introduce your daughter to some of the stranger foods?
JEFF: Absolutely. Within reason that is. I want to be careful eating street food in New Delhi. We have that rule, though, that you have to try it once before you say you don’t like it. And because of that she’ll have friends that come over to spend the night and they’re like “You guys are going to eat this?!” You’d be surprised how many little kids don’t eat clams. But Maya loves her clams. She was out there digging them.
And when we’re traveling…absolutely. I took her to Mexico recently and we were eating what the locals were eating. She did quite well with it.
What is the weirdest thing that you have eaten?
JEFF: Well I broke rice with descendants of Iban headhunters in a longhouse with a basket of smoking human heads (from the previous generation, the grandfather had gotten), sitting and eating these giant undulating sago worms. That was a tough dinner. It was hard to wrap my head around it.
On this show we ate a lot of really weird stuff. Weird to us, not
to the people that were preparing it for us. There was the weaver ant salad. There were giant silkworms that explode in your mouth but they tasted really good. There were giant grasshoppers they fried. This was their snack. You sit down and watch a football game, have a beer and eat chips. They sit down and watch a soccer match, drinking a Singha and eating these fried worms and they really were good. They were certainly edible and tasted solidly good. But I would say, the really strange thing we ate that I just didn’t think you could eat was horseshoe crab roe. Take a fresh horseshoe crab, boil it and they would take the roe out and make this exquisite salad. Another cool thing we ate was blood cockles. This was a shellfish that nearly disappeared but is now sustainably harvested. We sat down and you opened them up and, literally, what comes out is about a tablespoon of red blood-like liquid. And it actually has hemoglobin so it’s not that dissimilar from human blood. Eaten raw, it didn’t
knock my socks off but cooked up and put in this salad it was really, really delicious. Of course, we’re cooking it in this kitchen and you look up and there’s this giant wasp flying around and there’s a gecko on the ceiling. There’s a cat coming right across the counter. You’re really out there, in the elements, cooking this dinner.
But the weirdest thing we ate was a sauté, sort of a stir fry, of giant larvae of this giant Asian wasp which is deadly. One sting of this wasp will kill you. What they actually do is go out to the river where they think these wasps live and take a small piece of food they think the wasp will eat and they attach a long red string to it. They watch the wasp fly off with the red string and follow it for miles and then, putting their life in their hands, they excavate out this nest and gather these gigantic, thumb-sized grubs. They cook them up and it tastes really good, sort of this egg custard-like texture. But, you know, when it’s cut with garlic and the shallots and ginger and you put it over rice, anything tastes good.
Anyplace you haven’t gone yet that you would like to go?
JEFF: There’s lots of food places I’d like to go. One of my big passions is that I’m a mushroom collector. I love to go out in autumn and collect mushrooms. My fantasy is to take my daughter and go look for Alba truffles in Italy. When I go out and collect mushrooms, people are like “Oh my God. Isn’t that going to kill you?” No, I always tell them – there are old mushroom collectors and there are bold mushrooms collectors. There are no old, bold mushroom collectors. You have to know your stuff. Also, I love India. It’s one of my favorite places. It’s just a cool place and I would love to do a special in India with all the different cuisines.