“When you’re hungry, you’re going to find a way to eat, no matter what,” says Kiran Jethwa. “That instinct is very strong and it’s fascinating to see how people handle the problems and barriers that are in the way of getting food to your mouth.”
In light of today's heavy reliance on convenience and processed foods, the presenter of Food Network’s new extreme food show, The Fearless Chef, is on a mission to educate viewers about what some people around the world risk to put food on the plate. From travelling via zip liners to harvest coca leaves in Bolivia to scaling precarious coconut trees in Sri Lanka and free-diving for dogtooth tuna in Mozambique, Jethwa seldom shies away from death-defying situations. While it’s often entertaining to watch this hunting and gathering of wonderful natural ingredients take place in such colourful surrounds, it’s all in the name of cultivating a greater appreciation for the provenance of our food.
“The bottom line is, it’s about making an entertaining show that was not contrived or set up or embellished in any way – we were trying to stay as true to the story as possible,” Jethwa says. “I’m fascinated by how resourceful people are and how people adapt to really tough environments across the world to eat.
"If there are people doing it and it happens on an everyday basis regardless of how dangerous it is, then our responsibility was to find a way to tell the story without hurting people.”
And for the most part, Jethwa and his team succeed, with only a few mishaps along the way.
“When we were in Nepal, we had a situation where we were harvesting honey and our drone operator didn’t quite get his timing right and launched his drone before he had safety gear on. The honey bees in Nepal (the ones we were shooting) are the largest in the world and quite aggressive. He got absolutely hammered by this swarm of bees and had to go on an IV drip and was in a pretty bad way for couple of days.
“He’s still alive, but I don’t think he likes bees very much,” Jethwa tells SBS.
So there I was, 150-feet in air with no safety equipment. I was very much out of my depth.”
A third generation Kenyan born to an Indian father and a British mother, Jethwa studied at Manchester University and went on to work in professional kitchens in England. But the seeds for his culinary career were sown much earlier.
“Since I was extremely young, food was a massive part of our upbringing and the centerpiece of everything. My father and mother were both amazing cooks,” he says.
Despite his early introduction to the kitchen, the chef's earliest food memory was more misadventure than magic.
“I got a bollocking from my mum after making her breakfast in bed one Sunday when I was about five years old, because I completely trashed the kitchen in the process.”
Later, while at school camp on the beautifully rugged Kenyan coast – home to an abundance of wild seafood – a nine-year-old Jethwa flexed his culinary muscles for the first time.
“The teachers brought in a big fish one day and they actually didn’t know what to do with it. So I got it and I dug a hole in the ground and burned some coals and cooked the whole fish in the ground. I don’t even know where I got the idea from – I must’ve seen something somewhere. They were pretty impressed by someone my age doing something like that.”
He’s been described as the Bear Grylls of the food world, namely for the bold, grueling and at times treacherous nature of his foraging pursuits, but the global 'gastronaut', restaurateur and production company owner says that while there is an undeniable element of adventure to the show, The Fearless Chef goes beyond food on a subsistence level.
“He’s [Bear Grylls] a survival guy and he’s about putting yourself in an environment where there is no food and making the best of it. Where I draw the line is, I’m not quite the ‘bite the head off a frog and swallow it live’ guy, because I’m a chef and I like to enjoy my food.
I want people to see the commonality amongst all of us: that we all need to eat – it’s a common language for everyone.
“The Fearless Chef is about finding interesting food and ingredients and finding a way to make it delicious, as opposed to a necessity to eat so you don’t die in a situation,” Jethwa explains.
On the places around the world that were the most eye-opening, Jethwa names the jungles of Borneo high on the list.
“If you were dropped into the jungle there in a survival situation, you’d be a very lucky person from the point of view that there’s just food everywhere, so you don’t have to bite the heads off things. We did foraging for all sorts of things and found an amazing barking deer. We prepared all of it using local Indigenous methods.”
Despite the show’s title, the chef cites more than one occasion he felt the adrenalin surge under his skin.
“The title is a little bit tongue-in-cheek," he confesses. "Nobody is fearless – it’s more about facing your fears, really. The show was about how people go through extreme methods to harvest food and the contrast to now and how easy access to food is for the majority of people. So every story had its own challenges.
“I would say the most scared I was, genuinely, was in Sri Lanka, simply because I had to scale a coconut tree 150 feet in the air. I’m not a particularly good tree climber and there’s no way of making it safe – we couldn’t use any safety equipment. So there I was, 150-feet in air with no safety equipment. I was very much out of my depth.”
Throughout the series, Jethwa and his team also survive the Danakil Depression in Northern Ethiopia, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth where temperatures often push 50 degrees Celsius.
“It was a really challenging environment,” he says. “People live there and work there and harvest food there – but just standing around in those temperatures is difficult.”
We need to start thinking more about where our food comes from and appreciating the people who get it for us, because it’s extremely difficult for some people to find their food.
Jethwa says facing the difficult and at times confronting terrain was fuelled by a burning desire to educate the masses about three key things.
“Firstly, we need to start thinking more about where our food comes from and appreciating the people who get it for us, because it’s extremely difficult for some people to find their food.
"Secondly, it's a fascinating place - the planet we live on is just so colourful and varied and I hope people can appreciate the ingenuity of people from all different cultures – it’s amazing to see.
“And also," Jethwa adds, "I want people to see the commonality amongst all of us: that we all need to eat – it’s a common language for everyone. Cuisines might be different but we’re all joined by the same thing across the world, which is nice to see."