But her new National Geographic series, Restaurants at the End of the World (NatGeo, Tuesdays at 10; Disney+, March 22), is the far more liberating for her.
“Well, Fast Foodies, I was a very free chef. I could cook whatever you want, do whatever you want and whatever,” she told me recently. But on “Iron Chef, I had a task and my job was to commentate.”
“For Restaurants at the End of the World, it’s: Kristen, just go out and do what you want to do.” That makes it the most liberating “out of all the shows that I’ve done,” she said.
Restaurants at the End of the World has a familiar format: a well-known chef, traveling, visiting restaurants and people, learning about cuisine, cooking, and culture.
I asked Kristen about how her show fits into the landscape. “Any time you put travel and food together, they’re going to all be very different,” she said, because what differentiates them are the guests and the host.
Anthony Bourdain’s show, Kristen said, is “playing on Delta airplanes, and I was rewatching it the other day on my flight. His show is perfectly unique—not because it’s food and travel, but it’s his voice and his storytelling.”
Without his voice, she said, it’d be the same as other shows, even the same cinematography. “But what made it perfect was the way he told his story through his eyes. I think that’s the beauty of Padma’s show: it’s because of her that the story is being told in a different and unique way. And I think for me, it’s less so carving out a place for myself, it’s just being myself.”
Being herself means being curious. “I’m asking the questions that I would ask whether a camera was there or not,” she told me.
That interest in the people, places, and produce she encounters is very evident on-screen. Kristen is an outstanding host, and by far the best part of Restaurants at the End of the World, which is by itself a great entry into the food/travel space.
“The driving force of my travel curiosity is coming from being adopted at a very young age—at four months old,” she said. “My life could have ended up with these people, all these people that I’m meeting. That never escapes my brain when I travel, whether it be for the show or for any other show, is that I could have ended up anywhere in the world with any family. I just happen to end up in Michigan with my family.”
But curious doesn’t mean having to make judgments for viewers. “I get to go in without an opinion,” she said. “I don’t have I don’t have to be judging anybody. I don’t want to judge anybody. The way I talk about food, it’s either good or it’s just not good. I like it or I don’t like it. But I appreciate all of it, even if I don’t like it.”
In each of the episodes, Kristen travels to a different place—Boquete, Panama; Svalbard, Norway, Maine, USA; and Paraty, Brazil—and spends time with a chef, learning about how they cook and how they source their ingredients. All of that culminates in a big meal served to the restaurant’s guests, not to Kristen herself.
“I know going in that my task is to get to this final meal, and to learn as much as I can along the way that helps me get there. That’s the only direction I’ve given,” she told me.
That’s the way she wanted it to be; she did not want producers to brief her before each location.
“I don’t really want to know that much because I can’t act,” she said. “So if you have me meet somebody for the fifth time and look surprised, I can’t give you that surprise. I just can’t. We’re doing reality TV, not scripted.”
On location, she didn’t even meet people until they were on camera together. Producers were adamant about making sure we didn’t run into each other,” she said. “I’m like, Can I go to the bathroom? They’re like, Let us clear the path to make sure you don’t run into anybody.”
But once cameras are rolling, she spends time with the people she’s visiting, even on her days off, and gets to know them. That means a lot of unused footage: “We have six days of filming, and we only we have 50 minutes of television to capture.”
The quests to find great produce result in some adventure, like rappelling down a waterfall where watercress grows. In her voice-over on the how, Kristen says that these are “restaurants so remote that their chefs face more challenge in a day than most chefs face in a lifetime, and yet they turn these obstacles into once-in-a-lifetime meals.”
“The only things that I wanted—I felt like I needed to know—were the adventure activities, the ones I needed to mentally wrap my brain around,” Kristen told me. “Kristen, would you be open to swimming in the Arctic? Yes. Would you be willing to rappel down a waterfall? Yes.”
“I like adventure. I like adrenaline,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, I do it less and less because the risk assessment you know, things change and things shift.” But doing a show with NatGeo made her more comfortable: “They’re doing safety checks, and I feel very, very safe.”
Restaurants at the End of the World show has its origins in one pitched to Kristen back in 2019, which was just an “idea about family meals across the country.” Once they were ready to take it to networks, “March of 2020 happened and everything just came to a screeching halt,” she told me.
“NatGeo caught wind of it, and wanted it, and so then NatGeo put their spin on it. Then it came back to me: National Geographic wants it, and they have this idea of Restaurants at the End of the World. All I needed to hear was ‘NatGeo,’ to be quite frank.”
Kristen said she hopes her new show will draw people because “it is a window into somebody else’s life. That’s it,” she said. “I feel like whether you’re in food or love food or restaurants are your thing or not, at the end of the day, we all can find something by hearing someone else’s story.”