To say Adam Richman has the best job in America might be a bit of a stretch—after all, last we checked, Hugh Hefner’s still alive. But if it’s not the best, it certainly has to rank in the top 20 (at least in the eyes of carnivores). The man gets paid to eat iconic dishes served at hidden dining gems across this great land, from a lobster shack in Portland, Maine, to a hole-in-the-wall burger joint in Carmel, Ind., to an alehouse in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Brooklyn-born, Yale-educated Richman—who first hit it big on Man v. Food and now hosts Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America, both on the Travel Channel—isn’t just a glutton, though. Working in the food industry “since I was 13,” Richman, 38, has evolved into a culinary expert who has judged and presided over multiple food competitions. The latest (and most prestigious)—the World Food Championships—brings Richman to Las Vegas for a four-day food fest/cooking throw-down Nov. 1-4 at Bally’s, Caesars Palace and Paris Las Vegas. The event will see culinary champions vying for a share of $300,000 in prize money in the all-American cuisine categories of barbecue, chili, burgers, sandwiches and side dishes.
What’s the most appealing element to the World Food Championships?
The thing I think will [excite] fledgling foodies is every person in this competition has either won or earned their way into the competition. This isn’t a vanity thing; this isn’t on popularity. This is a complete meritocracy. So for someone to get a chance to sample barbecue from Tennessee, from Georgia, Arkansas, Memphis, St. Louis, North Carolina, from the masters—it’s not like a celebrity chef opened a barbecue place at the Wynn or something—that’s unique.
I had this moment when I was a judge on Iron Chef, and I was watching my little monitor up on the judging station, and I was like, “Oh my God! I get to be one of those people who tastes the food! I don’t have to guess what it tastes like; I’m the dude!” That’s what this will be like. You get to taste the best of the best.
Is Vegas a natural fit for this?
Absolutely—it’s a layup. It’s broad culturally, off the Strip and on. You have Asian cuisine, you have Latin, you have American, you have steak houses, you’ve got pizzerias, taco shops, tapas—the beat goes on. So there’s the notion that this is already a very global community and a place where the attention of the world is directed. And it’s a place synonymous with competition. … Events like this are reasons to come to Las Vegas, because you still get the great nightlife, you still get the pretty people, you still get the gaming, still get the desert, still get all the opulence and the coolness and the ability to take your drink out of the restaurant with you.
Where does your interest in food come from?
Part of it was my great aunt, who, when I was 5 or 6 years old, taught me how to make a cheese omelet—it was the first time I watched something I recognized become something else. And part of it, without question, was growing up in Brooklyn, which [consisted of] undiluted, first-generation immigrant communities. So I had Syrian neighbors on one side of me, Turkish on the other, and then I had first-generation Italian immigrants across the street. And all the mothers would do the wash together, walk their kids in the carriages together, we’d all go to the park together, and they’d exchange recipes. So my mother would say, “This is a shawarma recipe I got from Mrs. Sobett. Oh, Mrs. Agostino gave me her caponata recipe.”
In that respect, isn’t New York the perfect place for someone to gain an appreciation for food?
Yes, because you can see the language that food speaks. You know, my best friend in high school, his name was Benny Ng—Mandarin Chinese through and through—and I mentioned something about having [eaten] dim sum or shrimp har gow. And he’s like, “Excuse me, Jew boy? What do you know about har gow?” And suddenly you have this commonality. But if I said, “Oh, I’ve been to China, I walked on the Great Wall,” it would make me sound whiter than I did to begin with.
Are you just a food connoisseur, or do you cook, too?
I love to cook. My schedule doesn’t always allow it, unfortunately, simply because I’m home only three or four days a month. But one of my great joys is doing Thanksgiving for my extended family. My mom used to host it, and after my father passed she moved into a place that’s not really conducive to hosting people. But I can. And that’s the beauty of food, the notion of food tradition, that there really is this passing of the torch.
On my own, I love making sushi. It’s relaxing, it’s aesthetically pleasing, the textures. Also, stews, soups—very much in my wheelhouse, because it’s all the layering, flavor, texture and essences.
You got famous for tackling food challenges on Man v. Food. What’s the one you conquered that you’re most proud of, and is there one that got away that still haunts you?
Most proud of, I would say, the Four Horsemen burger [at Chunky’s] in San Antonio; it had cayenne, jalapeño, habanero and three whole ghost chili peppers. It was one of the most painful challenges, an extremely painful hamburger, so the fact that I won on any level was tremendous. The one I wish I had won was either the [12-egg] omelet at Beth’s Café in Seattle, because it came down to the final three bites, or the carnivore challenge in Atlanta—it was a two-man pizza challenge, and my partner had a bit of reversal of fortune.
What’s on the menu for your last supper?
Oooh. I’d probably do small plates of all the different dishes that I’ve come to love around the country. So some of the whole-hog barbecue from the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C.; a little foie-gras sushi from Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas from Hawaii; some kal bi from Side Street [Inn] in Hawaii; some brisket from the Salt Lick [in Austin, Texas]; some butterscotch pie from Yoder’s in Sarasota [Fla.]; actually, from right here in Vegas, some shrimp from Hot N Juicy Crawfish with some extra sauce; green curry from Song Restaurant in Brooklyn; knish from Yonah Schimmel’s [in Manhattan]; pastrami from Katz’s Deli—I could do this all day! Oh, and mint chocolate-chip ice cream from the Chocolate Room in Brooklyn—that would have to be there, too. And that’s just the first course.