Tuesday, February 11, 2014

INTERVIEW. Jonathan Phang on his new show, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains on Travel: 'Every production comes with challenges'.

Jonathan Phang of Jonathan Phang's Caribbean Cookbook on the Travel Channel (DStv 179) returns to TV screens tonight in a new series, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains at 21:00.

In my "exclusive" interview with Jonathan Phang (hilarious how various publications suddenly want to claim an "exclusive" interview although the talent was flown to South Africa and was interviewed by numerous journalists), he dished on his new show.

Not even the oppressive heat, sitting in a stationary carriage next to a platform at the Cape Town station in a train that wasn't going anywhere, could dampen his boisterous, jovial mood.

As we both lunged at creaky windows, desperate to just try and get some air in at the sweltering Travel Channel media launch, Jonathan Phang was a breeze to interview as he heartily chatted and joked about his new show.

What was the most enjoyable experience for you out of the filming of the series?
I'm going to be honest with you, none of it was awful. I didn't have a bad day at all because I love to work. I do one show a year generally. Working for me is something that's a real joy because I have an office job and that's what I do most days.

So I'm very lucky to this sort of jobs, TV wise. None of it was awful. It's more about the stand-out things. The anticipation of getting onto the Venice-Simplon Orient Express was something great. There's nothing like that feeling.

I wasn't particularly into trains until I got the job. I think the Eastern Oriental Train was beautiful. Just the scenery was spectacular because we went from Singapore up to Bangkok through Malaysia and it was a very varied landscape and a very tropical landscape. Each journey had something that it gave me.

There's quite a lot... even on Travel Channel's there's a lot of travel shows, lots of cars shows, lots of train shows. Did you set out to bring a different angle or atmosphere to Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains? What will viewers see that's different?
From a presenter's point of view I can only be who I am. You cannot approach a project by trying to be anything.

If you go from the point of view of "I have to try and be different" you will tie yourself up in knots and you won't be authentic and honest. I'm not influenced by anything on the channel. Actually I don't think there's anything like what we've done on the channel.

Our show is a bit more luxurious. Most of the shows I've seen on Travel Channel are a bit more outdoorsey. So our show is just very different because you're experiencing the journey and then experiencing the destination from a food perspective. I think that's very different and new for Travel Channel.

So my approach was still to try and make it different, but by nature of what we've done it is going to be slightly different.

You'll see food from a destination perspective, as opposed to an adventure perspective, and you'll get to experience the journey of the trains which is quite an exclusive thing to do.

Can you talk a little bit about challenges you've experienced making this as opposed to television you've done before.
Every production comes with its own challenges because unfortunately nobody's got any money anymore.So its always difficult. And every time you see the end result it looks so easy and so glamorous and grand and people say "oh yes, you call that work!". Actually, we did all that Venice work in one day.

Because in that episode we see you say that its the end of the day and you did all of that stuff and you're tired. And i know from my own work as a print journalist how difficult it is to interview more than one person on a day with all the logistics and organising it entails.
I flew in and I got to the hotel at 01:30 in the morning, right. Started at 7:00. We finished at 02:30am.

The King of Fish, literally when we sat down to eat - because we cannot not eat it - it was 2 o' clock in the morning. And then  I had to be at the train station at 8:00.

And we had to do arrival shots at 07:00 in the morning which of course got canned because it started raining. It's that laborious. It is that long a day.

Lucky enough for me, people make me alive. I love people and I love talking and all of that stuff. So when I interview somebody it all kind of goes and I'm fine. But that's the truth behind it.

It's really intense and it's really long. No day was shorter than 15 hours and some days 18 hours.

You're knowledge of food is so comprehensive and huge. And then you have to interview other people. And I thought that was interesting, is that you sort of have to narrate and explain on their behalf when they don't really talk, or talk enough. Do you consciously have to tone down the language to make it easy for ordinary viewers to follow, and then explain more when the on-screen chefs don't?
It is difficult because a lot of the chefs on our show weren't very articulate with the language. So it was hard because I had ...my other job is being an agent.

So I'm a bit of a stage mom if you know what I mean. So "come on!" You want to sort of do them justice and be respectful, but yes, I knew what they were going to say before they said it really because I grew up reading cook books. And by nature I've got quite a good knowledge of food anyway.

And for the viewer of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, are you conscious of over verbalising or explaining to make it accessible?
If you want to make the point of what's going on - and I feel that a recipe is really beautiful - I think its important to let the viewer know what's going on. For me, when I watch television I get frustrated if I don't get any knowledge to take home from it. Because then it means I'm watching something mindless.

So I think cooking shows - so controversial of me to say it - but I think sometimes they cheat. Everything is in a little bowl, chopped and they chuck it in.

You don't really know what they've done. And I don't think a lot of the time chefs say "look, I've put two tablespoons in", "This is what a two inch piece of ginger which I'm going to grate, looks like".

If you're proud of the dish and you think you want people to cook it, you've got to give them the knowledge. But I am talkative.

Watching the first episode that was quite striking to me. 
And if they're not going to say it, you've got to say it for them! Ha ha.

Because in the bit where he puts the lamb in the first episode in the oven, the chef doesn't talk at all, and you have to say oh it's going into the oven for just a few minutes so as to not overcook it.
Yes. The truth is I would have been happy if he'd said it. But he was not going to. Ha ha. And if they're not going to say it, you've got to, otherwise it's not going to be used.

For a second possible series of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, are there places you'd like to go to?
There's absolutely ... there's two places I want to do. My dreams would be Victoria Falls. I think that would be amazing on the Rovos. I would love to do the Blue Train. I'd like to do the Indian trains. And I might do the Orient Express trains in Machu Picchu. For me that would be the best season two.

We've done some quite spectacular journeys on this one and a next one would have to be even better to justify and do.

Trains with showers.
Yes. And then my train life will be done. Because I don't really want to do the Trans-Siberia Express.

I think that would be a great one!
It would be a great one for a day. But I know they'll shove me for about a month and it would drive me crazy! Ha ha ha ha.

I'm sure we're going to see you on it Jonathan, ha ha. Thanks for talking to me.

ALSO READ: New series, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, on Travel Channel on Tuesdays at 21:00, embarks on a culinary journey by rail.
ALSO READ: How the Travel Channel missed the train with the media launch of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains.

Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, Tuesdays on Travel Channel (DStv 179) at 21:00