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Headed Into ‘Uncharted’ Territory: An Interview With National Geographic’s Jon Kroll
Safety

Headed Into ‘Uncharted’ Territory: An Interview With National Geographic’s Jon Kroll

By Sphera May 31, 2021

Photo credit: National Geographic/Justin Mandel

Jon Kroll, the executive producer of Gordon Ramsay’s National Geographic show “Uncharted,” dishes on how the show focuses on safety and sustainability for the season three premiere. He also hilariously delivers a vicarious “idiot sandwich” reference on Ramsay’s behalf.

James Tehrani:
Welcome to the SpheraNOW podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability, and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s editor-in-chief. Today on the program, we have a very special guest, His name is Jon Kroll, and he is the showrunner and executive producer of the National Geographic Show ‘Uncharted’ starring, of course, celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay. Thank you so much for joining me today, Jon. I really appreciate it.

Jon Kroll

Jon Kroll:
My pleasure.

James Tehrani:
Great. We’ll be talking about season three, which premieres on May 31, but before we get into season three and talk a little bit about the show, I’ve got to ask you something about season two; Gordon and Zola Nene, I believe their names were, they were cooking in front of some hippos, which were in the background. How the heck did you keep them safe from those hippos?

Jon Kroll:
I’m glad you asked that question. We actually had a hippo safety briefing. We were pretty hippo-savvy by the time we got to the final cook at the end of the show. Because we had planned to do the first scene in front of a place where hippos were known to be around and so, we had to be prepared if the hippos did in fact show their faces and, basically, have an exit plan because hippos can run very, very fast on land.

Jon Kroll:
We had a local expert who briefed us on hippo safety. This proved to be extremely important though at the final cook, because when we scouted the location for the final cook at the end of the episode, it was in front of a beautiful pond, but there was no hippo in it. When we showed up for the final cook, there was a hippo in it and the hippo was extremely [angry] and not happy about our presence and did make moves toward us.

Jon Kroll:
There were a few times where we started to load people up and get them out of the way. Essentially, we relied on the help of a local expert to tell us, what a timely hippo evacuation plan would be and what the signs were that we should execute said plan.

James Tehrani:
How long did you have to get out of there in case the hippo did charge? I understand these animals can go about 30 mph.

Jon Kroll: That’ correct. I mean, they have to be able to get out of the water of course. What we did was, we had a couple of vehicles that were standing by, that were just out of the frame, so that you don’t see on camera. In the big drone shots, the vehicles have been removed so you don’t see them in those shots either. We had a vehicle standing by and everyone knew which vehicle they were going to head for. If we got the order from the local expert to evacuate, we were going to load up into those vehicles and be driven to safety.

James Tehrani:
Interesting. Very poignantly, a vehicle just pulled by as you said vehicle. That was really kind of cool. Great timing.

Jon Kroll:
The sound effects are being edited in real time.

James Tehrani:
All right. For people who are less familiar with the show, can you explain it a little bit and tell us where you’re going to be visiting in season three?

Jon Kroll:
Sure. Gordon Ramsay: ‘Uncharted’ is a travel adventure food show. In each episode, Gordon arrives in a different destination. He meets a local chef who tells him, ‘‘To understand my country or my city or my state, you need to understand something important.’’ For example, in Peru, he needed to understand altitude. In Alaska, he needed to understand survival. Something that is endemic to the local people and cuisine, that is at the heart of his journey.

Jon Kroll:
The chef then sends him on a series of food-seeking adventures in which he collects ingredients and meets various interesting characters. At the end, he and the guest chef get together and have a cook-off, usually competitive, in which Gordon tries to prove that he has what it takes to satisfy the locals.

James Tehrani:
Great. I have great intentions with this question, but I got to ask it. Who’s more daft? You for trying this stuff first, or Gordon for actually doing it on camera? Because some of the stunts he does are absolutely bizarre and terrifying, I would say.

Jon Kroll:
Well, I’ll give you full disclosure on this. I go on all the scouts. I try to eat everything he’s going to eat and do everything he’s going to do. There are certain kinds of stunts usually involving helicopters and things like that, that we have had a safety officer and if they would rather I not do and they have the safety guide do it when we came back for the shoot right beforehand.

Jon Kroll:
Generally, I’ll try and do everything I can and if I survive, they consider it safe that the culinary world will not be brought to a halt because of something happening to Gordon when he does it. There are a few things where we had to bring in the safety officer to try first. He’s a military veteran, [Gary] ‘Gaz’ Humphrey. He’s done some great things and he can be trusted when it comes to the most dangerous of all things.

James Tehrani:
He’s jumping out of the helicopter first, not you?

Jon Kroll:
Yeah. I would happily do it, but I am not allowed to by virtue of safety and insurance concerns. We have to let Gaz do that stuff.

James Tehrani:
OK. Great. In season three, I got to watch a few of the episodes before we talked. Gordon actually falls off a horse in the first episode. Was he OK after that?

Jon Kroll:
Yeah. He usually just dusts himself off. I mean, face it, he’s fallen out of boats, he’s fallen off of horses. We put him in situations where, by no means of his own dexterity, he’s put in a situation, where people fall. He’s human. He does sometimes, but he always gets up and keeps going. That’s the thing about Gordon. He’s great. He’s like the Energizer Bunny.

James Tehrani:
Well, the interesting thing to me about Gordon is, it’s a totally different personality than you see in some of his other reality shows. Is that intentional or is this closer to the real Gordon?

Jon Kroll:
Well, having spent a lot of time on camera and off camera with Gordon, the person you see on Unchartered really is Gordon. He’s fun, he’s curious, he’s excitable. I think all the other shows are an act and this is the real Gordon. This is him in his sweet spot. He loves doing ‘Unchartered’ because he has fun. He gets to do adventures. He gets to try new food. He’s super passionate about food and he’s super passionate about his ass hanging out of a helicopter. Those are two things he gets to do in this show.

James Tehrani:
Do you ever have to talk him into doing any of the stunts or is he pretty much, ‘’‘ ‘Sure. Let’s go. Let’s do this thing.’

Jon Kroll:
I’ve never had to talk Gordon into doing anything on the show. He always wants to do more than he’s allowed to do by the safety department and by insurance. However, there are times when I ask him to eat things where he says, ‘Did you eat this first?’ I have to say, ‘Yes.’ I always have had to make sure I’ve done that. Everything he eats, I either have eaten already or I tell him that anyway.

 

James Tehrani:
I heard you say that in a different interview I was listening to that sometimes he asks you, ‘Did you really eat this?’ You’re like, ‘Yeah, no.’ You have to fess up to him.

Jon Kroll:
In Norway, if you saw that episode, we eat this Rakfisk, which is this fermented fish delicacy. I had eaten the Rakfisk, but I hadn’t eaten the special Christmas edition that smelled like a baboon’s butt. I had not tried that one. Afterwards, he said, ‘Did you eat that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘No, I mean this one.’ I said, ‘Well, we didn’t have access to that one on the scout.’ He’s like, ‘Bastards.’

James Tehrani:
That’s hilarious. What would you consider the most dangerous thing he’s done since the show started?

Jon Kroll:
I think the most dangerous two things Gordon’s done since we’ve done the show, are in the first two episodes of season three, coincidentally. In episode one in Texas, he goes hunting for a rattlesnake with a blind rattlesnake hunter, and everything you see there is real. That is a real rattlesnake. Gordon caught it, and it was terrifying for all of us, but we were careful and had our training to go in there. We were careful with the crew.

Jon Kroll:
The other most dangerous thing was gathering the percebes, the barnacles in Portugal. The surf really was pounding in there and it was harrowing. This is in an area where they at another time of the year have the largest waves on the face of the earth. Even in a more quiet time of the year, the surf is pretty lively. We were quite concerned for his safety then. I know that our safety officer, Gaz, was on alert in case a rescue was needed.

James Tehrani:
Definitely. When I was watching that, I was thinking about his safety, but I was also thinking about the camera crew and the sound guy. How are they filming that and keeping themselves safe?

Jon Kroll:
I mean, that’s a really nice thing that you bring up, James, because our camera crews are incredibly robust. They’ll always get into the water. They’ll always do whatever’s necessary to get the shot. We always have someone standing behind them to spot them in situations like that. We are prepared to bail out, so we have ways of protecting them.

Jon Kroll:
I would say the time I had been most concerned about the camera crew, and Gordon for that matter, was in the Guyana episode when they got out of the longboats and got into the water in which we had just fished for piranhas. It’s the middle of the night, and Gordon’s catching a caiman with his bare hands.

Well, the camera crew is in the water also, and they are shooting him with water that’s probably thigh high, plenty high enough that a caiman could come up behind them or a piranha or any number of other horrific prehistoric killing machines that they have in Guyana. The camera crew is never hesitant to jump in and do whatever’s necessary.

James Tehrani:
I hope nobody’s ever gotten bitten in those kinds of situations.

Jon Kroll:
No. Most of the bites we get are mosquitoes, the occasional spider. We haven’t gotten bitten by any mammals or reptiles on the show.

James Tehrani:
I’ve got to ask you this. Season three, I am assuming it was filmed at the end of last year, and maybe even beginning of this year. Obviously, you have COVID-19 to worry about, so how do you keep everybody safe when they’re traveling around the world and when they’re meeting the new people in the different locations? How do you know everybody is safe to be around?

Jon Kroll:
Well, I mean, I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, James, and I have to say it is one of my proudest producorial achievements to have been able to keep this show on the road. By no means was it entirely, or even mostly me who did it, but to have overseen that operation and to have zero positive COVID tests for any of our crew in doing 13 episodes starting in July and going all the way up until April, going on 80 flights over the course of that time for both scouting and shooting.

Jon Kroll:
To have gotten out of there and kept everyone safe, I’m immensely proud, more than I’m proud of anything creatively we’ve been able to accomplish with this, or any other shows that I’ve done. To be able to provide jobs for people and keep them working, but also keep them safe was amazing. We brought in a team of former military infectious disease specialists to help us put together a protocol plan.

Jon Kroll:
We were one of the first TV shows of any kind to go back into production and were an international show. It was a learning experience as we went, but we used a layered approach of distancing, masks, testing, handwashing and common sense. The trickiest thing about it was that we really wanted to shoot the entire series without masks, so when pandemic is over and masks are not as commonplace, you’re not constantly being reminded of it.

James Tehrani:
Got you.

Jon Kroll:
The greatest care we took was with our on-camera contributors, because everyone you don’t see has a mask on. We were very, very careful about that. You’ll see more fist bumps and high fives and hugs I think this season, but I just think it was a lot of care. It was a little bit of a calculated risk and a lot of hard work. I want to give a shout-out to Tara Williams, our supervising producer, who had to oversee that whole operation, and Maryanne and Dean, our COVID supervisors.

Jon Kroll:
They were all fantastic and were diligent even when it was hard to keep people motivated and masked all the time. They were always right there to make sure we stuck to the plan.

James Tehrani:
Cool. How do you find the people that Gordon interacts with? For example, you have a person who is a lobster fisherman, who doesn’t eat lobster. Was that something planned, or was that something on the day of the cook you’re like, ‘‘Wait a minute, you don’t eat lobster and this is what you do for a living?’’

Jon Kroll:
Well, some of that is planning and some of it is happy accidents. We thought … in that particular case, it was an all-female crew of a lobster boat. We thought that was fun to see a bunch of women bossing Gordon around. It just was something you don’t expect when you see other fishing shows. Usually the crews are all men, so we thought this was an interesting twist on it. It just happened that the captain does not eat seafood.

Jon Kroll:
We discovered that after they were already cast. Generally, our process is that we have a lead producer and an associate producer, a segment producer on each episode. They will pre-interview all the people. We’ll go on a scout with them as well and we’ll meet them in person. We’ll walk through everything we’re going to do, and we’ll learn more about them. Then there’ll be some more follow-up interviews.

Jon Kroll:
By the time we get Gordon there, we know a lot about them, and we’ll tell him some things and we won’t tell him other things, so there can be surprises. We found that casting the contributors on the show is one of our most important jobs. That the scenes are so much better if you’ve got the right people. Of course, that starts with the guest chef, but also the other contributors. In Portugal, Jurgen, the German expat pig farmer was just a wonderful character that Gordon had so much fun with.

Jon Kroll:
In Texas, of course, the two young cowgirls who help him herd the cattle are just wonderful characters, Meredith and Maddy. I think finding those people for him to interact with really elevates the show. He’s great on his own, but you put him with a great character and it becomes a one plus one equals three sort of situation.

James Tehrani:
Excellent. As a National Geographic show, when you’re finding out the ingredients and so forth, how much does sustainability play into your decisions on what ingredients Gordon is going to use in the dishes he creates?

Jon Kroll:
Well, obviously Nat Geo is under the microscope when it comes to issues like sustainability and we’re accountable to not just the people at the network, but to the society, the National Geographic society. We get feedback from them, and they’ll constantly give us homework assignments to prove that a certain fish, that we’re going after is plentiful or it’s being fished for in a sustainable way. We are held to the highest standards in that regard and we take that extremely seriously.

Jon Kroll:
We stand by every single segment we’ve ever done. We have backup for every single one. We’re working with local authorities to make sure we’re doing it, not just within the law, but within sustainable practices. Sometimes there’s people who criticize us, who misunderstand it. Like they may see a certain species as being threatened, but it’s not threatened in the region that we’re in, or in many cases, it’s bountiful and they’re trying to thin the species.

Jon Kroll:
This happened in New Zealand with a goat, where they’re overrun with these wild goats and they’re being encouraged to thin the herd. I think this is something that we take very, very seriously.

James Tehrani:
Sure. There was a part in the Portugal episode that really piqued my interest. You’re actually going to a winery in sand. ’ never seen anything like that before. I think the guy said that it’ been there for about 200 years. Gordon, luckily, didn’t step on too many plants because it was really cool to see that.

Jon Kroll:
Well, it is actually very few plants in total, so he could have stepped on a branch, but he wouldn’t have harmed the mothership. Those root structures that were going underneath those branches were extremely, extremely robust. I think the farmer was more concerned about him ruining any of this year’s crop, than he was about damaging the plant as a whole.

Jon Kroll:
It’s not just the Nat Geo standards, the local standards for sustainability, we’re as careful of that as well, because we like to leave every place better than we find it, even if we take a few bites of food away from time to time.

James Tehrani:
Definitely. Does the crew get to eat the chef’s cooking at the end, or is that all for the people who are tasting the food?

Jon Kroll:
James, as soon as the cameras go dark, the crew is in there like pigs to a trough. I mentioned Gaz Humphrey, our safety officer. He is the worst of all of them. You will never see him without some of the food at the end of the meal. Gaz will be in there. That is one hungry … Well, that is one hungry man, that Gaz Humphrey. He is somebody … And you got to keep him away from it before we serve it, because he will not hesitate to dive into that food before we serve it to the guests, if given an opportunity.

James Tehrani:
Do you ever say, ‘Gordon, that just really wasn’t that good?’

Jon Kroll:
First of all, that’s never the case so it’s never a problem. Second of all, if Gordon ever did cook something that I thought that was less than stellar, James, I think you can see how much fun this show is to produce and I will tell Gordon everything I need to, to keep my job, OK? I have no interest in poking the bear.

James Tehrani:
We would not want you to poke the bear. What was the strangest ingredient that you tried that was like, ‘‘Well, that’s not half bad. I wasn’t expecting that.’’

Jon Kroll:
We have a terrific Mexico episode coming up in Wahaca and we have some of the most incredible mole I’ve ever had in my life. I love mole, but the mole we had cooked by ‘El Moles,’ the king of mole in Mexico, was one of the most delicious things I tasted the whole time. However, on that same episode, we also ate what are called butter worms. I don’t know the technical term for them. Somebody told me once it’s some sort of caterpillar, that we fried and we were sure it tasted like hot, buttered popcorn.

Jon Kroll:
I’ve heard that one before, James, I tasted some other worms that were supposed to taste great, and they were not pleasant. I tasted this worm though and it shockingly was pretty good. My colleagues, Tara Williams and Neil DeGroot, the director, tasted them as well and we all kind of like them. Unfortunately, Gordon hated them. I don’t know if he just got a bad worm, but he was pissed at us afterwards because he says, ‘You guys told me this was pretty good.’ We said, ‘Our worms were good. We can’t be responsible for the fact that you’ve got a bad worm.’

James Tehrani:
That’s funny. In the past you’ve worked on shows like ‘The Amazing Race’ and ‘Big Brother.’ What’s more challenging? This show or one of those shows, or something else altogether?

Jon Kroll:
Those shows are much more of a pain in the ass because you have to deal with reality show contestants. They’re just super high maintenance. They’re just really difficult to deal with. They always want things and they whine a lot. It becomes a whole thing of cast management. Dealing with Gordon is much easier than dealing with Big Brother contestants. Trust me.

James Tehrani:
Before we started talking for this episode, you said that you’d get Gordon on the phone for me. Can we see that?

Jon Kroll:
Sure. I have him on speed dial right here. Hi, Gordon? Yeah, I’m talking to James. Remember I told you I’d call you? What? He’s an idiot sandwich; you don’t want to talk to him? OK. I’ll tell him I tried. Bye. Sorry.

James Tehrani:
That’s the best that I can get. Great.

Jon Kroll:
Hey, it’s an honor to be called an idiot sandwich by Gordon.

James Tehrani:
Well, Jon, it was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for taking the time today. I really appreciate it.

Jon Kroll:
My pleasure. I look forward to it and I’ll make sure I alert Gaz that he’s been thrown under the bus quite severely.

James Tehrani:
You give him my regards and thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Jon Kroll:
All right. Thanks, James.

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