Andrew Zimmern, genial host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, makes traveling, eating, and filming around the world look easy. I’m sure it helps that a professional crew of directors, writers, cameramen, and soundmen tag along on his excursions.
C and I had no such advantage when we decided to slap together a three-minute video for a “Share Your Adventure” video contest Lonely Planet was having. C learned about it at the start of Labor Day weekend, Friday, September 2. The deadline? Tuesday, September 6, at 11:59pm PST.
Ordinarily, we would’ve just thrown our hands in the air and spent the weekend as other Americans might (lounging by a refreshing body of water, congregating with friends in someone’s backyard for gossip and food), but the grand prize of $10,000 was just too tempting. We had no grandiose notions that we’d whip up a cinematic masterpiece in 96 hours, but maybe we could do something stupid/funny/intriguing enough to win the prize. What was there to lose except a few winks of sleep and maybe our trim physiques?
Sharing a culinary adventure (as opposed to urban, family, visual, and outdoor adventures) seemed to be our best bet. We brainstormed and considered cobbling together video footage we had taken while in Spain last year, or hitting San Francisco or Wine Country for new footage, but none of those options motivated us. I must’ve been subconsciously craving Shan Dong’s handmade noodles because Oakland’s Chinatown, right in our backyard, suddenly felt right.
And why not? With Chinese street signs; sidewalk grocers yelling out specials in Cantonese/Mandarin; windows displaying a menagerie of roasted animals; and droves of Asian locals elbowing past each other for the freshest bok choy, longan, and walter caltrops, Chinatown really is like stepping into another world.
With the Canon 60D and Olympus PEN EP-2, we filmed on Saturday and Sunday, spending four hours the first day and ten hours the next hobbling up and down every one of Chinatown’s 16 blocks at least half a dozen times. I don’t know how real TV people do it, but I jotted down a few lines of monologue the night before the first filming to give us some direction. But even my inner boy scout wasn’t prepared for the strangest development—the lack of hustle and bustle.
Chinatown on the weekend is usually a zoo of double-parked cars, sidewalk vendors hawking miscellany such as (illegal?) baby turtles, extended families heading to dim sum, and locals buying groceries for the evening. Much to our surprise and dismay, most people seemed to have left town for the weekend. On the up side, we didn’t have to wait long for our food and could film scenes with relative ease.
Still, we faced other minor challenges. The biggest one was probably getting up early enough to get to Madison Square Park by 8:30 a.m. to capture different groups practicing taiji, wushu, and kung fu. The other: Staying awake after dim sum (ordinarily, I’d go home in a daze and just laze around until the food coma wore off). It was also difficult coming up with witty commentary on the fly.
In fact, we reshot my pandan waffle and cassava cake scene (on separate days) because, after viewing the “dailies,” I was mortified by my unrehearsed ramblings (did you know that tapioca is made of cassava root? You do now). I actually felt like a sham for pretending I was taking my first bite of each…until I read Eating China‘s fascinating behind-the-scenes account of appearing on Bizarre Foods. That’s some talent right there—not letting multiple takes suck the freshness out of a moment.
Here’s a rundown of the places featured:
- Gourmet Delight Seafood Restaurant (dim sum)
- Shan Dong Restaurant (vegetable bun)
- First Cake (bakery; formerly Delicious Food Co.)
- Golden Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant (pho noodle soup)
- Cam Huong (refrigerated coconut milk sweets in cups)
- BC Deli Sandwiches (pandan waffle, cassava cakes)
In the end, our submission was disqualified for having music in it. Major bummer, for sure, but I for one appreciate the kick in the pants the contest gave us to create a travel video. C, on the other hand, would’ve preferred spending that weekend lounging by a refreshing body of water, congregating with friends in someone’s backyard for gossip and food.