“Who’s that old geezer?”
Oh, Christ, not now. We were shooting the final shot with Anthony Bourdain before he returned to the hotel and jumped on a flight back to New York. He was sitting at a lonely street food cart in Gangnam–one of the few that hadn’t been flipped over by government thugs–pontificating on his time here. A week, all-in-all. We got him a bottle of soju, and the proprietor supplied a paper cup. While he was talking, some drunk German kids had noticed the filming.
“Oh shit! That’s Anthony Bourdain!”
I’m not the confrontational type. I avoid fights–even on the internet. But I wasn’t about to let these punks ruin what had been the most grueling, heartbreaking, proud moment of my short career as a media fixer. I went up to the group to perform crowd control–telling them politely, quietly, and firmly to be quiet and move on. I even dusted off some of my German than I haven’t spoken in twenty years (used to live there). Sue Ahn, my partner in this whole endeavor and the breakout savior of the whole production, backed me up. After some resistance, they got the message and moved on.
It’s taken me a long time to process this whole experience. After it was done, I tried not to think about it. This was what I had been working for my whole time in Korea. Back in 2003, my Friday nights revolved around a little known Food Network show called “A Cook’s Tour,” where a then little known tall grouchy host would explore exotic locations and eat the local cuisine. He actually cursed on camera. They bleeped him out. That was the first food or travel show EVER to do that. At the time, I was into my year of odd tech jobs after the first dot-com bubble burst–making websites for dentists and lesbian rugby leagues. I wanted to do what this guy Tony Bourdain did. He was the inspiration for me to pack up my life and move to Korea in 2004, start this blog, and write about my experiences.
I fell into being a media fixer in 2008 when I got the call from “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.” I’ve been more of a consultant if anything–making suggestions on what and where to eat while also providing people to appear on camera. I rarely got to be on camera myself, especially American shows. They prefer that no n0n-Asian looking people appear on their shows in Asia–gotta keep up that illusion of exotic orientalism. Europe? No problem. Italians can be in Denmark. Americans can be in Italy. But Asia must stay Asian. The director of “Bizarre Foods” jokingly called it the “Whitey Quota.” Since then, I’d worked with people who had worked with Bourdain, including Andrew Zimmern himself, who talked about doing TV with him. The summer of 2014, I worked on “Food Paradise International,” and the director was a former director for Bourdain’s shows from the very beginning, and she had funny stories about playing practical jokes on him in Vietnam.
Then I woke up to that email. I always scan my emails in bed after I wake up–just in case something like this falls into my inbox. I saw “Nari Kye” as I scrolled through. I had a minor celebrity crush on her since her first appearance on the New Jersey episode of “No Reservations.” Back then she was an intern. But she became a bit of a star when she hyperactively dragged Tony around Seoul for a “No Reservations” episode. This was around 2007, if I remember correctly. March. I had actually written an email to Zero Point Zero Productions offering to help if they ever came to Korea. The day after I sent that email, Tony wrote on his blog that he had just returned. Just missed them! When the “No Reservations” Seoul episode came out, a lot of Koreans and expats were disappointed, angry about it. I liked it. I defended it. The focus of the show was Nari and her idea of what Korea is. It’s not everyone’s, and that’s okay. People are very passionate about this place. A thousand shows can be done about Korea, and people would still say it hasn’t been shown right. I’m expecting that people will be upset about this “Parts Unknown” episode.
Whatever. Fuck them.
Anyway, back to Nari. Big fan. Email. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in working on the show. She pulled in the director, Tom Vitale, and another experienced fixer, Nadia. She called us the “dream team.” Nadia put together her team, and I got Sue Ahn and Marie Frenette to help me out. This was all in September 2014. Nadia and I would meet to discuss ideas. Then we’d be on Skype calls at 7 a.m. with Nari and Tom, fleshing out ideas. I’ve developed a system of collaboration over the years that involves a lot of Google Docs. The emphasis, especially with the CNN show, was on story. What stories could we tell?
One story I wanted to tell was of Budae Jjigae–the spam and hot dog stew. I’m in love with this dish and its history, and I thought it would fit with Bourdain’s arguments on how peasant cuisine–what people make when there’s little available–ends up becoming some of the best cuisine in the world. I had pitched Budae Jjigae on every show since “Bizarre Foods,” and it always got shot down. Not this time.
This was one of many stories we came up with. Things got hammered out. We were so busy that I hadn’t bothered to ask when they were coming to shoot.
“Near the end of October.”
Crap! That’s soon!
October has been my busiest month since I started doing the ghost tours. It’s heavy tourist season in Korea. Most all the money I make from tours comes from one month–October. On top of that, two other productions had already brought me on board, one from the UK and one from Australia. Consultant for one. On camera “expert” for the other. Still other international shows were converging on Korea that month as well, including Eric Ripert (Tony’s drinking buddy, whom I had met the year before), which Nadia was working on. I think a total of five international shows with celebrity chefs were shooting in October. No, six. I think I saw Edward Lee while I was walking through Hongdae scouting locations.
Nadia’s team and mine split duties in scouting locations. I was setting up a big air soft battle scene outside of Seoul. Sue was way up in Uijeongbu scouting Budae Jjigae restaurants. I was also doing on-camera interviews with potential sidekicks to appear on the show. I can’t go into detail–the NDA I signed has formidable penalties–but it was tough. And it was also the heartbreaking part, as I think I had hurt some friendships in the process.
Tom and Nari arrived before anyone else. We went around to check on locations. Not everything was set yet. Tom said that was how he preferred to go anyway–by the seat of his pants. Shows where everything was laid out ahead of time were dull. That was a sign of things to come. All the prep during September and October was just a draft. The Etch-a-Sketch got shaken. The whole narrative changed. I went from setting up restaurants to tracking down professional video gamers. I was trying so hard to get Hongdae featured, but it was more and more difficult to wedge it into the story. Mokbang became a new scene, and we had to track down a mokbang celebrity. There’s this one famous rude fat guy, whom Marie contacted, but he refused. Luck played out, and we found a guy with a military theme, which worked with the Budae Jjigae concept. My friend Simon Lee, who had been setting up the air soft scene, was disappointed that the air soft scene was cancelled. But he got pulled in to be the interpreter for the mokbang scene. We couldn’t do air soft anyway as Tony had slightly injured his leg while working out.
The biggest problem was communication. I really should write a book on how to shoot overseas or how to be a fixer. One tip, ditch the Apple devices. They’re great, but you can’t change the batteries. When out in the field you won’t be around chargers. That’s why the DPs carry cases of camera batteries with them. You can’t recharge out in the field. Rent phones from the airport that have removable batteries, and buy some extras to bring along.
Things were underway. Nadia was making sure everything was set up on the ground. Sue, Marie, and I were the forward team. We were constantly scouting new locations. May I also mention that we were working full-time jobs on top of this? I ended up losing mine soon after. Sue and I didn’t get to meet Tony until the last three days of shooting. Marie didn’t get to meet at all. We also ran into the same problem we ran into with “Food Paradise.” Korean restaurant owners didn’t want foreign shows to shoot there. One restaurant owner (Hanchu) came out and said it. He didn’t trust foreigners. It drove me nuts that they’d open their doors gladly to the Korean production “Tasty Road,” but they could care less about Anthony Fucking Bourdain!
One morning in the hotel lobby, I revealed to Tom that I had this recurring dream for years of hanging out with Bourdain, and in most instances, he was annoyed with me.
“Your dream may come true.”
Glamping. An idea was pitched to touch upon the glamping restaurant trend. Sue hiked around restaurants south of the river. Marie and I hiked around Hongdae. Sue found the perfect place. Then the shoot was cancelled. Lots of places we scouted for and secured got cancelled. One of the minor unanticipated challenges was finding places with no faux brick interiors. Tom refused to shoot anything with a faux brick interior. I hadn’t noticed before how many Seoul restaurants have faux brick interiors.
I also was checking out places that had already been set up but not actually scouted–like the seafood place at Garak Market. One thing that no one anticipated was the extreme animosity between the owner of the place we shot at and the owner of the place next to him.
Also during this time, did I mention that my ghost tour was packed, packed, packed? Even though I had another great guide helping, we were overloaded with bookings before this even started. Sue also had something she couldn’t get out of the night the pojang macha scene was filmed with Drunken Tiger. Jongno 3-ga is the best place for this stuff, I had suggested. And it was set up. So Sue and I were free to take care of our other business. In the middle of the ghost tour, I got a call (or was it a text) from Nari that the pojang macha manager had cancelled.
I couldn’t leave the tour to fix it. Sue was out of commission. It was like watching a friend drown while you’re handcuffed to a post. My guess is that a lot of these places are run illegally, and they suddenly got cold feet. They ended up finding another place, but I’m sure they were livid with me.
By then, a lot of my original places were out the window. The only thing that survived was the one place I was most passionate about, the BBQ joint. I was introduced to it by Michael Hurt while scouting for “Bizarre Foods” in summer 2008. It’s been my favorite Korean BBQ place ever since. It’s actually the focal point of our popular BBQ tour. It’s another place I’ve been trying to get onto shows. A documentary was shot with it in the background, but it wasn’t featured featured. A whole Conde Nast photo shoot was done there earlier that year, but it got edited out. When I introduced Nari and Tom to it, they loved it. I was so happy.
By the time we got to the BBQ scene, we were getting towards the end of filming. The last three days. It was also the first time we saw Anthony Bourdain in person. First impression: tall. Guy is tall with that shock of white hair. His face was calm, but his hands were fidgety, like he had a lot of nervous energy to release.
Before we go further, I’ll give a window into how cursed and lucky this production was. This is just one of many problems we fixed. One of the big scenes that Tom wanted to do was a hwesik–an office night out. Get three typical Korean salarymen. They didn’t need to speak English. It was preferable that they didn’t. Have Tony hang out with them. We were all recruiting our ajosshi friends. The thing was, almost NONE of them wanted to be on camera drunk. I even got the boss and crew from my office involved, but one of them didn’t drink, so they didn’t make the cut. Sue found out about some guys down in Bundang, way in the south. I took a taxi there the day of the shoot. Video interviewed them and uploaded. We waited. They got the thumbs up. I got in another taxi and zoomed up to Mapo for the BBQ scene. While we were having crew meal, I got a phone call from the guys. They said they had a meeting the next day and couldn’t do it. They were still arriving, but they couldn’t do the whole shoot. I got up and told Nari and Tom. Poor Nari had this glazed look like she was heading to the gallows.
The guys showed up, and Nari, Nadia, and Sue tried frantically to convince them to stick around for the entire shoot. If they couldn’t be there the whole way they couldn’t be there at all. Dan Gray and I were on our phones trying to get last minute replacements. Tony was on his way. The whole scene may have to be cancelled. Well, I don’t know about that. Tom is resourceful, I learned.
While I was on the phone, Sue sat down with Tom. Sue asked, “Look around this room. Is there anyone here that would be a fit for this scene?”
“How about those guys?”
He pointed to three men. One was in a three-piece suit and looked to be their boss. Sue turned to Tom. “I’ll ask them.”
See, Sue has superpowers. It’s not enough to speak fluent Korean to convince restaurants and talent to appear on TV. You gotta have a certain type of appeal. Sue knows how to read people. She knows how to persuade them. Somehow–and they almost copped out at the last minute–Sue convinced those three men to drink with Tony and Dan for what looks like will become the iconic scene of the episode. Yes, we all know that reality TV, even Bourdain’s show, is mostly set up. It’s a Truman Show with Tony being Truman. But this is the truth. He really butted into these guy’s real hwesik! This was organic. This was improvised. This was not faked.
While filming the night out scene, there was a break between locations. I finally mustered up the courage to formally introduce myself to my hero.
“Hi, I’m Joe.”
“I know,” smiled Bourdain.
I gave him a little gift I had gotten made, a name stamp that read “Bourdain” in Korean. I told him if he didn’t want it, maybe his daughter could play with it. He asked if I had kids, and we talked about our daughters and cooking with them.
Then it was back to work. Noraebang (Karaoke) scene. Last scene of the evening (morning, really).
I should mention the camera set up. They were really thrilled about these new cameras they had invented, and this was the first episode to test them out. To me, they looked like Ghostbusters backpacks. The lenses were at the ends of snakelike tubes. The backpacks contained battery and monitor. The DPs also had monitors strapped to their chests. It enabled the DPs to do lots of acrobatic camera tricks. We were earlier trekking through Gangnam getting B-roll of crowds, and the looks people had when they saw this contraption looking at them.
So the DPs, Tom and Zach, were doing their camera thing with Tony, Dan, and the three ajosshies in a noraebang. The rest of the crew was monitoring everything from outside. Tom gave directions via wireless. We had another room rented, full of food for the famished crew, where people hanged out so they wouldn’t be in the way.
They also set up this contraption that anchored itself on the subject’s torso with a camera, using a fisheye lens, aimed at the subject’s face. The result is that the subject doesn’t move in the frame, but everything around the subject moves, creating a feeling of drunkenness. This came about one morning when I woke up to this message from Tom, sent out to the entire team.
“I want this.”
Zach and Todd pulled it off.
Final day with Tony. Final scenes. Sue had spent all week and all night–she even ended up in the hospital with an IV from exhaustion–finding the right restaurant for this scene. She had found one. But while the crew was setting up, the owner got cold feet and cancelled. Luckily, there was a backup. The owner later realized his error and called Sue regularly, begging them to come back. But no. We were sick of this behavior from all these restaurant owners. Just wanted to get it done. Even though Nari was the sidekick, we still had challenges in getting people to even be in the background. Some jovial ajosshies complied.
Last scenes. Some pickup shots with Tony in Gangnam. While they were setting up, Sue and I finally had some lone time with The Man. I thanked him for changing my life. And yes, that came out just as awkwardly as it sounds. And he reacted just as sheepishly awkward as anyone would. But it was nice to have ten minutes to just talk about stuff, trivial stuff.
The street food cart was the final shot with Tony. By the time he finished, the bottle of soju was half gone. He gave hearty goodbyes to everyone, jumped in the back seat of his car, and left.
But that wasn’t the end.
We still had a full day of B-roll. to shoot. We all met at the hotel, Banyan Tree, which is at the top of Namsan Mountain. Penthouse suites. Gorgeous. And scattered with highly organized and categorized equipment. We split into two teams–north of the river and south of the river. I was with Tom, Zach, and Gerald, Zach’s assistant and a friend of mine from other projects. Our team had two major challenges. Film some cool city shots with this talented dancer. And figure out a way to film the concept of han. In between, I had to do my Thursday radio gig at Arirang. The area I had in mind with the dancer is this area in Jongno that is always used in travel guides to showcase the neon in Seoul. Gangnam’s streets were too wide for what Zach had in mind. Gerald had rented a dolly that allowed a camera to be fixed on it. The result blew everyone away, including Zach. The dancer stood on the dolly and danced to the camera while it rolled back and forth through the narrow neon-lit streets. Her movements matched the movements of the dolly. Just, wow!
In the meantime, a couple of us were locating two side-by-side restaurants for the han bit. Somehow we not only found two restaurants, but we were able to convince the owners to stand in as actors. They even stayed long after closing to get the shots done.
That was a wrap.
We went back to the hotel. The other team had already arrived. Sue had already gone home. Nari was zombified, and she went to bed after settling receipts.
The folks who were left, basically all the men on the crew, pulled an all-nighter. Todd was really into so-maeks (beer and soju bombs), so I kept him supplied all night. And this was the highlight for me. I listened to these guys tell me all these stories from over a decade of doing travel food shows with Tony. I learned stuff about his Russian sidekick Zamir, that I cannot reprint. Now, Todd got notoriety for this scene from the Indonesia episode (2:11).
Later, while they were filming in the Chinese countryside, and a person ran up to the crew. Tony was bracing himself to be accosted by a fan. But the guy ran right past Tony. He went up to Todd, pointed, and said, “You! Clumsy man!”
I, personally, ended the shoot angry at myself. I felt that everything I had done had fucked up. Tom put me at ease. He said my job wasn’t as a fixer anyway. That was Nadia’s job. I was more of a consultant for the story and concept. He then revealed to me that he had his own recurring nightmare–of all the fixers from all their shows getting together, trading war stories, and ganging up on him.
We also discussed some post-production business, like getting Noe Alonzo’s amazing timelapse videos in the show. Since Sue had rescued the production multiple times, I made sure she got the majority of the money ZPZ paid us.
Everyone needed to be in the van for the airport by 6:00 a.m. I was the only one from the Seoul team to last the whole night. I helped pack and saw everyone off in the van. Before they left, Tom handed me the penthouse key.
“It’s yours until noon.”
I waved goodbye. I went up to the penthouse.
(Credit for some of the photos goes to CNN. Was so busy, I didn’t take many pics with Tony actually in them.)