The Man Who Can Eat More Than You

manvfood The Man Who Can Eat More Than YouOn a recent Wednesday afternoon, Adam Richman reached into his pocket and withdrew his iPhone. He had a YouTube clip he was itching to show off. “Get ready for pyrotechnics,” he said. “This was my big national commercial.”

Mr. Richman, who has dark hair and brown eyes and a round, warm face, was wearing a retro parka vest over a hooded sweater. He smiled. Since December of 2008, the brawny, 34-year-old Brooklyn native has been hosting a hit series on the Travel Channel called Man v. Food in which he travels to a city somewhere in the U.S and gorges on the biggest, most succulent specimens of the regional cuisine. At the end of the show, he takes on a local food challenge.

But the YouTube clip was before all that. Mr. Richman leaned forward and held out the iPhone. The screen filled with an image of him dancing joyfully and smiling. It was a commercial for Slim-Fast! “That’s the shimmy that launched a thousand ships,” he said, laughing.

It was lunchtime, and Mr. Richman was sitting across from The Observer at Marine’s Coffee Shop, a Latin American diner around the corner from his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Mr. Richman recommended we try the black beans and yellow rice and chicken. He ordered some plantains for the table. He took off his vest.

The last year had been a whirlwind, he explained. He’d been touring the country with his show, interviewing chefs, taking on suicide hot wings, meeting master sandwich makers, learning the “Italian stance” for eating sloppy subs and, in general, riding the momentous wave of an endless supper.

Somewhere along the way, he transitioned from a Slim-Fast model to a guy who introduces TV audiences to America’s beguiling bounty of gut-busting face stuffers. As he memorably said in the heat of the moment during one challenge, “I think, I’m getting a little pizza drunk.” Amen.

“I always say, it’s the exploration of a destination one bite at a time,” said Mr. Richman. “It’s like a scratch-and-sniff sticker. What does Austin taste like? What does Pittsburgh taste like?”

After a strong first season, the Travel Channel recently announced that the network had picked up Man v. Food for a second run. Mr. Richman said he was still somewhat in disbelief. His path to television success, he explained, had been long and winding.

Mr. Richman grew up in Brooklyn not far from Sheepshead Bay. His father was an attorney. His mother was a guidance counselor. When his parents split up, his mom enrolled in cooking classes at night. Adam liked to tag along.

At a young age, he developed a taste for the limelight. When he was just shy of 11, he appeared on a broadcast game show on CBS called Child’s Play, in which adults tried to guess words based on definitions provided by youngsters. He credited his grandmother’s aggressive advocacy for landing him the gig. “Grandma went hammer and tongs after the production company,” said Mr. Richman. He did an impression of his grandma swinging elbows. “You haven’t seen my Adam!”

Mr. Richman attended high school at Midwood on Bedford Avenue. Same school, he noted, as Noah Baumbach, the big-time movie director. On TV, Mr. Richman tirelessly advocates for the cities and the foods featured on his show. In real life, he advocates for his favorites in seemingly every genre of life. T-shirts, guitars, coffee, movies, cities—Mr. Richman is the kind of guy who likes to tell you what’s best. He launched into a riff on the brilliance of Mr. Baumbach’s movies.

The plantains arrived at the table. “These things are incredible,” said Mr. Richman. “You’ll love them.”

He asked the waiter for some hot sauce, and began to tell stories about his years in college. He went to Emory in Atlanta. He joined a fraternity and worked part time at various restaurants, bussing tables and cooking. He liked the food in Atlanta. It was different than anything he’d had in Brooklyn. He ate well.

During his sophomore year, he started keeping a detailed food journal, in which he chronicled his culinary adventures around town. Like seemingly many of Mr. Richman’s interests, the food journal was initially conceived as a way to impress girls. He imagined tantalizing dates with excursions to kick-ass restaurants that none of the other white-cap frat boys had ever heard of.

Eventually, a five dollar bet got him into acting. On the heels of a frat-house skit, one of his Greek brothers gave Mr. Richman props for his performance and bet him he didn’t have the cajones to try out at the university’s regional theater. Mr. Richman took the bet, won the $5, and got hooked on performing.

After graduating, Mr. Richman landed an apprentice job in Louisville. It turned out to be the first stop on a ragged cross-country tour of regional theaters that eventually took him from Memphis to Cleveland to Chicago to North Carolina. “Being a swarthy Jew from Brooklyn, these are not places I thought I’d ever find myself,” said Mr. Richman.

To support himself along the way, Mr. Richman worked in kitchens, washing dishes, doing line work, filling in for the sauce guy, working as a short order cook. His food journal swelled.

But eventually, Mr. Richman went back to school, earning a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama. When he graduated in May 2003, in his late 20s, he felt the passage of time squeezing in on him. He doubled down on his self-improvement efforts. He read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The he drew up a five-year plan. “I made very specific goals for myself,” said Mr. Richman. “Be in this union by this year. Book a national commercial. Get my income to this level. Develop this skill set.”

Years passed; the Imdb credits kept growing. He played the role of Butcher God on Joan of Arcadia; officer Marty Cataldo on Law & Order; a lurker on The Guiding Light. But still no big hit. “My agent saw that I was booking stuff,” said Mr. Richman. “But it’s a numbers game. And it’s soul crushing after a while. I’ll admit it.”