What a long strange trip it was.

Much of my last year was consumed by shooting my new series World’s Weirdest Restaurants. Each of the 13 episodes features four weird, wacky and/or wondrous restaurants. If you do the math, that’s 52 weird restaurants (it was actually 55, but as in any war, there are always casualties). Along with a skeleton crew of four, I lived in Tokyo for three weeks, blew into Italy for a mere 18 hours and did an endless series of drive-by dinners in 8 other countries around the globe.

The show debuts on Food Network Canada April 4, 2012 (and hopefully elsewhere in the world later this year).

Here’s a taste of a few of my faves:

Clothing Optional

Imagine being in a small, windowless room with 30 total strangers, sipping cheap white wine and making small talk. Then without warning, they all peel off their clothes and continue talking as if nothing had changed. That was my reality in this bare-all segment that we shot in the heart of New York City’s Soho district. But what was even stranger, is that after a couple of hours of eating and drinking with the nudists, I began to feel uncomfortable being the only one in the room who was dressed (save for the crew who were focused—or attempting to focus—on their jobs).

Furthermore, I began to feel that as a host who’s job it is to dive into the deep end of weird restaurants, I couldn’t truly convey the essence of a nudist restaurant unless I experienced it from the other side. Up until that point, the only other time I had bared it all in public was at the height of the “streaking” craze many, many (many) years ago when I streaked into my local jean store to take advantage of a radio promotion that awarded a free pair of pants to anyone who streaked in. Now I am older—but clearly no wiser. In a truly spontaneous moment, I sent my producer Vera (the only female on our crew of four) out of the room, told Simon our camera man to follow the puck (a term we use for stay with the action—whatever the outcome), and peeled off all my clothes. I must admit it was a liberating moment. But more importantly it was a bonding experience with the diners who stopped treating me as an outsider looking in on their private club, and embraced me (in the figurative sense!) as one of their own for the rest of the night.

One memory that still makes me laugh was the reaction of our P.A. (production assistant). P.A.’s are usually local film students or aspiring filmmakers who are willing to work a long day humping gear, running out for coffee, collecting signatures for waivers and/or whatever else is required on the set. At this particular shoot, what the set required was a bartender, so we drafted our P.A. to fill the void. Our boy Friday gamely stepped in, but I think it is safe to say that when he got the call the job, he never imagined he would be pouring wine for a group of naked diners. I’m curious to see how it appears on his résumé.

Kayabuki Tavern

Kayabuki Tavern is a two hour drive from Tokyo in the tiny farming community of Utsunomiya-shi in the Tochigi prefecture. It’s essentially a typical local neighborhood bar except for one small detail—the beer servers are monkeys!

To be honest, I was as excited as a 10 year-old visiting Disneyland for the first time. After all, if you love monkeys and you love beer, it just doesn’t get any better. And I wasn’t disappointed. The two macaques really seemed to be enjoying the attention they were receiving. When we asked one to jump up on my shoulder, it sat perched there for a couple of minutes acting as though it was the host of the show and I was just an extra. It was also funny to watch the locals address the monkeys by name as any regular customer would speak to a server at their local.

One of the moments that flew by in the episode, was another highlight for us on the shooting day. In addition to being the owner/chef/monkey wrangler, Otsuka-san is a bee aficionado. When he met us, he was carrying a large killer bee’s hive he had found that same day in the wild. The hive was teeming with seething larva, and the sounds coming from it were straight out of a horror film. Otsuka-san plucked out the squirming larva with a pair of tweezers and sautéed up enough to fill a small bowl. He presented the bowl to me with a huge smile on his face indicating that it was a special offering. With the burden of international diplomacy resting on my shoulders and no place to hide, I had no choice but to choke down a few larva as well as a full adult killer bee. How did it taste you ask? Better than the balut (a partially formed duck embryo) I ate in the Philippines, and worse than the grasshoppers I crunched through a week after my monkey encounter in a Thai boxing restaurant in Tokyo.

With the exception of the sautéed killer bee larva, everything I ate at Kayabuki was simply prepared—yet mind blowingly delicious. If it existed near me, I would definitely be a regular. The dish I remember most was the Karaage (Japanese-style crispy fried chicken nuggets). It was the best I’ve ever tasted.

Here’s my interpretation of the recipe I watched Otsuka-san prepare:

Karaage Recipe: Cut four skinless, boneless chicken thighs (fat and all) into ¾-inch cubes. Marinate for 1 hour in a mixture of equal parts soy, mirin and sake + 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger. Drain, then toss in potato* or corn starch. Shake off excess starch, then deep fry in 350° peanut oil for 3 minutes, or until golden and crispy on the outside, and cooked throughout. Serve as is, or with a mixture of ¼ cup soy, ¼ teaspoon wasabi paste and 1 teaspoon finely grated ginger.

* Potato starch is available in specialty food stores and health food stores. It is the preferred type of starch for creating crispy chicken.

Modern Toilet

Of the 52 restaurants we visited during season one of World’s Weirdest Restaurants, no restaurant summed up the gestalt of the show better than Modern Toilet.
When I mention the concept to people: eating curry out of miniature ceramic toilet bowls while sitting on actual toilets and being surrounded by bathroom accoutrements, most people imagine a tiny restaurant that caters to a few novelty-chasing customers. But the truth is that Modern Toilet is a franchise with eight restaurants in Taiwan. What’s more, it’s a popular destination for students and families, as well as adventure-loving tourists.

To understand the success of Modern Toilet, one has to understand Taiwan and the Taiwanese. Taiwan is a tiny country of only 23 million people. Their struggles with mainland China have created a fortitude, nurtured a sense of strong national pride, and also fostered a wicked sense of humor amongst it’s citizens (much like how Canadians have developed a unique personality as a self-defense against becoming swallowed up by American culture). The first time I went to Taipei, I tossed out a little play on words and waited to see if my host would get the joke. Without skipping a beat, she spun it around, added a sexual innuendo and threw it back in my face in a way that was infinitely funnier than my original pun. (It was even more impressive considering the fact that English was her second language). I’ve been to Taipei three more times since then and every time I am struck by the wicked sense of humor and joi de vivre of the locals.

Beyond the friendly faces and fabulous food, Taiwan is a bustling modern city that is just coming into its own. If you have the opportunity to visit it, or to extend an Asian vacation, I can’t recommend it enough. And if you visit Modern Toilet, be sure to order # 2 on the dessert menu!